On Being a City

I’m writing this from the Big Apple, the City that Never Sleeps — New York City. What strikes me most about being here, aside from the expected, like the vibrancy, the culture, the bustle — is the fact that New York’s concept of itself as a city, is fundamental to all it does.

And that set me thinking. Why doesn’t Nassau have the same sense?

The answer’s obvious, but absurd: Nassau doesn’t have a municipal government.

The obvious reason is that Nassau is the seat of the national government, and therefore by default doesn’t appear to need its own government.

The absurdity of that is that Nassau, the capital city of The Bahamas, a city of almost 200,000 persons, has less administration than Freeport or Marsh Harbour or even than George Town or Deadman’s Cay.

We do have a number of Ministries, each of which has its head office in the capital city. We do have a parliament that is composed of elected officials, each of whom represents a specific constituency. Each constituency is carved out every five years by people who report to this parliament. The majority of the constituency lines are drawn on New Providence. Thus the residents of the city of Nassau, who make up two-thirds of the national population, are governed in segments that may or may not have anything to do with the needs of the city itself.

Now it seems to me that there is the danger of a conflict of interest in this. The conflict need not be anything sinister; it may be as simple as a competing need. At this very moment, it’s the fact that the northern Bahamas is devastated by Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne. At the same time, plans have been set in motion for the renovation of Bay Street, a major facelift for the City of Nassau, which includes a permanent home for the Straw Market, among other things. One or the other of these projects has now got to be put on hold; one or the other of them has to be given priority. Both are important. But because the government that is responsible for the renovation of the city is the same as that which is responsible for the well-being of the entire country, they cannot be adequately dealt with at the same time; the self-same government is responsible for both.

Now I am not saying that activities for Nassau should not be put on hold while the more immediate needs of the people in the Family Islands are met. What I am saying is that the current system of government we now have makes it an either/or situation when it doesn’t have to be.

You see, the city of Nassau suffers not only from not having its own government, but it also from not having its own budget. Utilities, services, works, and so on are dealt with by the agencies that are charged with running the whole country. Now in this case, Nassau generally comes out on top; the vast majority of the work done by the public corporations, or by the Ministries of Works, Health, National Security, Education, and so on, affects those of us who live in Nassau. In times of crisis, however, that money has to be diverted elsewhere. We have no provision to meet the needs of both.

If Nassau were a municipality, money that should have a specifically local application for the city of Nassau (local licences, real property tax and so on) would not get mixed up with money that should go to the nation as a whole (customs duties, departure tax, and the like). Currently, however, the apportioning of all that money is in the hands of the national government. It was a system that didn’t work all that well in colonial times, and it has no real reason to start working well now.

Just imagine, for instance, what would have happened if Hurricane Frances had devastated Nassau as it did Freeport or as Hurricane Jeanne did Abaco. Now imagine that San Salvador, Cat Island, Eleuthera, Abaco and Grand Bahama also suffered as much damage as they have done. How long do you think it would take for the national government (which is also Nassau’s local government) to get around to meeting the needs of the people on those islands?

I’m not making this scenario up, by the way. In 1866 and in 1929, hurricanes devastated the capital while also affecting other islands. In neither case did the islands get the help they needed; Nassau had been crippled, and was unable to serve their needs. In fact, Nassau was so devastated by the 1929 hurricane that in 1932, when the Great Abaco Hurricane flattened Abaco worse than Jeanne did, the people there were left to fend and rebuild for themselves. Nassau could not help.

There is no good reason why the needs of the city should be looked after by a government elected to see to the needs of the entire country. There is one powerful one; the creation of a government that is responsible for meeting the immediate needs of two-thirds of the Bahamian population will considerably weaken the clout of the average politician.

It’s a real reason, but not a very good one. As I am not a politician, I believe (perhaps naively) that politics should not supersede everything else. I believe that election to parliament and gives one a far greater responsibility than simply to get elected again in five years’ time; it gives one the chance to do something fundamental, something seminal, for the long-term development of the Bahamas.

I believe that there is no more fundamental thing than real local government, which includes the creation of the municipality of the city of Nassau. The parliament and the cabinet who creates that will allow the national government to get on with governing the nation, rather than meeting the needs of the city — even if that creation affects their members’ power in the short run.