On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Councils must focus on the essentials

Thus, some officials have treated their municipalities as
their fiefdom, subtly reminding the Local Government and Housing Ministry that
it only has a policy-making role despite being a federal entity.

As minister Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting says, the rules are there but the problem
begins at the implementation stage especially when rules are interpreted to
suit the council, or the officials.

In fact, at one time, many municipal council presidents' posts were held by the
mentris besar or chief ministers themselves.

Unlike other government agencies, the local governments have plenty of cash as
they collect revenue in various forms such as assessment rates, parking fees
and summonses.

In affluent areas, we sometimes see these councils spending taxpayers' money on
so-called beautification projects but which actually brought the

The Subang Jaya Municipal Council, one of the richest councils, spent RM3mil to
build the Millennium Square, with some steel replicas of palm trees and a pond
squeezed into it — hardly the tourist attraction the council tried to spin to
justify this wastage.

But the main complaints of ordinary Malaysians are basically the failure of
councils to do a decent job in keeping their residential areas clean.

They want their rubbish collected, the streets properly lit, the grass properly
cut, the wet markets clean and playing fields available for our children to
spend their time.

For traders and businessmen, they want the enforcement officers to be fair.
Many of us must have, at one time or another, seen how high-handed these
officers can be in dealing with unlicensed traders.

We must have wondered why no action was taken against restaurant owners who
placed their tables on parking lots when motorists, just down the road, are
fined when their meters run out of parking time.

No one can fault ordinary Malaysians if they suspect these officials of being
corrupt. The saddest part is that councils are acting against these errant
restaurateurs only after a fatal car accident in Petaling Jaya.

We are talking about making Malaysia a developed nation but our city officials
are certainly not doing what they are supposedly paid to do.

Forget about living in well-managed cities like those in Australia and Canada.
You can choose to live in Putrajaya, where 70% of the land is earmarked for
parks, gardens, open spaces and lakes if we want quality of living.

For the rest of us, we have to live with our councils which are doing a lousy
job in grappling with problems like flash floods, illegal building extensions,
cleanliness, maintenance, traffic jams and the ubiquitous hawkers.

Even the cleanliness in affluent Desa Sri Hartamas, Kuala Lumpur, billed as the
alternate Bangsar, is fast deteriorating as its popularity grows.

You only have to stroll along the sidewalks to see rubbish strewn around, the
stench and the rats in the back lanes. Parking is, of course, a serious problem
and it makes us wonder how so many buildings can be approved when there is
insufficient parking space.

Our council officials can expect Malaysians to check on them. With Malaysians
travelling more and becoming more educated, our councillors would have to
reinvent themselves to meet rising expectations.

They should be prepared to be questioned over their actions. Their legitimacy,
accountability and transparency will always be the basis by which we judge
their ability to manage urban problems.

There have been suggestions that councillors should be elected instead of
appointed. It may be democratically attractive but it may not necessarily be workable,
especially if the Federal Government is run by another political party.

Let us also not assume that opposition politicians are angels. In Kelantan and
Terengganu, we have seen how the PAS-run councils have imposed outrageous rules
such as segregation of the sexes in supermarket checkouts, cinemas and even
Ferris-wheel rides.

According to urban planner Dr Goh Ban Lee, the Penang Island City Council,
under the Socialist Front in 1963, refused to celebrate Malaysia Day because it
considered the formation of Malaysia a form of neo-colonialism.

The council was subsequently suspended by the Alliance government and the state
secretary took over the council's administration. The two parties also spent
their time fighting each other instead of solving the people's problems.

It's time the Federal Government take away some of the powers of the councils
as well as lift the shroud of secrecy surrounding council meetings.

If parliamentary and senate meetings are open to the press, why should the
councils be exempted? If some mentris besar are now opening their doors once a
week to the people, why should council presidents be exempted?

If the telephone numbers and e-mail addresses of elected representatives in
Selangor are put up on billboards, why can't the senior officials and
councillors follow suit?

The job of running a city now no longer just require officials with urban
management background but those who will not be tempted to put their hand into
the kitty.