–Shastra Maharaj has productive discussions with Chairman Awong as they delve into Local Government, especially the operations of the Couva/ Tabaquite/ Talparo Regional Corporation.
Q1: Chairman Henry Awong, you have been at the Couva/Tabaquite/Talparo Regional Corporation (CTTRC) for quite some time now. How long has it been?
CHAIRMAN AWONG: July 14th would have made it 18 years since I successfully contested my first Local Government elections.
Q2: How have you found your portfolio so far?
CHAIRMAN AWONG: It can be very fulfilling at times and also very challenging at other times.
Q 3A: (Chuckles) Okay, we will re-visit the ‘challenging’ aspect shortly. But for those who do not know about Local Government, what is Local Government?
CHAIRMAN AWONG: Local Government is made up of Corporations. There are different Corporations which oversee specific areas of T&T. These Corporations address our everyday needs. When you wake up in the morning, you want to know that your garbage is collected. That your sidewalks and drains are cleaned. That your streets and traces are maintained, your recreational grounds and parks are sustained and cemeteries and public sites are well kept. These are just a few of the many things we do. The Corporation also empties cesspits, approves building plans, enforces the Anti-Litter Act and The Public Health Ordinance. We are also tasked with the responsibility to provide truck-borne water to communities that are not equipped to receive a pipe-borne water supply.
Q 3B: Can you give me an estimated number of areas not receiving a regular supply of water or pipe-borne water?
CHAIRMAN AWONG: I can tell you that in CTTRC, there are thirteen such areas that are dependent on truck-borne water. Before 2010, there were thirty-three such areas and during the tenure of the People’s Partnership, that number was significantly reduced to thirteen. Sadly, after six years of PNM leadership, the number has not budged from thirteen. I must mention that an area is not just comprised of one community, but is a cluster of communities and villages.
Q4: We have received a tremendous amount of rainfall recently. I suspect your office and your colleagues’ are burdened with calls regarding flooding at this time?
CHAIRMAN AWONG: Indeed, we are the usual first-responder in times of flooding or local environmental distress. Worse yet, CTTRC is a flood-prone area, which essentially means that our Disaster Management Unit (DMU) is very busy during the rainy seasons.
Q5: How has the Covid-19 period impacted upon your Council?
CHAIRMAN AWONG: You know, something you would never see listed as an official role of a Councillor is Social-Humanitarian Work, but it is a responsibility expected of us as Councillors that we take very seriously. I must tell you that I am extremely proud of all of my Councillors at the CTTRC. Their social efforts to assist the disadvantaged communities have been outstanding.
I am especially proud of the work they have undertaken during this Covid-19 period. They consistently stand at the forefront to respond to the requests of those who have been negatively impacted by the pandemic.
Deviating a little here, I have actually set up a Social and Community Outreach Committee, where we address the social and community issues of our burgesses. We have built homes for needy persons, alongside Non-Profit Organizations and CBOs through this Committee.
Q6: As you have previously mentioned your partnership efforts within your Community, it is evident that you have access to several businesses and industries. How do you leverage that fact to assist with some of your programmes?
CHAIRMAN AWONG: I appreciate this question, Shastra. Together with the Point Lisas industries, the Couva/Point Lisas Chamber of Commerce and Gasparillo Chamber of Commerce, we have been able to deduce that 60% of our region can be identified as ‘the rural of the rurals’. With this statistic as our guiding force, we have gained tremendous assistance and support from corporate citizens within these areas to assist us in some of our projects.
We are thankful for ventures such as the Fish Fest that was jointly executed by The Couva/Point Lisas Chamber of Commerce and Carli Bay Fishing Association and the CTTRC. Additionally, under my watch as Chairman, we are pursuing our Local Development Initiatives and have put forward a Local Economic Development (LED) Strategic Plan which utilizes the natural and man-made resources within the Corporation to promote Local Economic Development. Through this we are designing opportunities for job creation at the local level.
Q7: What are some of the challenges or negative setbacks impacting the Corporation while you function as Chairman?
CHAIRMAN AWONG: The Councillors, rather than the Corporation as a whole, would be bashed at times for things that do not fall within our jurisdiction or more so, for which we do not get funding. Here is an example… Recently, my Corporation took a severe bashing for the overgrown grass on the boundary of a main road. What people do not realise is that that area falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Works and Transport Highways Division, which has been very delinquent with its maintenance of the roads and bridges that are under their purview. I would say that because the public does not necessarily know the differences in jurisdiction, they blame the Corporation for many things that are not under our scope. Interviews such as this may help to clear the air and shed perspective.
Q8: Okay, so let’s get more into the challenges you uniquely face as Chairman of the Corporation. What is your greatest challenge as a Chairman? You are indeed both a Councillor and Chairman of the Council.
CHAIRMAN AWONG: The greatest challenge I personally face is keeping the team together during stressful times. Given the fact that funding isn’t forthcoming with this Government, it takes a mental toll on us all and the frustration can easily set in and cause in-fighting amongst ourselves or with administration. This is because no Councillor wishes to see his/her burgesses suffer and sadly, with limited funding, at every point, at least one Councillor is going to have to sacrifice a plan or proposed project he/she may have already planned for an area.
Additionally, raising the bar as to what is expected of us as Local Government practitioners is definitely a ‘work in progress’. It’s easy to get bugged down in what I refer to as “road and drains issues”, but Local Government in this day and age constitutes so much more than what the general public may think about. For example, to deal in a meaningful way with Climate Change issues and tie it into the need for environmental preservation. Do you know that within this country, you can actually cut down any tree without having to obtain permission? How do we build resilience against the effects of climate change? I see much potential for the growth of local tourism but the challenge is getting the Government to recognise this vision and give us the necessary resources to initiate our plans as it relates to Local Economic Development.
Q9: I have heard the repeated statements regarding “lack of funding and resources” ringing through platform speeches and Councillors’ responses as well. Would you mind giving some insight on this for us?
CHAIRMAN AWONG: Oh, surely. Just know that my beard used to be all black. I think this lack of funding issue is the cause of it being fully grey now (chuckles).
The CTTRC is the 2nd largest Corporation in Trinidad, with a living population of over 178,000 persons, separated into fourteen Electoral Districts. When you look at the funding we are given from Central Government, it remains a proverbial drop in the ocean. What people do not realise is that Regional Corporations are not income-generating organisations. The little funds that we gather are from the few small fees we collect. We are SOLELY dependent on subventions, or funding from our Central Government to address the needs and concerns of the Corporation and the people who live in it.
Under the People’s Partnership governance, our PSIP (Public Sector Investment Programme) was approximately twenty-eight million dollars, because the importance of Local Government was understood. Now, we are down to about 11 million dollars and this is for major roads, bridge development, drainage works, upgrades of recreational grounds, buildings etc. Under the People’s Partnership government, we accomplished the construction of over twenty-three pavilions and twenty-five play parks, the illumination of more than fifty recreational grounds, the running of pipeline mains for connection to pie-borne water in twenty areas, and so much more.
But back to your question, funding has been the worst ever under this Rowley regime.
We have very little to repair vehicles and equipment, which comprise the blood of the Corporation. We have had no releases so far for the purchasing of materials to repair roads and drains etc. We can’t even ‘patch a pothole’ at this time. Out of the four Cesspool Emptiers at the CTTRC, we have only one that is functional due to lack of funding. This has created a backlog of cesspits to be cleaned, sometimes crossing one hundred. Our two mini-excavators have been down for repairs for quite sometime because of lack of funding. This is critical because this hinders us from the ability to clean drains and watercourses to mitigate against flooding within our region.
Councillors would always come in for heavy criticism because most times people misunderstand the issues of funding or lack thereof.
It is sad because many times I would get letters from schools for assistance; be it with their playing fields or to do maintenance work on their buildings, or even police stations. Here is where it becomes even tougher, we are left to choose who we should assist when we should be able to be of service to all.
Q10: Chairman Awong, in light of what you have just mentioned, what do you see as the way forward?
CHAIRMAN AWONG: Sadly, my response simply put, is that we need a new Government that is truly people-centered and people-oriented. Our role is always to serve the people and therefore the people’s interests must be at the core of all the objectives of the Government. I am firmly of the opinion that this Government gives a lot of lip service and does not understand the value of Local Government and can never understand the benefits of Local Economic Development.
S.M: Thank you so very much for your time, Chairman Awong. This has been a truly insightful interview that will indeed give perspective and clear misconceptions about the Local Government and the role and limitations of Councillors. It has been a pleasure having you on board the first edition of our E-Newspaper, The Checklist.
CHAIRMAN AWONG: It has been my pleasure, Shastra. I am humbled to have been given this opportunity. I look forward to the launch of your first issue and the success of The Checklist.