The Belize City Mayoral debate on Tuesday, January 17, gave residents of the city a better understanding of each candidate's vision for the commercial capital of the country. Five prospects for mayor sat side-by-side and shared their ideas on a wide range of issues. Darrell Bradley represented the United Democratic Party and did so magnanimously. The biggest argument in any debate is usually based on the question that immediately follows. "Who won the debate?"
Paco Smith represented the VIP, which is a movement and not a political party - even though they set up candidates to run for elections and so forth. We at the Guardian have always commended him for his fantastic radio voice. His natural language is poetry and each sentence from his mouth rests on your ears like the sound of music. Unfortunately, his words are not heavy enough to sink. Throughout the entire debate, Smith said nothing of substance. He had trouble with the time because he told long tales about nothing. In his response to the question "What changes will you make if you are elected Mayor of Belize City?" Smith said, "The changes that I will make will be different from what you see today." What? For someone with such a nice voice, command of the English language and wide vocabulary, Paco Smith doesn't say much.
There is not much to say about Stephen Okeke. Quite frankly, no one was listening to his presentation. His quest to be mayor was once farfetched and after "threat-gate," he has turned into an outright joke. It was during Okeke's time to talk that everyone chose to respond to their text messages or think of what better things they could have been doing. Stephen Okeke is a very talented individual, who has a good Belizean story to tell. However, he is definitely not the man you'd want in charge of the city's affairs.
Bodden started with a five minute monologue about how the debate is like the start of the civil rights movement. She did not quite bring that comparison home but for those with limited analytical skills she won points for saying civil rights movement. Bodden was effective in delivering populist points on unreal ideas. She seems to not understand the role of a municipal government. Bodden really seems to believe that as mayor she could eliminate crime, solve world hunger and maybe even cure cancer. Again, her presentation was effective for those who possess limited analytical skills - the same people the PUP prey upon.
It was Ernesto Torres, who had to rope in Bodden and explain to her the functions of a municipal government. Torres did better than expected but will be remembered as the jester of the debate. Talent scouts in the Darrell Bradley committee may want to pay close attention to Torres as he may prove to be useful in an advisory role at the Traffic Department.
One very intelligent individual once said, "It is easy to be bias when your guy is that good." Darrell Bradley was definitely the most impressive participant of the debate. He started by speaking of his personal take in his candidacy. Bradley explained the love that he and his wife have for the city. He explained that it is the same dream we all share and that is to live in a Belize City that is peaceful, clean and conducive to prosperity. He explained that he will lead a council where everyone will be held accountable for their action and the staff will receive opportunities for capacity building. He chose not to focus on his opponents but on the sentiments of city residents. He said residents are frustrated because they want leadership that works. He reached out to the other mayoral candidates and informed them that he would be willing to work with them because "change will not come when we emphasize our differences but when we focus on what unites us." Bradley concluded by asking citizens to not only take part in the municipal election but to become active in the day to day affairs of the city because "The problems facing the city are not UDP or PUP problems. They are our problems."
Mayoral aspirants tangle at public debate
Tonight at the Fordyce Memorial Chapel on the Landivar campus of St. John’s College (SJC), three tertiary level institutions, the SJC Junior College, Wesley Junior College and University of the West Indies Belize Open Campus hosted a public debate featuring the five mayoral candidates contesting the March 7 municipal election in Belize’s largest urban community.
For some, it was a chance to consolidate their established position before a wide audience, both on site and listening and watching via the broadcast media. For others, it was an opportunity to make a hopefully lasting impression on an electorate starved of public discussion, and for still others a chance to get into the national spotlight.
After opening presentations by St. John’s president Jorge Espat and the UWI’s Jane Bennett, moderators Kristy Chan, Ian Cacho, and Brenda Stuart issued the rules, mainly asking the debaters to keep it clean.
Each candidate had five minutes to present an opening platform statement, followed by a question and answer segment in which the audience was allowed to write their questions on an index card provided, following which the questions were collected and put in a box.
The moderators would select a question at random from the box, directed to a specific candidate, who got two minutes to respond. Each of the other candidates, after the same question was repeated to them, gave one-minute responses. The question was simply read out once to the candidate to whom it was directed, and that person answered first, followed by the others without a repeat of the question.
(No statements were allowed from the floor, and the audience was warned against excessive displays of cheering for their favorite, or jeering at their opponents.)
The five participants were, in order of presentation on stage: attorney Darrel Bradley, representing the incumbent United Democratic Party (UDP); independent candidate and businessman Stephen Okeke; teacher and guidance counselor, Karen Bodden, representing the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP); F.E. “Paco” Smith, representing Vision Inspired by the People (VIP), and independent candidate Ernesto Torres. We will review each of their contributions in turn as detailed below.
Bradley opened by detailing the type of leadership he would offer if elected. He stated that the problems plaguing the Old Capital would not be solved by “emphasizing political differences,” but by working together, and noted that like his fellow candidates, he wanted a City “that we all love to live in,” and pledged to restore the confidence of the electorate in City Hall and to provide the leadership that the City deserves and get the job done.
Asked what kind of change could he bring to the City if elected, Bradley emphasized structure in City governance and a certain standard of leadership and sense of community. He pledged to devote the greater share of resources to the Southside, to put such resources into the areas of job creation and needed development, and to carry out his initiatives in conjunction with Central Government and according to the wishes of its residents.
A Bradley-led City Council, he opined, would train its employees and establish a code of conduct for all employees to follow and would reach out to the City’s residents.
Concerning a mixed slate, Bradley remarked that he was willing to work with “any and every body.”
Okeke opened by expressing disdain for the “overused” phrases of “transparency, accountability, (and) integrity,” remarking that Belizeans “do not trust those who use them,” because previous administrations have not stood by their pledges to the electorate and have “walked in [to City Hall] and locked us out.”
He pledged to keep City Hall “open” to all, and pushed his model of Belize City as a business with $17 million in revenue and a base that can be expanded. He sees his role as more of a “manager,” going beyond the traditional purview of streets and drains to developing business and small enterprises, creating opportunities for all, and establishing “participatory governance.” “We can do better,” he concluded.
Asked whether he saw the need for an oversight body to watch over the Council’s handling of its business, the candidate remarked that a Council that is autonomous, with nothing to hide and its affairs and books open to all, would not really need it. On the question of a mixed Council (he only has one Councilor candidate, Philip “Fawda” Henry, running on the “Citizens’ Candidates” slate at present), Okeke said that in his or any other business, one does not employ someone he necessarily likes, but someone that can get the job done, and City Hall is no different.
The PUP candidate, who has extensive experience with social issues as a guidance counselor and from her work with the Drug Abuse Control Council (NDACC) and at the Central Prison as director of rehabilitation, came evidently prepared with statistical data about the plight of residents, and no shortage of ideas on how to turn it around.
Bodden, in her opening statement, compared tonight’s atmosphere at Fordyce with that of Montgomery, Alabama, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., began the eventual Civil Rights Movement in the United States in the early 1950’s with a bus boycott in that Southern town.
Like that time, she said, City residents seek a “rebirth” of an Old Capital that has lacked consistent leadership to fulfill its mandate under Section 29 of the Belize City Council Act, and she listed five points to be worked on if the PUP makes it to North Front Street.
Among those points are tax reform to see that the burden is equitably distributed; restoring confidence in leadership; tackling much needed infrastructural development; attending to crime and the underlying social and economic issues fueling that, and the involvement of Central Government, civil society and other stakeholders.
Bodden mentioned the importance of including schools and support for families in the Council’s agenda, with a particular focus on single parents – especially those on the Southside, and on youth development in an effort to address the problems of that larger part of Belize City and bringing overall change.
She professed a “hands-off” approach to oversight in a potential administration: “…In terms of the everyday management of Belize City, I believe we have competent managers and head of sections, and I would never disrespect such persons by thinking that they are not competent, or that they are not reliable or trustworthy enough…”
A former aspirant and businessman who represents the spear point of the VIP’s first foray into municipal politics outside of its traditional home base of Belmopan, Smith urged the viewing and listening electorate to look past the traditional two-horse view of municipal politics in the last sixty years: “…this is no time for a myopic view of the City Council, there is no place for the swindler politics we have become used to… you should not turn to the origin of the problem, to find the solution.”
But what is VIP’s solution? Smith urged practicality and increasing efficiency in the use of resources, revising policies and procedures, and having no tolerance for corruption and mismanagement by public officials.
The VIP, said Smith, will encourage job creation by means of, among other things, a recycling program, and would work directly within the communities of Belize City. On Southside, the task of the Council would be to “engage, not impose” upon residents, and to find out exactly what their needs are and address them.
VIP’s slate numbers seven, including Smith, meaning that if a majority of its members are elected, it will be on a mixed Council, which Belize City has not had since 1974 (UDP 6, PUP 3, with Paul Rodriguez as Mayor).
Asked how open he was to working with a mixed council and how he could make it work successfully as Mayor, Smith said he has “no reservations to working with anyone and everyone for the betterment of the City, as long as those elected share his commitment to proper and working governance” and invoked retired boxing referee Mills Lane’s maxim.
The well-known and feisty driving instructor and former policeman is no stranger to long odds. By his own admission, he nearly missed out on making the Police Force due to his size, and some have counted him out as a serious candidate in this race.
But Ernesto Torres’ homespun humor and deft grasp of the basic issues under the umbrella of the Council, particularly that nearest and dearest to his heart, traffic, earned respect from the audience.
He explained that in that one department, traffic, Belize City could greatly expand its revenue, and offered as example his time in the Transport Department, where he said he more than quadrupled the revenue being brought in, and streamlined the department.
He called on residents of Belize City to respect our rules, and promised to delegate authority and not responsibility, and to protect the revenue and bring order to traffic and drainage and especially to the staff at City Hall.
“City Council has nothing to do with crime…” said Torres, going on to assail one of his opponents for promising jobs to residents when the Council is not employing now and cannot do so when in office.
He emphasized infrastructure and improving street lighting conditions, and in a later question, said he himself intended to fully exercise oversight while directing the managers on day-to-day affairs.
“We do not need an oversight body, because I will be the watchdog for the people of Belize City at City Hall!” he boldly stated.
Torres concluded that whether with a mixed council or otherwise (as he is running by himself), the residents of Belize City are looking for a “meaningful beginning,” and urged residents to break from the “red-blue” cycle of past elections.