Roberto Salcedo, Mayor of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

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Local government
in the Caribbean

By Kevin Bourne

8 May 2011: When we think of the Caribbean we often think of palm trees, cruise ships and resorts, or even colonialism and slavery, but we often forget that these islands are also home to local residents who, similar to others around the world, are gathered in cities, towns and villages. This means Caribbean local governments have to provide services and govern just like any other jurisdiction. What is fascinating is how these islands, some being the the size of a province or city in a larger country, structure and govern their cities.

| Kingston model | Bridgetown model | Santo Domingo model | Other cities |

Cities in the Caribbean have been the sites of some of the most important events in history, whether for the better or worse. Kingston, Jamaica was the site of the 1966 British Empire and Commonwealth Games, the first Games to be held outside the ‘White Dominions’ becoming a statement of equality and human rights. Georgetown, the capital city of Guyana, was the site of the cultic Jonestown mass-suicides of the late 1970’s. Guantánamo, Cuba is the neighbouring municipality to the world-famous and controversial Guantánamo Bay detention camp. More recently, the earthquake that hit Léogâne, Port-au-Prince, and Jacmel, Haiti in 2010 was one of the most devastating natural disasters of our time.

We can attempt to classify Caribbean cities in a few ways. We could talk about big cities and small cities, which is a very North American way of classifying cities which would probably not be effective for where Caribbean cities are on their growth curve. Cities in the Caribbean are different than those in many larger countries in that there is no division between the political and commercial centres. For example, we see this division with Ottawa and Toronto, Washington DC and New York, and New Delhi and Mumbai. Also, more than any other region in the world, there are cities built specifically for tourism. Perhaps a better way to classify major cities in the Caribbean is tourist cities such as Montego Bay, Nassau, and Punta Cana, and capital/commercial cities such as Bridgetown, Kingston, Santo Domingo, Port of Spain, and Havana.

The question remains, how are these cities structured and governed to deliver services to their residents. There are three primary models- The Kingston Model, The Bridgetown Model, and The Santo Domingo Model.

The Kingston Model
Governance by Mayor and Council
Founded in 1692, Kingston is the capital and largest city in Jamaica. With a metropolitan population of 652,000 and an area of 185.3 square miles, Kingston is one of the biggest cities in the Caribbean. In fact, in the Americas, Kingston is the largest predominantly English-speaking city south of the United States.

With the passing of the Kingston and St. Andrew Corporation Act of 1923 the local governments of the parishes of Kingston and St. Andrew were amalgamated to form the Kingston and St. Andrew Corporation (KSAC) which governs the city to this day.

Labelled the “Political Directorate”, the Mayor and forty member city council, who are members of the two major political parties, represent local residents at City Hall with the Mayor serving as Chairman of Council and the Deputy Mayor serving as Vice-Chairman of Council. Unlike many cities in North America, councillors serve for a three year term as compared to a four year term. Councillors serve on a number of Committees of the Council which oversee service delivery, including Civic International Community Affairs and Public Relations, Building and Town Planning, Roads and Traffic, and Parish Disaster and Public Health.

The administration of the City falls under the portfolio of the Town Clerk and is carried out through five departments- Technical Services Division; Financial Management and Accounting; Administration and Human Resources; Community Welfare and Municipal Services; Inspection Enforcement and Security.

The structure of Kingston and St. Andrew Corporation is similar to that of London as a capital city. It is not a part of a national capital district and has a strong regional focus.

The Bridgetown Model
Governance by Parliament
City of Bridgetown

Bridgetown is the capital and largest city in Barbados. With a metropolitan population of 96, 578 in 2006 and an area of 16 square miles, it is one of the smallest yet influential cities in the Caribbean.

Local government efforts on the island started in December 1925 when a committee sought to petition the King for a Royal Charter of Incorporation to create a local government for the city. The plan was for Bridgetown to be governed by a Mayor, 8 Aldermen, 12 Common Councillors, a Town Clerk, Head-borough or Chief Constable, and “such other officers as would be deemed necessary.” The committee also looked into the potential of the House of Assembly incorporating the city instead of seeking Royal Charter.

In 1958 the Local Government Act was passed which called for a separate administration for the city including a Mayor, six Aldermen, and 12 City Councillors. Unfortunately, local government did not last long. In April 1967 the system of Local Government Councils, including the Corporation of Bridgetown, was discontinued and an Interim Commission for Local Government was appointed.

Today Bridgetown is governed directly by the Barbadian parliament without a system of local government.

The Santo Domingo Model
Governance by Mayor and Council within Federal District
Santo Domingo, known formally as Santo Domingo de Guzmán, is the capital and largest city of the Dominican Republic, and the largest city in the Caribbean by population. Founded in 1496, it is also one of the oldest settlements in the region.

Unlike Kingston and Bridgetown, Santo Domingo is located in a separate federal district called the Distrito National similar to Washington DC in the United States and Canberra, Australia. The City is governed by a local government (Ayuntamiento del Districto Nacional) which is responsible for municipal functions through the Mayor, Consejo Municipal, and the Vice-Mayor, General Secretariat, and Technical Secretariat which provide support to the Mayor. Law enforcement is the responsibility of the National Police (Policia National) and the Tourist Police (Policia Turistica also known as the POLITUR).

The City is made up of three districts governed by 10-14 aldermen who are members of three major political parties. The aldermen serve on over 30 standing committees, or comisiones permanentes, which give direction to the City’s agenda, including International Cooperation and Relationship, Intermunicipal Relations, and Traffic and Safety.

The uniqueness of Caribbean cities
Similar to other cities around the world, every major city in the Caribbean has their own unique traits. There is Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, which is made up of separate districts, mainly Delmas, Carrefour, and Pétionville, each having their own local mayor who then report to the general mayor of Port-au-Prince. Then there is Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, whose mayor is nominated and elected from the membership of the City Council.

Cities in the Caribbean have developed unique structures that those of us living in larger countries may see as questionable, but that seem to work for them. Whether Caribbean cities are positioned and structured for growth and international competitiveness is yet to be seen. With some islands being as small as cities and provinces in other countries, one may ask if a focus on nation-building and regional local government would be more effective at this time. As efforts to increase regional integration at the supranational level have struggled for years one may also conclude that perhaps the key to Caribbean integration lies with its mayors and cities.

World Mayor 2023