* Photo by Kageaki Smith. Save our city: Mayor of Hamilton Charles Gosling, pictured at last night’s meeting at City Hall.
* Photo by Kageaki Smith. Save our city: Mayor of Hamilton Charles Gosling, pictured at last night’s meeting at City Hall.
A vital tier of Bermudian democracy or archaic and inefficient institutions that are blocking progress?

That's the $800,000 question Government consultants will have to answer as they compile their report on reform of the corporations of Hamilton and St George.

Government says it is open-minded about what the planned report - announced by Cabinet minister Walter Roban on Friday - might entail.

And ministers have so far been unwilling to enter into a debate about the pros and cons of the corporations before its findings are unveiled.

Critics of the appraisal say it is too costly, a fait accompli and that Government is simply seeking to rubber-stamp a decision it has already made - to get rid of the corporations and transfer power to themselves.

"That $800,000 is going towards dismantling the corporations as we know them and putting into place whatever grand plan the Government has in mind but have not shared with the corporations or the public," said Tim Marshall, a lawyer acting on behalf of the corporations.

"It's a matter for every Bermudian to say how they feel about how that money is being spent."

Critics of the corporations believe they have dragged their feet on major developments and done little to justify their existence.

There are also concerns that as custodians of the city, the Corporation of Hamilton exerts a power and influence that extends far beyond its small voter base. Others claim the majority of their functions could be absorbed into central government institutions to improve efficiency.

Hamilton Mayor Charles Gosling admitted there were certain projects - like the waterfront development - where the city needed outside help.

But he said the administration was well run, financially responsible and had always sought to cooperate and coordinate with Government on major projects.

Collaboration

"A particular project like that (the waterfront) might not be something we can fully handle ourselves but that doesn't mean you destroy local Government in order to achieve that."

He said the waterfront had always been a collaboration between the city and Government as well as numerous other stakeholders. He added that previous reports into the Corporation of St George's had shown that there was 'no way' the Government could provide the same services at the same cost.

He said the real issue at the centre of the debate was the importance of city governments.

"Our city government consists of nine business people from within the city. Through the diversity of our membership there really isn't anyone who can't approach us. When local issues are dealt with by national government you wouldn't have that same sense of intimacy."

There is past precedent in Bermuda for central government absorbing the powers of local government.

PLP spokesman Wentworth Christopher, speaking in a personal capacity, said it had happened before when the parish vestries - responsible for raising taxes and administering certain functions at parish level - were disbanded in 1971.

"What they are doing now is attempting to get information on which to base a decision. All they have said is they want to have a look at the situation. I don't see that there should be any dissatisfaction with that."

The corporations remain convinced that the Government is intent on getting rid of them.

Mr Marshall added: "Government in their past written representations to the public has stated that it is their intention to transfer over the operation of the the city from elected members of the city to themselves. There's no doubt about that in terms of their past representations.

"Last week they moved away from that slightly though we are not sure whether that was simply to make the process appear more palatable to the public.

"Government ought to make it very clear to the public what their intention is and whether they intend to take operational control of the city and end voting rights.

"Too much is at stake for Bermuda to be playing around with hard fought voting rights. It is untenable to end an important form of participatory democracy that has existed for 200 years."

He said it would be unthinkable for any western democracy to dissolve city government arguing that it was as vital here as in London, Boston or Toronto.

"That would be a very dangerous place for Bermuda to go and contrary to where most cities in the western hemisphere are going."