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County assemblies have more potential

Day one of the deliberations were overshadowed by calls for car grants by the MCAs while day two saw heated debate between the Senator for Homa Bay and members of county assemblies on the County Development Fund Bill currently before the Senate. The above raise concerns about whether they are legitimate demands by the county assembly members or an effort to copy from the legislators at the national level.

A member of county assembly speaking during Third Legislative Summit. FILE PHOTO | NMG

The Third Legislative Summit, annually organised by the Senate and the County Assemblies Forum, was held last week in Mombasa. This was the first time that the newly elected county assembly members and Senators were attending the Summit following the August 8 General Election. Newspaper headlines from the summit was not very encouraging. Day one of the deliberations were overshadowed by calls for car grants by the MCAs while day two saw heated debate between the Senator for Homa Bay and members of county assemblies on the County Development Fund Bill currently before the Senate. The above raise concerns about whether they are legitimate demands by the county assembly members or an effort to copy from the legislators at the national level. I attended part of the Summit and had interesting discussions on the sidelines with some colleagues on both of these issues.There are those who argued that since legislators at the national level get similar treatment, county assembly members as those performing similar functions at the devolved units should also be entitled to the same. According to this line of argument, what is good for the goose is good for the gander.The contrary argument, held that these two issues are already controversial at the national level too. The salaries and Remuneration Commission is not in the good books of Members of the National Assembly and Senators due to its efforts to rationalize their perks. Secondly, the Constituency Development Fund, along which the Senate Bill for County Development Fund is modelled, has been subject to contestation from the date of its inception and recently has been litigated. To focus on these two issues, would make for bad publicity and bad politics.

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There is debate as to whether MCAs are a marked departure from the previous era councilors, whether they have political relevance and what their added value to devolution is. Having sat for part of the summit and watched the engagement by MCAs, I am convinced that the answer to these lingering concerns is much more nuanced. Yes, there are MCAs who still behave as your councilors, complete with predisposition to fistfights and shouting matches. There are also others who try to ape their colleagues at the national level, complete with the bad manners. These groups are the cause of the negative assessment of the lot of MCAs.However, that is just half the story. The other half is an important category of leaders for the success of devolution. Despite the concerns about how some counties are run and the lack of progress in those counties five years since the 2013 elections and the roll out of devolved governments, the reality is that devolution still stands out as the most fundamental aspect of the changes brought about by the 2010 Constitution.If the current agitation for constitutional reform in some quarters were to gain traction, the one part of the Constitution that cannot be negatively affected is that to do with devolution. Taken against that broad perspective, therefore, MCAs are an important part of devolution. We cannot b speaking about wishing them away. They have made representation closer to the people. One does not have to wait for their MP to make their occasional trips from Nairobi. They have at least two MCAs per constituency who can also address representation needs. Although several of the MCAs have also adopted the habit of staying at the County headquarters, these are nearer than Nairobi where almost all Members of Parliament stay.There is also quality in the county assemblies. First, is the category of speakers that county assemblies have elected. I know a few of them personally. They are young, ambitious, knowledgeable and focused. Watching some of them at the legislative summit reinforced my hope in young leadership. They just have to keep the focus and enhance their public discussions so that devolution stops being about governors only and more about the citizenry.I also had a chance to moderate a discussion on unbundling the role of senate in representing the counties and protecting their interests and that of their governments as per the provisions of Article 96 of the Constitution. The debate revolved around how senate has faired in representing the interests of counties. Senate’s representation is largely at the national level. County Assemblies are supposed to represent these interests at the county level. It is important that county assembly members focus on this task much more than they have done in the past. This will require looking at the Fourth Schedule of the Constitution, and increasingly speaking to and engaging on the functions which are allocated to counties.Listening to debate at the summit on such devolved functions as agriculture and the challenges around transfer of functions and their unbundling, I got the distinct impression that MCAs have the ability to be catalysts in deepening devolution. They just have to focus on this much more than they do on car grants and personal other emoluments

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