GEORGETOWN, Guyana – In colonial times, the governor of what was then called British Guiana would impose hefty fines on officials who refused to show up and do their jobs.
Today, the rugged South American country of Guyana has the opposite problem: Many city officeholders assumed their posts nearly 20 years ago and never left.
Political maneuvering has led both major parties to repeatedly delay municipal elections, which are supposed to be held every three years. This has frustrated Guyanese fed up being unable to hold officials accountable for corruption, shoddy municipal services, crumbling infrastructure and dwindling government budgets.
"This situation means that I am the longest serving mayor in local history by default," said 78-year-old Georgetown Mayor Hamilton Green, who was appointed by the city council in 1994. "And I am not proud of it at all."
Even council members who have died or emigrated have not been replaced.
"It is supposed to be 15 of us, but time has taken its toll to such an extent that only seven of us are left now," said Jennifer Conway, who has been on the council of New Amsterdam, the country's second-largest city, since 1994. "Many have migrated to the U.S., two have resigned and some have died."
"Sometimes we have to postpone meetings because we can't make a quorum," she said.
They don't appear to be hanging on for profit, though there are some perks. As mayor, Green gets a $200 monthly stipend and a full-time staff, including bodyguards and drivers. Conway earns $50 a month. But the officials also don't seem to be getting much done. City services are plainly lacking in much of the impoverished nation of 741,000 people. Garbage often clogs the streets of a capital prone to flooding, and bribes are an accepted way of obtaining basic services, such as electrical power for a new home.
Green alleged that the ruling People's Progressive Party has undermined his efforts to generate revenue for garbage disposal, road repairs and other improvements by blocking funding at the Cabinet level.
Meanwhile, officials such as Green remain in office because of the same political paralysis that prevents action on numerous important issues in the largely undeveloped country. Legislators say they will not call elections until they first pass a set of municipal reforms, while voters blame the country's legendary bureaucracy and political infighting for delaying both the reforms and the elections.
"There is something within the Guyanese society that allows for tolerance. We become complacent to a plague of mediocrity," said Nigel Westmaas, a Guyana native and assistant professor at New York's Hamilton College.
Complicating matters, said Westmaas, Guyana has moved away from a British-based form of government toward one of its own creation, resulting in a byzantine local system. "Even people in government don't know how the system functions, much less how to repair it," he said.
Both the ruling party and Green's Partnership for National Unity have repeatedly called for new elections, but have just as frequently postponed them because they want to reform the roles of municipalities before elections are held. The debate about how municipalities should be reformed began in 1999, and it has since reached a stalemate.
"It has taken far too long, there's no doubt about that," said Rupert Roopnaraine, leader of the main opposition party. "It could be argued that there was not sufficient will on part of the government to push the reform through and make the necessary compromises."
Roopnaraine, whose party runs three of the six municipalities, said the reform process has been "torturous" and blamed a divisive Parliament for the delay.
"At the moment, there is no local democracy," he said. "These councils have been dysfunctional for a very, very, very long time."
Legislators in January introduced a bill calling for municipal elections to be held in December 2013 at the latest, but did not set a firm date.
President Donald Ramotar has said he cannot hold elections until Parliament approves the reforms including giving local governments more financial autonomy. Both sides have said that it makes no sense to hold polls with outdated laws. A committee formed to study the proposal, however, has been meeting for more than a year and has not yet presented a possible bill.
"It's been an issue for almost as long as I can remember," said David Carroll, democracy program director at The Carter Center in Atlanta, who has traveled to Guyana several times to monitor general elections.
There's now even international pressure to solve the city council problem.
Ambassadors from the U.S., Canada, Britain and the European Union recently issued a joint statement saying the situation has undermined the efficiency of municipalities and local democracy and is hampering Guyana's ability to attract foreign investors to a country rich in gold, diamonds and bauxite.
"While the people of Guyana are familiar with the reasons offered for repeated delays in holding local government elections, there is no valid justification for further delay," the ambassadors wrote in a statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in January.
Westmaas said the two parties don't seem interested in holding elections.
"(It is) a collective embarrassment that democracy at the crucial level of the community has gone unfulfilled for so long, and that foreign diplomats have to provide pressure for something so logical and necessary," Westmass said.
The issue dominates conversations at almost every social event, said Clinton Urling, president of the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce, who complained that officials are not being held accountable for failure to deal with local problems while elections remain on hold.
"It's reached a point where it's boiled over. Everybody is so frustrated," Urling said.
Meanwhile, Guyanese wait and fume.
"It is more than despicable and beyond comprehension that elections have not been held," said Ivor Defreitas, a 54-year-old Georgetown teacher. "It is a pity we have to live with the same people for nearly two decades."
Danica Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.