Mutare Mayor Brian James recently announced his intention to go on a ‘leave of absence’ in protest at a refusal by his councillors to have the city’s finances audited. The Mayor was a guest on Question Time and told SW Radio Africa journalist Lance Guma that the councillors refused to accept his request to go and discussions resulted in an amicable resolution of the crisis. So what really happened?
Interview broadcast 04 January 2012
Lance Guma: Mutare Mayor Brian James has announced his intention to go on a ‘leave of absence’ in protest at a refusal by his councillors to have the city’s finances audited. The Mayor joins me tonight on Question Time and will be answering questions from SW Radio Africa listeners.
Thank you for joining us Mr Mayor.
Brian James: My pleasure Lance, my pleasure.
Guma: Now it is reported that you are taking a ‘leave of absence’ – first of all – what does that mean?
James: Well yes it is, I did write a letter to the Town Clerk asking for ‘leave of absence’ and I found out that to apply for the ‘leave of absence’ it’s to the Council itself, it’s basically wanting to withdraw myself from mayoral duties for a period of time, to take stock, but we’ve just come out of a think tank with the bulk of the councillors and they haven’t accepted my letter and with further discussions, I have actually, in the last hour or so, withdrawn that request
Guma: Your initial intention, how long had you wanted to be away?
James: It was to the end of April.
Guma: End of April. Okay, most of our listeners want to know why you had initially made this decision?
James: I think it’s more frustration on financial matters regarding audits and budget processes and that sort of thing; differences of opinion and I thought maybe I should just take a break, maybe I was being over zealous but as I said we’ve had a very constructive meeting with the bulk of the councilors there and I’ve found good reason now to withdraw that request.
Guma: In your letter you had talked about disharmony, poor working relations with your peers. What was happening that had prompted you to conclude you needed a break?
James: Well it is, what I think I was getting at there was lack of the final push, the final commitment to get our audits done. We passed these resolutions and then everyone sat back; partly my fault I suppose, I should have pushed management a little further to get these audits done but I think that has been resolved now and as you see, we will be pushing this forward now.
Guma: One of the residents in Mutare, her name is Marilyn, she sent a question saying she’s rather surprised that you are, or were facing these problems when the council is controlled by the MDC-T. Her question is – are these people not from your party and why would you be facing this sort of resistance?
James: Yes certainly the mix of councillors, we have 19 wards and all 19 were won by MDC councillors; we have four vacancies at the moment and there are four appointed councillors by Minister Chombo, so yes, you are right – they are from our party but democracy is at play here and it was my frustration at the pace of things that got me to this position but I think we’ve managed to resolve a lot of them now.
Guma: Pungwe Breweries owned by Council is cited as one of the problem entities needing an audit; could you tell our listeners what is the problem there, just as an example?
James: Yes certainly – Pungwe Breweries which is the brewery brewing opaque beer for sale in the city limits and beyond is traditionally a profit-making enterprise wholly owned by Council and profits from this entity are normally spent in our welfare department but as you know, and as I’m sure everyone knows that Council hasn’t been receiving any monies from this entity for some years now.
And we’ve tried one or two plans to try and get it off the ground but since dollarization, no audits have been done and we resolved to have a company – Ernst and Young – to audit it but although we’ve resolved to have that done there’s been delays in actually notifying them to start the audit. But I think that you’ll see in the coming weeks now that action will be taken.
Guma: Is there suggestion though that funds could have been misappropriated?
James: Well I think it’s premature for me to say that, to say or comment on that aspect but the fact is that Council is not recording any income from this entity and as the 100% owner of it, we need to find out and I think the best way to do it is to have an independent audit and then Council will make their decisions from that.
Guma: Has this entity not been making any reasonable income since your Council took over or it’s been like that for quite some time when Zanu PF was in charge.
James: Yah I think it’s well before we took office, yah.
Guma: Okay now I know you’ve said you’ve since made a u-turn but prior to that, some of your councillors were quoted in the papers as accusing you of jumping ship when you are needed the most as the captain of that ship. Could that be partly the reason why you’ve had a change of heart? Would you agree with that argument that you were abandoning ship?
James: Well I think the initial reasons were that I didn’t want to be associated with inaction but as I say we have resolved a lot of that now and we are re-invigorated and moving forward as a solid team.
Guma: There’s a growing perception that a significant number of elected MDC-T councillors across the country are following the Zanu PF behaviour of engaging in corruption.
Do you feel the councillors in Mutare are falling into this trap or certainly this whole episode around you wanting to take a break temporarily, do you think it feeds into that perception that there’s a lot of corruption in councils across the country?
James: Well it’s common knowledge here now that it’s a Zanu tactic to try and equalise us as they call it, which is to corrupt us in one way or the other, to pull us down into their way of thinking and I think all councillors need to be well aware of this and I think you’ll probably find around the country, some councillors have succumbed to this practice.
The MDC National Council just recently has passed quite a strong resolution regarding this and they intend to investigate and deal with councillors that might have succumbed to this.
So yah, maybe it’s premature to comment on any councillors within our own set-up there but one must realise that resolutions that we’re passing are not being implemented in quite a few cases and it’s up to us as councillors to vigorously make sure that they are implemented.
Guma: All the way from Victoria Falls we have a question from a guy called Edward. Now Edward’s question is what are your challenges as the Mutare City Council and particularly given reports, he quotes reports that council workers have not been paid their November and December salaries? So he’d like you to comment on some of those challenges, what’s really happening?
James: Yes, well I think our challenges are pretty common throughout the country; it’s available resources and that’s why I’m pretty adamant that we need strong budgetary procedures and not only to create a strong budget but to actually monitor that budget throughout the year.
The fact that our workers he says haven’t been paid November and December is not true – they have been paid, albeit a little bit late, we’re paying probably a week into the following month but I’m certainly making it my endeavour to make sure that all workers are paid in the month of work.
We do have cash flow problems and that’s why we need strong budgetary controls. And how can I put it? I’m with the workers; it’s their right to be paid within the month of work and I’ll certainly do what I can to make sure that they are.
Guma: We understand that to date Mutare City Council has not yet submitted its proposed budget for 2012 – what’s the problem?
James: Okay again the process was a little late and it’s been part of our discussions today that we resolved some months ago to get some external consultants in to help us with this process.
Management have presented a parallel budget which is under discussion. In fact we have a special council meeting tomorrow to deal with the final draft of it and the issue of any objections that might have come in from the public.
And tomorrow’s council meeting – there should be some lively debate I should imagine with this regard. Yes it is late, we were hoping that the consultants, in fact who had started their work there, would get their proceedings done by the end of February but with the debate tomorrow in council we should resolve all these outstanding issues
Guma: So you are confident that…
James: Sorry if I can just add there – the reason why it is late is that I think the process always starts late and that’s cause for concern and we need greater public participation in the beginning, in the process side of it and again that’s what we are trying to do in council is to get the public on board right from the start rather than just criticising the end result.
Guma: So as things stand, you are confident that the reported power struggles and corruption that was said to be dominating council – that should be a thing of the past? You are quite confident that you can develop a harmonious working relationship with your councillors?
James: Yes I’m confident of that and I think dialogue, closer dialogue between us all needs to be effected and I think there’s a new realisation amongst us councillors here that service delivery is the prime object of our endeavours and we shouldn’t be swayed by forces, some of which I mentioned earlier. We should concentrate on service delivery and bettering the lives of our constituents.
Guma: So would it be fair to say, Mr James, that your intention to go on leave has actually worked for the good? It’s given impetus to have what you wanted done in terms of the audit and everyone seems to be moving in the same direction now?
James: To a certain extent, yes.
Guma: Okay let’s move on to Harare. Priscilla who stays in Harare says your battles with the Local Government minister, Ignatius Chombo are well documented and her question is – how are things at the moment?
James: Ah yes they are well documented and I think we’ve got to realise and I’m glad that she’s brought up this question because the public must realise as well where some of our problems are originating from and if we can concentrate on service delivery and bring the public on board in those endeavours then his influence, his disruptive influence, can I put it that way if it is disruptive, minimises, but at the same time he is the minister and we have to take his directives and his thinking on board and deal with it independently and consultatively.
Guma: But are there any pending issues that are a source of conflict? Last time we, you had that whole issue over the deputy mayor and him (Minister) overturning your directive. How have those issues been resolved?
James: Well history has actually resolved a lot of that and that’s not the main problem. At the moment we are waiting for his approval of our choice of auditors for our 2010 set of accounts.
I’m told that our choice, a letter has been written to him but he seems to be sitting on actually approving it and that’s what we also discussed today. So I think that’s the main burning question at the moment is that council has elected Ernst and Young to come and do the 2010 accounts, plus the Pungwe for that matter, but we need his signature of approval for the 2010 set of accounts and I’m sure there’s no reason why he shouldn’t sign that approval.
Guma: On a separate matter and we have questions from listeners based on the incident last year, last year in October – two armed robbers attacked your home and made off with two laptops, cell phones, cameras and cash. You also sustained a minor head injury. Several of our listeners want to know has there been any progress in apprehending the culprits?
James: Not immediately. There have been quite a few incidents of armed robberies around the low density areas of Mutare and is cause for concern but police and security firms are more aware of it and are working closely together with the community.
As far as recovery of the stuff stolen from our place there, nothing has been recovered but police are making good progress I’m told on the cell phones, through serial numbers and that sort of thing which is heartening to know.
Guma: My final question – obviously I know it’s not all gloom and doom – is there anything positive you’d like our listeners to know about Mutare. I was just reading online it was voted the ‘cleanest city in Zimbabwe’ – any stuff like that that you could maybe tell our listeners that you are involved in as the City of Mutare?
James: Yes, yes, of course let’s dwell on the positives rather than the negatives! Yes we’ve had these accolades about being the cleanest city and what we’re trying to work on now is to sustain that position.
We have terrific goodwill in the city, volunteer groups, voluntary groups have got together and are busy re-treeing the Dangamvura Hills; obviously the cleaning of the city is on-going and there’s a huge movement to keep the city clean and that’s evident in just comments that come across, visitors that are scared to drop sweet papers and everything and I think that’s a good sign.
Generally keeping their own road verges clean and whatnot, yah I think we hope to showcase the city later this year to all and sundry so yes, please keep in touch with us through various websites and facebook etcetera.
Guma: As I talked to you, we have just received a question via Twitter – somebody wants to know – has there been any benefit from the diamond mining in nearby Marange for Mutare? Is there anything you could quantify and say we’ve benefitted from this?
James: Well indirectly. We’ve got massive infrastructural requirements and whatnot and we would hope that the diamond sales go through the organised channels, through ministries so that we can lay our hands on those volumes of money but obviously the smaller sales and the businesses that are working there and the employees are working there, there’s that spin-off into the city.
Some of the concession holders are assisting council with some repair work on the Sakubva Stadium and some of them actually donate towards various charities around town. But I think generally, we even resolved to apply for a diamond concession there but its been met with a stony silence.
But I think there are these indirect spin-offs from it and hopefully we will build on that and when sanity prevails in the whole mining sector, maybe there will be sort of more concrete and bigger benefits.
Guma: Well Zimbabwe that’s the Mutare Mayor, Mr Brian James joining us on this edition of Question Time and I hope he’s been able to answer most of your questions. Mr Mayor, thank you so much for joining us on the programme.
James: My pleasure and thank you.
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