Parliament passed on December 13 with its first reading bill on local self-governance reform envisaging direct election of mayors in twelve towns, as well as direct election of heads of all the municipalities across the country starting from next year’s local elections.
Currently mayor of only capital city, Tbilisi, is directly elected; mayors of four other cities having status of “self-governed” – Kutaisi, Rustavi, Poti and Batumi, are appointed by their respective city councils (Sakrebulo); heads of municipalities (gamgebeli) are appointed by Sakrebulos municipalities.
“Together with you I am really proud that this large barrier is being overcome in Georgia – something that not a single previous government dared to tackle; that’s probably because they were weak authorities – only those who are weak are afraid of having many directly elected mayors and gamgebelis,” Davit Usupashvili, the parliament speaker, told lawmakers before the vote in the parliament.
“Self-governance means empowering people and those who were afraid of giving power to the people were always shunning away from this [reform],” Usupashvili said.
He added that it would have been better if lawmakers from the UNM parliamentary minority group participated in debates during parliamentary sitting. UNM lawmakers now welcome introduction of direct election of mayors and heads of municipalities, “but who was hindering them to introduce it” when they were in power? Usupashvili asked rhetorically.
MPs from UNM parliamentary minority group were absent as they continue boycott after they walked out in protest against scuffle that broke out in the parliament chamber on December 11. UNM MPs convened a news conference on December 13 and said that the proposed bill was not providing real self-governance claiming that directly elected mayors and gamgebelis would fall under control of government-appointed provincial governors; they called for further increase number of towns having “self-governed” status and spoke out against giving Sakrebulos power to vote out directly elected mayors and gamgebelis.
Number of municipalities, which now stands at 69, may increase as a result of the reform. According to the bill, a proposal on creating a new municipality has to be drafted by a special inter-agency commission; the proposal then has to be endorsed by the government and then confirmed by the Parliament.
The bill, which was drafted by the ministry for regional development and infrastructure over the past several months, is based on a concept which the government unveiled this spring.
Initially proposed bill, however, was revised over the past week.
These changes were disapproved by many of those civil society representatives, who were involved in drafting of the original package, as a step towards watering down of initial proposal; but despite of this criticism, they still kept their support of the revised bill saying that it was anyway an important step on the path of local self-governance reform.
Towns with Directly Elected Mayors
According to the bill, passed with its first readying, direct election of mayors will be held in following towns (not counting Tbilisi where the rule is already in place since 2010): Kutaisi in Imereti region; Rustavi in Kvemo Kartli region; port town of Poti and Zugdidi both in Samegrelo region; Batumi in Adjara; Telavi in Kakheti; Mtskheta in Mtskheta-Mtianeti region; Gori in Shida Kartli; Akhaltsikhe in Samtskhe-Javakheti region; Ambrolauri in Racha-Lechkhumi region and Ozurgeti in Guria region.
Initial bill, before it was revised, envisaged direct election of mayors in eighteen towns, including Tbilisi.
For a transitional period, the bill offers to elect local self-governance bodies, including mayors and heads of municipalities, for a three-year term instead of four. Next local elections will be held either in May or June, 2014.
According to the bill Sakrebulo will be able to launch procedures for impeaching directly elected mayor/gamgebeli upon the initiative of at least half of its members or upon a written request of at least 20% of voters in a respective municipality or town. Two-thirds majority of Sakrebulo members will be required to vote out mayor or gamgebeli.
The initial bill also envisaged introduction of elected Borough Councils on neighborhood level in the capital city, as well setting up of public councils on the level of villages. But these proposals were removed in the revised bill, which was passed with the first reading.
Deputy minister of regional development and infrastructure, Tengiz Shergelashvili, who presented the bill at the parliamentary session on December 13, said that introduction of Borough Councils and public councils is postponed only temporarily and the government will again raise the issue sometime before 2015.
Provincial Governors and Their Consultative Councils
According to the bill provincial governors will remain appointed by the central government.
The initial draft envisaged introduction of councils on the regional level, formed by representatives of Sakrebulos of those municipalities, which make up respective regions; governors, according to initial draft, should have been accountable not only before the government, but also before these councils.
Some small non-parliamentary opposition parties were criticizing this proposal, claiming that these councils on the regional level were creating elements of federalism fraught with risk of separatism; this concern, which was rejected by authors of the bill, as well as by some commentators and also by opposition UNM party, as irrelevant, was also echoed in a statement of leader of Georgian Orthodox Church, Ilia II, who weighed in debate on December 4.
GD said that to allay these concerns, it was decided to downgrade role of these council by giving them only “consultative” powers.
Unlike initial draft, the revised proposal, passed with its first reading, no longer envisages giving these councils a status of legal entity of public law.
The revised bill no longer envisages giving these councils the right to request the central government to sack a provincial governor.
Among the functions of these councils will be to prepare various projects to be implemented in municipalities; to discuss projects proposed by the central government and to provide recommendations on economic issues to a governor.
These councils will be composed by directly elected heads (gamgebeli) of those municipalities, which make up respective region, as well as chairpersons of Sakrebulos and their deputies (in total each municipality will have three representatives in these planned consultative councils).
Speaking during the discussion of the bill, GD MP Gubaz Sanikidze, leader of National Forum party, said “separatism phobias” in the context of this bill are completely groundless. He said such concerns were result of lack of thorough knowledge of what the bill was actually saying.
A group of non-governmental organizations, among them those who were involved in drafting of the original bill, alleged on December 12 that some, unspecified “forces” within the government itself were not willing to give up more powers in the regions and for that reason they used groundless concerns over separatism as a pretext to revise the bill.
It will be up to the governor to summon a session of the regional consultative councils. Sessions of these councils should be held at least three times per month, according to the bill.
Taxes, Electoral System Undefined Yet
There are two key issues, which the proposed bill does not address – taxes and another one is electoral system.
Electoral system, reflecting proposed reform, based on which next local elections have to be held next year, has yet to be developed. GD MP Giorgi Volski, a new chairman of the inter-faction group, which works on the electoral issues, said on December 13 that the group will start drafting relevant amendments to the election code in the nearest future.
Deputy minister of regional development and infrastructure, Tengiz Shergelashvili, said that a draft law will be elaborated before September, 2014 which will introduce a scheme on distribution of taxes between local and central budgets.
He said that the idea is to keep portion of revenues from income tax in local municipality budget. Currently only revenues from property tax are left in the local budgets. Main source of income for local budgets is money transfers from the central government.
‘More Dialogue Needed’
Before the vote, parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili said that despite of vibrant debates over the reform plan and more than fifty meetings which the authors of the bill held with various stakeholders, it was “a mistake” not to have even more communication with the public and political forces.
Usupashvili, who held a meeting with non-parliamentary opposition representatives on December 12 over the planned reform, said: “More is needed in this regard, so let’s take it into consideration; there is enough time before we discuss the bill with its second reading and… let’s spend more time and energy in having more communication with everyone.”