Parliament passed on January 24 with 84 votes to 14 with its second 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 starting from this year’s local elections.
The bill, which has yet to be passed with its third and final reading, was voted after two days of detailed discussions by lawmakers. MPs from UNM parliamentary minority group, who were absent when the Parliament discussed the bill with its first reading last month, engaged actively in discussions, asking numerous specific questions to deputy minister of infrastructure and regional development, Tergiz Shergelashvili, who presented the bill to lawmakers.
While hailing introduction of direct election of mayors in eleven more towns (currently only capital city Tbilisi’s mayor is directly elected) and heads of all municipalities (gamgebeli), UNM parliamentary minority group criticizes a provision of the bill which allows elected local councils (Sakrebulo) to vote out mayors and gamgebelis.
According to the bill Sakrebulo will be able to launch procedures for sacking 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 registered in a respective municipality or town. Two-thirds majority of Sakrebulo members will be required to vote out mayor or gamgebeli.
This provision is also criticized by some civil society organizations. Such a provision “weakens importance of institution of directly elected mayors and gamgebelis,” International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED), Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA) and Transparency International Georgia said in their joint statement.
Even one lawmaker from GD parliamentary majority group, Zakaria Kutsnashvili, spoke out against this provision during the discussions on January 23. He said that the bill should at least specify that voting out of mayor or gamgebeli should only take place in case office holders violate the law. “Voting out of a directly elected mayor or gamgebeli just only because of political reasons is inadmissible,” he said.
Removing this provision from the bill was among those issues in an alternative proposal tabled by the UNM parliamentary minority group, which was voted down by GD lawmakers. UNM MPs argued that keeping of this provision in the bill would make “pointless” principle of direct election of mayors and gamgebelis, because they will fully become dependent on Sakrebulos because of fear of being voted out of office.
Deputy minister of infrastructure and regional development, Tengiz Shergelashvili, downplayed these concerns and said that “the practice will show that fears about it are overblown.”
Another issue pushed by UNM parliamentary minority group was increasing number of cities and towns, where mayors will be elected directly.
Initial bill envisaged introduction of direct election of mayors in towns with population of at least 15,000 people. This criterion would have made 18 cities and towns eligible for direct election of mayor, but the bill was later revised by the authorities and the number of such towns was reduced to 12 (including Tbilisi).
Now the criteria are mainly based on regional centers, which means that the following towns will elect mayors: 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.
UNM argued that it was not a fair criterion because Mtskheta, which has less than 8,000 residents, will be able to elect mayor, but not much larger towns such as Samtredia or Khashuri, which have population of more than 25,000.
Shergelashvili acknowledged that it was not the best criteria, but stressed that it was only the beginning of the reform and suggested that more towns would be included in the list at the later stage.
On the regional level, 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. But this provision was later revised and the role of these councils downgraded by giving them only “consultative” powers.
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). UNM wanted to include in these councils chairperson of factions in Sakrebulo so that to secure opposition’s presence in these councils. The proposal was rejected. Shergelashvili said that inclusion of chairperson of factions would make these councils too large and inefficient.
There are two key issues, which the proposed bill does not address – taxes and another one is electoral system.
Electoral system, based on which next local elections have to be held (either in May or June), has yet to be developed. An inter-faction group with representatives of political parties is launching drafting of relevant bill.
On the issue of taxes, according to the government a draft law will be elaborated before September, 2014 which will introduce a scheme on distribution of taxes between local and central budgets. One of the possible proposals will be 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.
The bill was passed with its second reading without one provision, which sets limits on number of employees in local self-governance bodies; the provision, according to lawmakers, will be passed later after additional discussions.