The Parliament of Georgia approved on June 30 with its third and final reading the amendments to the Local Self-Government Code, reducing the number of self-governing cities from current twelve to five.
According to the legislative amendments proposed by the Ministry of Regional Development and Infrastructure, only five cities, among them Tbilisi, Kutaisi, Rustavi, Poti and Batumi will maintain their status of independent self-governing units, while the remaining seven cities - Telavi, Mtskheta, Gori, Akhaltsikhe, Ambrolauri, Ozurgeti and Zugdidi – will lose this status.
The decision comes three years after the Parliament approved the new Self-Government Code increasing the number of self-governing cities from five to twelve. In addition, the municipalities, where new self-governing cities were formed, were established as separate self-governing units and ultimately, 14 new municipalities were formed as a result of the 2014 reforms.
According to the legislative amendments approved on June 30, these 14 municipalities will be reunited into seven municipalities again.
The explanatory note of the bill reads that the division of municipalities into smaller units in 2014 did not prove effective for achieving the intended goals. Moreover, it doubled the administrative expenses. The authors of the bill claim that merger of municipalities should promote “effective management” and “growth of capital expenses that will have positive effects on the population’s social and economic conditions.”
According to the amendments, Gamgeoba (local executive body) and Gamgebeli (head of municipality) will be renamed into the Mayor’s Office and the Mayor. “Instead of having two positions with similar functions, we will have only one, the Mayor’s position,” the explanatory note reads.
Along with the Local Self-Government Code, the Parliament also approved amendments to the election code on June 30, specifying the number of majoritarian lawmakers to be elected to municipality councils (Sakrebulo) from cities located in these municipalities. Namely, in cities with the electorate ranging from four to ten thousands, two majoritarian MPs will be elected; with the electorate up to 20,000 – three majoritarian MPs and with the electorate up to 35,000 – four majoritarian MPs.
The Parliamentary opposition factions criticized the decision to abolish the status for seven self-governing cities as “a step taken backwards.”
“Three years have not passed yet and you already admit that you have made a mistake. Today, you again are trying to implement this reform amid lies,” Irakli Abesadze of the Movement for Liberty - European Georgia said at the Parliament’s session on June 29.
MP Sergo Ratiani of the European Georgia slammed the amendments as “regress” and “counter-reform.” “Today we are amending the law, which was approved three years ago… Abolition of self-governing cities actually is a step taken backwards in terms of both political and economic development… it is regress, counter-reform… Time will come and you will regret it,” Ratiani said.
Giorgi Kakhiani, Georgian Dream lawmaker, hailed the bill as “a correct” decision. “We have our own position. We are making a correct decision; populism is far from us. We have never made and will never make populist decisions. We will make decisions that will promote the development of our country, including the development of self-governance,” Kakhiani noted.
The Parliament of Georgia, which is in charge of establishing and abolishing self-governing units, exercised this power on June 15 and, based on the initiative of respective municipalities and upon nomination of the Government of Georgia, united self-governing cities – Telavi, Mtskheta, Gori, Akhaltsikhe, Ambrolauri, Ozurgeti and Zugdidi – with the self-governing communities with the same name. The decision will enter into force on the day of setting the date of the 2017 municipal elections and voters in these self-governing units will elect already merged Sakrebulos and mayors.
Ten Georgian civil society organizations appealed against the Parliament’s June 15 decree in court, saying that such decisions should only be taken through public discussions. “The government rejected these discussions; the process was actually held behind the closed doors and the decision was made hastily, thus violating the requirements of the Local Self-Government Code on holding public consultations with the population,” the CSOs said in their statement.
The civil society organizations also requested President Giorgi Margvelashvili not to promulgate the law and asked him to return it to the Parliament with his objections. They also expressed readiness to meet him and discuss the issue in person.
In response to NGOs’ proposal, Anna Dolidze, the President’s Parliamentary Secretary, said that the issue would be on Giorgi Margvelashvili’s agenda. “The President of Georgia was skeptical towards these amendments related to self-governance from the very beginning… Naturally, we will pay due attention to NGOs’ appeal; familiarize ourselves with the package that will be approved and discuss their proposal on not signing it,” Anna Dolidze said.