The much-discussed bills for the Local Government Reform are expected to be taken to the Plenary Session of the Parliament – except unexpectedly – in the next few weeks. The government considers that the need to pass these laws is urgent, so as not to jeopardize the ability of the Republic of Cyprus to obtain a specific grant from the EU, amounting to 980 million euros. It is noted that the opposition parties have overflowed the issue regarding the number of new municipalities that will be created (from 30 to 20+) and are calling for local referendums (AKEL). Democratic Alarm and Democratic Party state that they are discussing the possibility of holding a general referendum for the “yes” or the “no” in the Local Government Reform, as it will have been formed after a discussion and consultation between the parties. DISY MP and member of the Parliamentary Committee on Internal Affairs Xenia Konstantinou and AKEL MP, chairwoman of the Parliamentary Committee on Internal Affairs Eleni Mavrou speak to “P” about the Local Government Reform.
According to Xenia Konstantinou, the transformation and recovery of our country is going through the Local Government Reform.
“The Democratic Alarm will never be drawn into a blackmailing closure of such a serious issue in the way it is being tracked.”
The many should not be held hostage by the few
“I believe that a happy citizen is a satisfied citizen. I believe that for the small size of our country, the creation of relatively larger municipalities with enhanced responsibilities and revenues, will inevitably create a greater impact on the lives of citizens but also greater interest by the citizens themselves for the well-being of the municipality and their community. So this is what we call win-win. That is exactly why the Reform is necessary “, notes the DISY MP Xenia Konstantinou, when asked about the necessity of the Local Government Reform. With the desired changes, he continues, there will be more and better control, more autonomy in local government, improving the quality of life for citizens, better and cheaper services, and thus enhancing the sense of pride for the municipality or the community to which it belongs anyone. “I have visited big cities abroad where the feeling of 'belonging' was very strong, precisely because there was a great closeness of the local authorities with the citizens, and I have also gone to small towns where the citizens were separated by a mess with the local authorities. I believe that the quality of everyday life and the urban environment that is created mainly counts “, he adds.
When will the implementation of this Reform begin?
In the original bill submitted by the Ministry of Interior, it was planned – if it would have been voted in favor – to start immediately, with the aim of completing the preparation of mergers by the end of 2023, to hold the next local elections along with the 2024 European elections. This planning offered the advantage of giving the existing councils time to complete the demanding transition process and also offered immediate and long-term savings. This is something that has been challenged by some opposition parties, which are favoring local elections in 2021 for a period of 2.5 years and re-elections in 2024.
Why as DISY do you not agree with the local referendums? Why not have local communities talk about an issue that concerns their daily lives?
We do not disagree with the principle of local referendums when it comes to local issues. But here we are talking about the overall reform of the way local government works. So the only thing that would be tested, if one were to propose the ratification of the political decision by the popular sovereignty, would be a universal referendum which would ratify the legislation before it enters into force. The reform is based on objective criteria for its viability, such as population density, per capita income, geography and economic activity, and therefore no 'ala carte' can be made. That is why we consider the proposal of some opposition parties to propose the need to reform and vote in favor of the bill with arguments regarding the autonomy of the new municipalities, their savings and their viability, and at the same time to support ideas such as that of local referendums that empower any autonomy and any sustainability. In addition, it will be an oxymoron to vote in favor of a reform law tomorrow, to carry out under this new law all the relevant administrative preparations such as the merger of services, new organizational charts, joint accounting, new procedures to pass on to the citizens in a blackmailing way at the end. 2023 the final decision on whether the mergers will take place or not.
If a municipality / community disagrees, will it be imposed on them so I want a decision that will affect people's daily lives?
Consultations took place for years. We built it and damaged it too many times. Reform did not fall from the sky. There is the consent of the Union of Municipalities, which in fact the Union of Municipalities – with its written announcement – does not support the holding of referendums because it considers that a thorough consultation has taken place, the same applies to the majority of communities that merge with municipalities. The Union of Communities, which agrees with holding referendums, proposes that these be done in '21, which is indeed much more tried. Democracy and dialogue are moving forward with the greatest possible consensus, and we have respected that and we have sought it. It is impossible for everyone to agree 100%. So the question should be reversed in my view. Is it tempting for the few who disagree to hold the overwhelming majority who agree to be held hostage? Especially when it concerns and affects the daily life of citizens?
When there can be no effective control in municipalities and communities now, why can it be done tomorrow when the municipalities and complexes will be huge?
There is a different control today than there will be in the future. In the future there will be financial autonomy but also clear frameworks that will ensure good administration. For example, the percentage of expenses for staff costs will be limited to 40%, the possibility of transfer from one budget category to another is also limited. In addition there will be an internal control unit, the budgets of each municipality should be balanced or in surplus. We have created in the new legal framework a modern model of control both internally and externally of each municipality, which are distinct but interact and control each other. The elected mayor, the specialized service officers, together with the external independent auditors and the General Audit Office, are part of this control mechanism. The responsibilities, the principles of good administration, and the penalties in case of violations are defined.
From 30… 20
If the Reform is a matter of public interest, why should the municipalities go from 20 to 20-21 and not less?
Our goal must be not more or less but exclusively sustainable municipalities. Sustainable based on technocratic, measurable and recorded data. The Ministry of Interior, in the original bill, did not include a scenario exclusively in each province but a series of sustainable scenarios. We as a Democratic Alarm have consistently supported the committee to stay within these frameworks of the bill, respecting the previous consultation and of course satisfying within these permissible frameworks, as much as possible, the wishes of the local communities.
This kingdom remains
What will happen to the school ephorates?
What most seem to agree on is the need for school boards to join the reform. Our goal, however, is for them to be a part, without losing their autonomy, which is why we have provided for a relatively longer transition period to give us time to discuss and prepare.
How will the new entities be funded? What powers will they have that they do not have today?
The new municipalities will be financed by the traffic revenues of private and public vehicles in addition to fees, contributions, donations, etc. which they still receive today. In addition, they will have financial autonomy and autonomy, so they will have the opportunity to develop a lot of new activities that will increase their income, as they will have increased responsibilities for almost everything. New powers will be given to infrastructure management, social welfare, schools, health checks, food safety, beaches, conservation, old buildings, environment, culture, parks, animal welfare, accessibility, municipal policing, integration policy, traffic control, licenses, and even the development of special programs to promote entrepreneurship.
What is delaying the decision on the Reform?
The Democratic Alarm has supported the Local Government Reform from the beginning with consensus and realism, and we continue to be fully consistent and to support this great and necessary reform for the place. But the Democratic Alarm will never be drawn into a blackmailing closure of such a serious issue in the way it's run. We will insist on rationality with all due respect to different positions and views, but we must be serious and avoid finding ourselves in the dilemma of voting in favor of something that is virtually impossible to implement. So, if the reason why some parties chose to derail the debate is in the context of political collaborations unrelated to the intended goal which is the Local Government Reform, let them be judged by society. If the dilemma is whether it is a temporary closure or a logical discussion after the elections, do not doubt that at least we will favor logic. Moreover, let us not forget that the Local Government Reform is one of the conditions for our country to be able to raise funds from the EU Recovery Fund of 980 million. That is why I believe that even now more mature ones must prevail. thoughts aimed at helping our country to transform and recover.
“We believe that reforms that are accepted by society have more chances of success”, notes Eleni Mavrou
The citizen at the center of politics
“Everyone has been recognizing for years that the local government system in Cyprus can no longer meet the basic needs of the citizens,” said AKEL MP Eleni Mavrou, adding that the issue is not just economic, although it is true that many municipalities and communities thrive. “The main thing is that, while society and needs are changing, the system of local government has remained stagnant. Discussions date. For the last 10 years or so, successive studies have been performed, but without a positive outcome. AKEL has always contributed constructively to this dialogue, having in mind the sustainable and anthropocentric development of the local self-government “, he adds. For us, Ms. Mavrou continues, the most essential element of the reform is the immediate and affordable provision of quality services to all citizens. “This requires a broad redistribution of resources and powers between the central state and local government. We have made a lot of proposals in this direction, many of which have found a place in the proposals that go to the Plenary. It is important, therefore, to find the golden section that will allow on the one hand to strengthen the role of local government in the provision of services and in the development process, without losing – on the other hand – its anthropocentric character. “AKEL and many others also contributed in this direction with a lot of suggestions”, he adds.
How many terms will the elected mayors / mayors of next December have?
The process of reforming local government begins as soon as the relevant bills are passed with the creation of the Joint Councils. But we must keep in mind that this reform is a complex and multifaceted evolutionary process. All its stages are expected to be completed in about 8-9 years, although for the most part it will be implemented in May 2024. In December 2021, when the next local elections are scheduled, local authorities will be elected for a term until May of 2024. Then, simultaneously with the European elections, elections will be held on the basis of the new map of local self-government.
Speech in society
Why as AKEL do you insist on local referendums? Who will say “yes” to merging his village / municipality with a large new entity? And why should local authorities work to abolish themselves?
How many times have we all said that we must bring the citizen back to the center of politics? Well, this is not enough to say, we must also take specific initiatives. AKEL's proposal for referendums is compatible with the anthropocentric character of local government. It is no coincidence that the European Charter of Local Self-Government, ratified by the Republic of Cyprus, guarantees the right of citizens to participate. It even provides for the holding of local referendums. We believe that reforms that are accepted by society are more likely to succeed. And we are not afraid to turn to the citizens. After all, in recent years we have organized or participated in dozens of meetings, meetings, seminars throughout Cyprus to explain the goals of the reform, to hear concerns and provide answers. This must be done before the referendums. A broad dialogue with local communities to understand why a coalition of forces is needed and how it will improve the quality of life of our citizens and the development prospects of our cities. It is helpful that referendums are held in December 2023, so that the Common Affairs Councils can function and the necessary synergies can be achieved. In our proposal we also respond specifically and to the “practical” problems that some invoke. E.g. for what will happen, or rather what they have to lose, those who choose to stay out. Some were “surprised” to hear our proposal for referendums. However, this proposal has been put before everyone and publicly, repeatedly, for the last two years at least. After all, the legislation in force today provides for the use of referendums. Referendums were held in both 1993 and 2011. And in all cases, AKEL supported in the referendums the changes whether they concerned the transformation of a community into a municipality or even mergers of municipalities and communities. Is it possible for some, either because they want to keep their “manor” or to serve other interests, to say no? Yes, it is possible. But our contacts show that they are a small group and I really find it difficult to understand what all this danger we have been hearing for the last few days serves. After all, do we not all appreciate that reform is widely accepted by society? Why then are we afraid to give speech and a role to society?
Control and will
And how will there be effective control in municipalities and communities, when today, when the groups are smaller, we have parties in many cases?
The issue of control and accountability has been very important to us from the beginning. Unfortunately, it is not a few times that, in the local government, we have seen cases of mismanagement and abuse of power. And these phenomena are not limited to the major local authorities. Quite the opposite. As an Internal Affairs Committee, we have worked very closely with both the Audit Office and the Internal Audit Service and have added many safeguards. But the will of those entrusted with control is also necessary.
If Reform is in the public interest, why take decisions locally? Let there be a general referendum on what the whole population wants.
I remind you again that our proposal for referendums has been put before everyone, repeatedly, for at least the last two years. There has never been another proposal that is in line with the philosophy I described to you before, to discuss it. The fact that today we are hearing counter-proposals from the right and the left, seems rather expediency and sloppiness to me. The important thing is that the referendums take into account the peculiarities that exist at the local level and help to embrace the effort of those who will be affected.
And if local referendums end in “no”, will we throw away all the work that will precede it for reunification?
Do we not all appreciate that reform is widely accepted by society? Why then do we prejudge that local referendums will have a negative effect? After all, it is wrong to see the referendums with today's data. That is why there is room for those involved to see what the goals of the reform are and what they have to gain. Today many issues, mainly of economic and organizational nature, remain unanswered and this plays a role in the uncertainty we see in some municipalities and communities. Even if the work and cooperation between the local authorities that will precede, does not result in mergers, it will be the basis on which synergies can be built in another form e.g. clusters of services or joint proposals for development programs, as is sometimes the case today.
Numbers and sustainability
If the Reform is for good, then shouldn't the goal be as few municipalities as possible? Why are we talking today about 20-21 out of 30 municipalities?
Some started with this goal. We have always said that with this approach it is like putting the carriage in front of the horse. The responsibilities of the local authorities and the resources that could be transferred to them had to be discussed first, in order to reach a final number. It is no coincidence that different studies in recent years have resulted in different numbers. Always based on expert studies, the Ministry of Interior submitted a proposal a few years ago for five municipalities across Cyprus, later for 22 municipalities and today for 17 to 18 municipalities. The same expert who worked on the latest study agrees that 1 or 2 more municipalities could be sustainable. The viability of the new schemes is certainly an important issue with the reform – but it is not the only one. After all, geographical and demographic characteristics, in some cases, do not allow the creation of sustainable patterns. We therefore believe that one or two more municipalities will not be a deterrent to the sustainability of the reform.
What changes in relation to school ephorates?
The management of school buildings is the last stage of the reform that will be implemented. According to the bill, in May 2029, all responsibilities of the school boards are transferred to the municipalities. We are not original with this change. This arrangement has been in place for years for communities. In Europe, and beyond, local authorities have the responsibility for the operation of schools. This is because the connection of the school with the community and the local institutions allows the utilization of the schools as an educational infrastructure for the wider local community.
Read the statement of the Auditor General to the Research Committee for Naturalizations
Read the 56 names of the AKEL ballots