I have noted an interesting aspect of the controversy about whether local council elections should be postponed or not: the substantial amount of comments by the public demonstrating such an utterly negative perception of local councils.
To be honest, as a local councillor, I am rather surprised that many people seem to regard local councils as an absolute waste of time and public funds.
Indeed, I ask myself how is it possible that we have come to this point where a substantial number of people seem to have totally lost trust in local councils.
However, when I think about it, I conclude that, perhaps, such people are justified.
When local councils were introduced in Malta in 1993, the idea was a good one. The concept of devolution of power from the central administration to a new form of local government was welcome.
Then, unfortunately, crucial mistakes started being committed. The biggest one was to bring politics into the equation. After a while, political squabbles at a national level were supplemented by others at a local level.
Perceptive observers question the viability of local government in such a small country
Being elected on the ticket of a political party meant that many local councillors now had to start considering the political interests of the particular political party they represented and not just the interests of the residents of their locality.
This led to finding themselves in anomalous situations and caused unnecessary tension and friction with councillors coming from other political parties and, sometimes, even those of their own party.
As the years progressed, local councils took a nosedive in terms of public credibility as they were rocked by a number of scandals.
Irregularities in the functioning of several local councils were exposed. A number of mayors and other councillors were forced to resign because their position had become untenable.
Questions were asked about whether the political parties were being rigorous enough in their vetting of potential candidates to contest local council elections. Public confidence in local councils started being eroded.
Some more perceptive observers later began questioning the viability of local government in such a small country as Malta.
Does Malta need 68 local councils? Are administrative committees really necessary? Are local councils ineffective, given that, due to limited public funds, they cannot be given the necessary executive power to ensure enforcement of their authority in their respective localities?
Is there duplication of work in relation to the central government which, in turn, means public funds are being wasted?
Let us be honest with ourselves and admit that these questions make sense.
We have local councils catering for localities with fewer than 1,000 residents.
The introduction of administrative committees has further complicated this problem. Some are asking whether, being a small country, we can afford spending such public funds.
Many have suggested the scrapping of the whole system of local government. Some are of the opinion that administrative committees should be abolished and local councils and their part-time councillors replaced by a very limited number of regional committees with full-time administrators.
One of the strongest arguments against the whole system of local government is the one that, since local councils still depend on help from the central administration for local enforcement and for the day-to-day running of the locality, their very existence does not make sense in a country that is so limited in public funds.
Let me give an example. A resident makes a request to the local council. In many cases, the local council has to refer the request to a government department or some other public entity, which then has to deal with the request and communicate to the local council its decision on the issue in question.
The local council, in turn, informs the resident of the outcome and acts on the decision taken.
The resident may then make further representations, which are, once again, referred to the central government and the lengthy bureaucratic process goes on, costing a certain amount of money and taking quite some time.
Is this practical within the Maltese context? Is this not duplication of work, which is completely unnecessary? These are the pertinent questions being asked by many citizens.
The crux of the matter is that since local councils are not autonomous entities, being reliant on central government for several things, many are suggesting the scrapping of local government and using the money to make the central administration more efficient instead.
While it is true that a lot of good work has been carried out by several councils in their localities, many people stress the fact that central government can be effective enough to eliminate the need for the existence of local councils.
Defenders of local councils will bring up the issue of democracy. Local government means an extension of democracy, they will stress, a devolution of power.
It means not having all power focused in one central point. Furthermore, the whole issue cannot be crudely reduced to a question of money, they will argue.
These are valid arguments but are they practical ones given the Maltese context and its inherent constraints?
To conclude, we have to answer three crucial questions.
Should we aim for a very efficient central government without any local or regional government system?
Should we go for an efficient central government aided only by a handful of regional committees with full-time administrators and without local councils?
Should the present set-up remain in existence with local councils also being given more powers and more funds to make them more effective?
The debate goes on.
Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.Support Us