The Interior Ministry has not been noted for generating good news in the last decade, but a new draft law for the country’s 700-plus municipalities might change that.
Ziad Baroud believes the ministry’s latest accomplishment, recently endorsed by Cabinet and now heading to Parliament for approval, contains the seeds of radical improvement in the functioning of local government, which has traditionally been hamstrung by Lebanon’s emphasis on central government powers.
Baroud, a lawyer and lecturer on administrative organization at Saint Joseph University, was a strong advocate of holding post-war municipal elections in the first place, and has been active in alerting the public and local government officials to the ins and outs of the law.
He said the new draft contained a number of encouraging points, disappointing holdovers from previous legislation, and features that could be amended in Parliament, whether for better or worse.
“Most reactions to the new law have been positive, but more explanation is needed,” he said. “People have heard about it and recognize that there is a new law under discussion, but they need to get more involved in the debate.”
It is no secret that local government in Lebanon has had a difficult time getting off the ground in the last four decades. Municipal governments that were elected to four-year terms in 1963 sputtered when their mandates began to receive annual one-year extensions in 1967, ostensibly because domestic tension prevented the holding of polls. Another election round never took place before the civil war broke out.
A 1977 law on municipalities aimed to improve the situation, but was never implemented because of the war. Pressure for holding local polls mounted during the post-Taif era, but a plan to hold them in 1997 was shelved, until the Constitutional Council struck down an extension of municipal council mandates, forcing the holding of elections the following year.
After the 1998 elections, newly-elected municipal officials came to office amid a general lack of knowledge and experience, or “culture of municipal government,” as Baroud noted. “When mayors took office, they depended to a large extent on employees at their municipalities to guide them, since these people knew the ropes. Now, these officials have begun to learn what local government is all about.”
Baroud said one of the main concerns of mayors is to be able to free themselves from red tape and get access to money, or what he termed the “oxygen” of municipal government. Although the new legislation is a step in the right direction, he said it should have been accompanied by a new law on decentralization, “to implement the Taif Accord and update the current law on the books, which dates back to 1959.”
“But such a law would be very ‘politicized,’ meaning that it would involve the possibility of real reform.”
Interior Minister Elias Murr’s new municipalities law addresses the money issue and makes other key changes. It stipulates the direct election of mayors and vice-mayors, which Baroud called “a good point in the 1977 law, but one that was never implemented.”
But Baroud fears that this could be overturned in Parliament, because MPs might see elected mayors, particularly in big cities, as potential rivals in parliamentary polls.
The also law shortens the six-year mandates of local councils by one year and aims to help mayors launch projects by reducing the level of red tape. “But some mayors are still uncomfortable with officials appointed by the central government having control over the actions of elected officials,” Baroud said.
Rather than giving the Central Inspection Department oversight powers, he suggested a separate council or the judiciary being given responsibility for the matter.
Baroud also praised the draft’s shortening the deadlines for central government officials to approve municipal decisions. If they do not act, the decision becomes valid.
While the legislation regulates the Independent Municipal Fund’s distribution of money to local councils, Baroud recommended further change. The taxes and fees collected by the central government and allocated to municipalities is placed in the fund, and then disbursed by the ministry.
“The law stipulates that the salaries of non-permanent employees hired by the Interior Ministry for work on local government be paid from IMF funds,” Baroud pointed out. “While the studies and other things that these people produce might help municipalities, why shouldn’t they be paid by the central government and not the IMF?”
The law says the fund should take 30 percent of the money destined for municipalities and routes it to development projects, to benefit poorer areas. The remaining 70 percent will go directly to municipalities, but according to a weighted formula: 60 percent is based on registered population and 40 percent on the amount of fees collected by a municipality.
Since people are registered in their village or town or origin and not where they reside, the fees collected by municipalities are used to compensate areas whose populations are larger than the official numbers. But Baroud argued that more weight should be given to the real population figures. “It’s a smart move to define these ratios, but maybe 60 percent should go for (actual population).”
The new law also addresses the long-standing problem in the capital, where the governor of Beirut, and not the Beirut Municipal Council, wields executive authority for local government decisions. Baroud said the solution, namely giving these powers to the Beirut Municipal Council and having only one governor for Beirut and Mount Lebanon, was not ideal.
“I think the whole issue of the representation of Beirut must be re-thought,” he said. “During the 1998 elections, Prime Minister Rafik Hariri indicated that the (24-member) council should have 12 Muslims and 12 Christians. But what if someone else was in power and didn’t feel this way?”
Baroud disapproves of inserting sectarian ratios into law at the municipal level, and suggested dividing the capital into smaller municipalities, based on “historical neighborhoods” like Ain al-Mreisseh or Bashoura, while having all represented in a separate council for the capital.
“But I don’t think the solution is merging Beirut and Mount Lebanon; the governorate of Mount Lebanon already covers a huge area,” he said.
Other points in the legislation will probably see changes and spark discussion in Parliament, particularly since MPs will be asked to pass a law that requires university degrees for mayors of major towns (the center of each governorate) and lower degrees for the rest.
“I don’t think MPs will require elected officials to have something that they’re not required to have by law themselves,” he predicted.
Baroud also dismissed any skepticism about the quality of municipal government officials, namely that giving mayors power such as better access to funds and political authority could prove disastrous.
“If that’s the case, then we should do away with Parliament as well, and just appoint our 128 MPs,” he said.
All told, the new law comes at the right time, promising solutions to the many complaints since 1998’s elections.
“In general, I am optimistic about the course of local government,” he said. “In the last three years, we’ve certainly seen as much progress on building a ‘culture of municipal government’ than we did in the last 30 years.”