Interior Minister Elias Murr has unveiled a new municipalities law that addresses many of the complaints about overly centralized government.
Observers are generally upbeat about the draft, with one going as far as to say that it is a “revolutionary” piece of legislation, though not without a few question marks.
The new, 113-item draft law, distributed by Murr this week, shortens the terms of municipal councils from six to five years, allows for the direct election of mayors and deputy mayors and promises less central government bureaucratic control over municipal decisions.
To remove long-standing complaints about the weakness of the Beirut Municipality, the draft law proposes merging the posts of governor of Beirut and Mount Lebanon into a single office and dropping Beirut’s exceptional status in terms of seeing the council at the mercy of the governor of Beirut.
Currently, the governor of Beirut wields executive authority for the council’s affairs, which critics say emasculates the local council of the country’s most important city.
More complicated, however, are the details of how the administrative oversight items in the draft will be implemented, should it become law. The same applies for the implementation of detailed legislation on how funds collected by the central government will be distributed to municipalities.
Mayors routinely complain that the Finance Ministry, which controls the Independent Municipal Fund and where the money is deposited before disbursement, holds up their funding.
On Thursday, Beirut MP Mohammed Qabbani said that Parliament would devote considerable time to discussing the new legislation in detail and offered two preliminary reactions to the draft.
Qabbani praised both the reduction of bureaucratic supervision over local government decisions and doing away with Beirut’s special status.
“We welcome this positive direction in the draft and we will discuss it carefully and objectively in parliamentary committees,” he said in a statement.
Analysts commented that it was too early to judge the entire draft, but nonetheless identified positive elements, like reducing administrative oversight and stipulating the direct election of mayors and deputy mayors.
Mayors and deputy mayors are elected by the newly elected municipal council members, and few surprises take place when the members of a winning list have agreed among one another as to who will be elected mayor.
Randa Antoun, who teaches public administration at AUB and has co-authored and edited a book on municipalities, said the implications of Murr’s draft could involve a revolution for local government.
“I liked it and consider it a revolutionary law, although I anticipate that MPs will try to make some amendments, especially on the requirement that mayors have university degrees in big cities, and secondary certificates in smaller towns.
“A degree doesn’t necessarily mean experience, based on what I’ve seen of some doctors and lawyers who have become mayors,” she said, pointing out that having a university degree is not a stipulation for members of Parliament.
“Also, there is a requirement for municipalities to have internet and intranet connections, which is good,” she added, citing ongoing work by aid agencies to get computers to dozens of municipalities.
Bureaucratic oversight has been reduced, and every municipality must appoint a financial auditor, both good steps, Antoun said.
She said that the draft was not radically different than one Murr had informally distributed earlier, while positive additions, like requiring internet and e-mail connections, had been made.
“Murr met with university students several months ago and canvassed them about their opinions on the topic.”
But merging the posts of Beirut and Mount Lebanon governors, she predicted, would be controversial, in part because one of the “big six” sectarian communities Maronite, Orthodox, Catholic, Sunni, Shiite and Druze would have to give way.
The six communities now divide the six governors’ posts among them.
Antoun did object to a clause allowing the interior minister to use a share of IMF money to pay part-time municipal workers or employees of the central government who are working on municipality-related business.
She expected that it would reduce the funds available for municipalities, which often complain that securing their allotted funding is a headache due to red tape.
Hassan Krayyem, an AUB professor and the head of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, said that after an initial reading, he found the reduction of the council’s mandate by a year and the direct election of mayors to be signs of a draft designed to help improve local government.
Ziad Baroud, a lawyer and lecturer on administrative organization at St. Joseph’s University, said the draft “looks good,” cautioning that it was too early to pass judgment on all aspects of the legislation.
Baroud emphasized the importance of seeing mayors elected by the people, “because there will be more direct democracy and accountability for a person whom the people have specifically chosen as mayor.
“The mayor is not just the head of a municipal council, but also has executive authority and power independent from that of the council,” he said, outlining the importance of the position.
Baroud pointed out that having directly-elected mayors was also a part of the 1977 law, but was never implemented because of a 1997 amendment, passed a year before local elections finally took place for the first time in several decades. The new law would allow the long-standing stipulation to be finally implemented.
“Also in 1997, when it looked like municipal elections might take place, they accepted candidacies (for elections that were eventually postponed for a year). This was before the amendment, so people submitted candidacies as either mayors or council members.
“The statistics show that out of 2,850 people who wanted to run, 2,350 of them wanted to be mayors,” Baroud said, stressing the importance of the new law’s changes for the position and how important the post was in the eyes of the public.
“There will be a big debate about this law,” he predicted.
Between the interior minister and the country’s mayors are two posts appointed by the central government governor (muhafiz) and qaimaqam whose approval is needed for various municipal council decisions.
The proposed legislation does away with much of this bureaucratic oversight, although the interior minister, and sometimes the finance minister, retain key oversight responsibilities.
The country’s six governors are:
Yacoub Sarraf, Beirut (Orthodox)
Adnan Doumiati, Mount Lebanon (Sunni)
Nassif Qaloush, north Lebanon (Catholic)
Milad Qareh, Bekaa (Maronite)
Faisal Sayegh, south Lebanon (Druze)
Mahmoud Mawla, Nabatieh (Shiite)
The current governor of Beirut, Yacoub Sarraf, was appointed by the government of Salim Hoss. Sarraf is the son of former Akkar MP Riad Sarraf, an ally of Hoss.
The former governor, Nicholas Saba, was charged, incarcerated and then acquitted of misusing his authority in what some say was a trumped-up case involving state-supervised seaside property in Ain al-Mreisseh.
The current governor of Mount Lebanon, Adnan Doumiati, was also appointed by Hoss’ Cabinet. His predecessor, Suheil Yamout, was charged with embezzlement and squandering, also during the Hoss government, and fled to Brazil.