Plans are underway to bring several structural changes to the local governance system in a bid to create a more “economically viable and productive system”, the Local Government Authority (LGA) has said.
According to LGA member Ahmed Faisal, discussions on proposing changes to the system were prompted by serious concerns raised over the “economic sustainability” of the existing decentralisation model which compromises of total 1091 elected councilors. This includes 17 councilors from the two city councils; 132 councilors from the 15 atoll councils and 942 councilors from 179 island councils.
From the inception of the local governance system, over Rf200 million (US$36 million) has been spent on salaries and office expenses of elected councils, Faisal told Minivan News.
The LGA estimates the total expenditure will amount to almost Rf1 billion (US$64 million) at the end of the three year term. He added, “This is a far too economically costly model for the Maldives” – a key argument raised by then-ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) members in 2010 as they opposed to pass the decentralisation legislation citing it will provoke serious “serious social and economic consequences”.
“Therefore, our priority is to revise the existing local governance system into a more economically viable model by bringing major structural changes,” Faisal explained.
According to Faisal, LGA is working to” identify and incorporate international best practices most suitable to Maldives depending on the geographical uniqueness of Maldives, and create a cost-effective and productive system.”
He emphasised the proposed changes is expected to come into effect with the next council elections scheduled in 2015.
However, he added that the authority is pushing to implement some changes as soon as possible, provided it does not violate the Decentralisation Act and have no effect on the interests of existing councilors.
Appointment of part-time members
Among the key proposed changes include changing all the elected council members – except president and vice president of the councils– to “part-time members with a sitting allowance”. The current layer of government introduced by the elections cost the Maldives over US$12 million a year in salaries and allowances, or US$220,000 per month. The President of every island council receives a salary and allowance of Rf15,000 (US$1160), council members Rf11,000 (US$850). The mayor of Male’ receives Rf45,000 (US$3500).
Should the proposed amendment pass, full-time salaries must be only paid to the President and Vice President – elected through polls – while other elected members will be paid an allowance based on the number of meeting they attend.
“We are proposing this amendment to allow for a more technically sound team in the council. As the post is part-time, people employed in other fields such as doctors, legislators, teachers can participate in the councils.” Faisal observed.
Either the island council president or vice president will represent the constituency in the atoll council and will similarly receive a sitting allowance, he added. Meanwhile, the president and vice president of the atoll council will be elected based on atoll wide poll.
“This model will provide an equal voice to all islands while allowing a sense of ownership of the atoll council, as the elected president and vice president can be made accountable by the constituents. Currently, all members are representatives from the islands and no specific member is personally responsible for the council,” Faisal noted.
No changes will be made to the number of seats in any councils, except for the two city councils: the capital Male’ and Addu City in the south. The LGA suggests the Mayor and Deputy Mayor must be elected, in addition to the members elected from each constituency of the city.
Although the number appointed to city councils would increase, Faisal argued that the costs will decline as the members – except mayor and deputy mayor – will remain as part-time.
“We want the the proposed part-time members to become effective as it will facilitate the council’s work. A lot of decisions are pending due to the absence of members, and other work is hindered due to operational difficulties. But they will be paid full salaries until term is over,” the LGA member noted.
Parliament created Local Government Authority
In a bid to address the current operational difficulties, the LGA has requested parliament form the regulatory body of the councils with five members.
“Right now only two members in the LGA are appointed by the parliament vote while the remaining are representatives from the authorities and councils. However the authority has to do a lot of technical work, so it must compromise of a technical team.”
He also observed that the decentralisation legislation must be amended with a clear mandate on how to remove a member deemed to be unqualified.
“The LGA’s primary responsibility would be to regulate, monitor the councilors and conduct capacity-building initiatives,” he noted.
Increasing Women’s Participation
A great emphasis was put on increasing women’s participation in the local governance process, Faisal noted. “The LGA has however stopped short from proposing to [specifically] allocate seats for women as it may be deemed as marginalising women.”
Meanwhile, he said that the authority will push for women’s participation through the introduction of Women’ Development Committees `(WDCs) as proposed in the legislation. “Women will become more engaged in community development work, empowered and use the platform to kick off their career into local governance, and ultimately run in the elections on an equal footing with men.”
Currently only 57 out of the 1091 councilors are women- a disturbing trend of gender inequality observed from economic, political and public spheres of Maldives.
Flawed from start
The Act was passed in mid-2010 after months of deadlock in parliament. The MDP wanted 200 councillors and seven province councils instead of 21 atoll councils. Husnu Suood, attorney general at the time, warned of the exorbitant cost of paying salaries and allowances for over 1,000 full-time councillors- who were elected as a direct result of the changes proposed to the bill by then opposition.
The bill was eventually passed in a completely partisan vote after MDP MPs walked out in protest.
In line with these concerns, at the time parliament’s Deputy Dpeaker Ahmed Nazim took the example of the number of decentralised administrative posts created through last month’s Local Council Elections as an example of unsustainable spending.
The PA MP claimed that MDP government policies based on building housing or harbours across a wide number of islands was creating further problems for future national cost cutting. As a solution, Nazim claimed that it would be important to consider depopulating and reducing the total number of inhabited islands by offering the population a choice of relocation possibilities.
Meanwhile Chairperson of the MDP at the time, Mariya Ahmed Didi, accused the DRP of ”total disregard to the democratic state we want to develop.”
“We parliamentarians did warn the public that DRP is still a dictatorial group,” she said. “Their behaviour in the Majlis proves the point. We are approaching the deadline in the constitution to have local government in place and to have local elections. I do not think we have time to veto and go through the whole process,” she said.
It would be difficult to ensure development of the atolls with the bill as it was passed, she added.
“I hope people remember that the MDP had nothing to do with the bill when in campaign the DRP starts screaming about the islands not being developed as envisaged by the MDP. The basis of our election promise was that the Maldives would be developed as seven provinces. They have by this bill destroyed the fundamental basis on which those promises were made,” Didi said.