The government has submitted amendments to the Decentralisation Act to make councillors part-time with the exception of the president and vice president of island, atoll, and city councils.
If the proposed changes are passed into law, councillors other than the president and vice president would not be involved in day-to-day activities after a president and vice president are elected through secret ballot.
While the president and vice president would be paid a monthly salary, other councillors are to be paid an allowance for attending council meetings – a move that would lead to substantial savings from the public sector wage bill.
The responsibilities of other councillors would be to “attend meetings of the council, participate in the council’s decision-making [process], and assist the council in ways determined by the council in achieving its objectives,” read the amendment.
The amendment bill (Dhivehi) was submitted on behalf of the administration of President Abdulla Yameen by outgoing Progressive Party of Maldives MP Abdul Azeez Jamal Abubakur.
The purpose of the bill is to strengthen decentralised administration in line with the unitary nature of the Maldivian state, stated the introduction of the legislation.
In January, the Local Government Authority (LGA) – the institution tasked with monitoring councils and coordinating with the central government – revealed that recommendations had been shared with parliament to make most councillors part-time.
Defence Minister and LGA Chair Colonel (Retired) Mohamed Nazim told the press that the changes would allow professionals to contest the council elections, as their responsibilities would be offering advice and participating in decision-making.
“The president and vice president will operate the council. Instead, now they have to leave their profession – the teacher, headmaster or boat builder has to give up his job,” he explained.
As a consequence, Nazim contended, the councillors’ time was not put to productive use.
“The benefit of [the changes] is that the councillor has to work a very short amount of time and be free to work productively for the island’s development,” he added.
The presidents of island councils currently receive a monthly salary and allowance of MVR15,000 (US$973) while council members receive MVR11,000 (US$713). The mayor of Malé is paid MVR45,000 (US$2,918) a month.
Under article 25 of the Decentralisation Act, a five-member council is elected in islands with a population of less than 3,000, a seven-member council for islands with a population between 3,000 and 10,000, and a nine-member council for islands with a population of more than 10,000.
City councils comprise of “an elected member from every electoral constituency of the city”, and atoll councils comprises of “elected members from the electoral constituencies within the administrative division.”
In December, the World Bank warned in a report that the Maldivian economy was at risk due to excessive government spending.
The current model of more than 1,000 elected councillors approved in 2010 by the then-opposition majority parliament was branded “economic sabotage” by the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) government, which had proposed limiting the number of councillors to “no more than 220.”
The new layer of government introduced with the first local council elections in February 2011 cost the state US$12 million a year with a wage bill of US$220,000 a month.
Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad told parliament’s Budget Review Committee last year that President Yameen favoured revising the local government framework to reduce the number of island and atoll councillors.
In November 2013, the incoming administration proposed merging island and atoll councils, with the latter to be composed of a representative from each island of the atoll.
President’s Office Spokesperson Ibrahim Muaz said at the time that “the president’s thinking is not to cut down on the number of councillors. But to elect councillors based on the population of the islands. This is a move to curb state expenditure.”
However, parliament did not move to amend the Decentralisation Act ahead of the local council elections on January 18, which saw 1,100 councillors elected for a three-year term.
While the proposals were intended to reduce the state’s recurrent expenditure – which accounts for over 70 percent of the budget – Nazim said the LGA does not support changing the council’s term from three to five years.
Contending that the legal responsibility of local councils was implementing the government’s policies, Nazim said voters should have the opportunity to change their elected representatives during an ongoing five-year presidential term.
“Citizens get an opportunity to see what kind of results the council produced and the extent to which they upheld the government’s policies,” he said.