Sunday, June 09, 2013

Small Town Mayor

Has the Spanish Government missed a trick? Economic crisis, we thought, was going to provide the impetus for reforming the bloated state of public administration and local government. Madrid had suggested that it would but it has now performed a volte-face in respect of certain aspects of local government reform.

It is unfair to expect someone to take on the onerous task of being a town's mayor without him or her receiving some remuneration. Even in very small towns, those with fewer than 1,000 inhabitants, there is administration to oversee and there are decisions to be made and meetings to be attended. Madrid had been proposing that mayors of such small towns would no longer be paid. It has backtracked, and so towns like Deià and Fornalutx will still compensate the lucky future winners of the mayoral selection process.

It would have been unfair for mayors to have to do their jobs for nothing and it would also have been a risk, if only a potential risk of harmful perception. Mayors, even paid mayors, have been known to take the shilling that they shouldn't. If a mayor is not paid, fertile would be the terrain of dark rumours regarding permissions for this or that. Mayors must be getting something for their trouble would be the perception and the potential accusation, even when there is not the slightest shred of evidence.

It was a bad move on behalf of the government to have even proposed not paying some mayors. But it was a bad move that missed the point and so therefore missed the trick, and this is emphasised by a further U-turn by the government. For towns with fewer than 5,000 inhabitants - and towns of this size almost form a majority in Mallorca - the government was planning on intervening where municipalities were not functioning in a financially efficient manner. By intervention, it meant that it would have scrapped the offending town halls. Now, all it is saying is that town halls can merge their operations if they wish to, which probably means that none will; a mayor of an underperforming town will not come over all turkey-like and vote for his or her job to be done away with and handed to the mayor in the neighbouring village.

I have no desire to see small towns lose their ability to govern themselves, and this is because I favour localism, regardless of the population size of a particular municipality. But this, and I'll admit it, is an idealistic preference. There is a world of difference between local democracy idealism and local democracy pragmatism, and it is primarily one to do with cost; localism reduced to the very local is that much more expensive to operate. 

The government doesn't appear to be backtracking over other elements of its reform, namely the reduction in the number of paid councillors and limits placed on councillor/mayoral remuneration as well as the shifting of responsibilities from towns with fewer than 20,000 inhabitants to provincial authorities (which, in the case of the Balearics, mean the islands' councils). Significant savings will be derived from these measures.

However, vastly more significant savings would be made were the government to be truly bold and undertake a drastic reform of local government. The UPyD party placed an enormous figure on what would be saved were towns in Mallorca with fewer than 20,000 inhabitants to be merged. 18,000 million euros. I have no idea how the party arrives at such a sum, but if it is to believed, it is a figure which, at a stroke, would resolve problems with Mallorcan public finances.

And if it is to believed, then why doesn't the government do it? Perhaps it is more idealistic than it is normally given credit for; it isn't the centralising monster that it has been made out to be. Or perhaps there are other reasons, and the UPyD might well be one of them.

The Partido Popular (and PSOE) both face an enormous crisis of public confidence. While I have doubted the ability of the UPyD and other smaller parties to genuinely challenge Spain's two-party system, there are commentators who now believe that it could happen and that the challenges would come from the centrist UPyD and the leftist IU. The UPyD is populated by an eminently sensible bunch of people, driven by practicalities rather than dogma. It might not do itself many favours by going around suggesting that it would merge most town halls in Mallorca, but it, unlike the PP, wouldn't have a lot to lose by doing so. The PP, on the other hand, would, and especially because it would face mutiny from all those towns that it runs.

All talk of truly drastic local government reform is foundering on the rocks of the "realpolitik" of local government, namely the PP's strength at town hall level. This strength, though, is its weakness. Local government reform requires boldness. And bold is something that the government isn't.

Any comments to please.

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