[VIEWPOINT]The move to “special city” statusRecently, six big cities, including Gyeonggi province’s capital Suwon, Seongnam, Goyang and Bucheon, declared that they want to be designated as “special cities.” The proposal has become a controversial subject among residents as well as local governments.
Taking as their model Japan’s ordinance-designated cities, the six cities wish to be upgraded to a level between a regular municipality and a metropolitan government.
The cities would remain under the administrative control of a larger region, but they would be granted organizational and financial independence. Mayors of these large cities met at the end of August and agreed to push for a revision of the local government law.
The champions of the “special city” proposal insist that the population of some cities in the capital region has exploded, and it would be necessary to designate those cities with over a half-million residents as special cities to improve the quality of administrative services. Suwon currently has 1 million residents, only 40,000 shy of Ulsan, a metropolitan city.
Ulsan’s autonomous government has nine departments and 35 divisions, while the city office of Suwon has five departments and 22 divisions.
Ulsan has 4,487 civil servants while only 2,181 work for Suwon. The number of civil servants per resident in Ulsan is 237, while each civil servant in Suwon serves 496 residents. A drop in service quality is inevitable under the current structure.
Opponents and skeptics say that the new administrative system would hinder the stability of local governments, citing the example of North Gyeongsang province, where two cities, Daegu and Ulsan, have split away and become metropolitan cities. They say the government needs to revamp the existing system and accommodate the needs of the big cities. In particular, Gyeonggi province might become hollow if large cities in the capital region are designated “special cities.”
At the same time, the consequent financial imbalance among local governments would ultimately impede overall regional development. Separating big cities from the province would damage the regional identity and legacy of Gyeonggi province’s rich, 10-century-old history.
In 1956, Japan revised its local government law and designated 13 large cities with over 500,000 residents, including Osaka, as ordinance-designated cities. Since the cities became independent from the nation-province-prefecture-county hierarchy, they have been effectively dealing with social welfare, public health and urban planning issues with an approach that prioritizes their residents.
Saitama, which became an ordinance-designated city in April, is considered a notably successful case with improved social welfare and increased tax revenue.
A large population does not guarantee designation as an ordinance-designated city in Japan. While the local government law requires a population of 500,000, cities with over a million residents and a population density of 2,000 per square kilometer, an urban system and administrative management capability can become candidates.
A city, with the consent of its umbrella local government, can apply for the designation to the central government. Residents’ opinions are included in the process through the local council.
In Korea, it has become a convention that cities with a population of over 1 million are elevated to the status of metropolitan cities. But the designation has often led to unwanted side effects. Some cities were given metropolitan status with more political than practical intent, causing ineffective administration.
It would be better for Suwon and other cities to remain within the framework of the existing system and seek improvement than to be named metropolitan cities without proper preparation.
The local government law acknowledges cities with a population over 500,000 as big cities, but the administrative system for the big cities needs to be reformed to accommodate the changed environment.
The reform in the administrative system should prioritize an improvement in service quality through effective management. Political intent should not taint the purpose of the reform, and merely increasing the number of civil servants will not do the job.
Local governments and municipalities need to discuss the “special city” system further to find a new administrative system that better accommodates the spirit of localization and decentralization.
* The writer is a professor of political science at Ajou University and head of the Korean Association of Nongovernmental Organization Research. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Young-rae