[Outlook]Cutting out council corruptionThe chairman of the Seoul Metropolitan Council, Kim Gui-hwan, was arrested on Sunday. He allegedly offered some 1 million won ($ 1,000) apiece to 30 city council members. If this is confirmed as the truth, those council members who received money will be punished as well.
This is the biggest scandal of its kind in the 18-year history of grassroots democracy in Korea. Other problems in other local councils are also being reported in newspapers these days. When the local government system was introduced, Koreans were accustomed to powerful centralized rule. There was a worry that this type of problem might happen, and now it has finally erupted.
Local council members started to get paid in 2006. To ensure professionalism and stability in their political activities, they are allowed to have one or two aides. The cost of these activities is not small. If a Seoul Metropolitan Council member works 120 days a year, he earns around 600,000 won per day, which is a high wage by any standard. If he works 250 days per year, his daily pay is higher than the president’s.
The most important role of local council members is to keep the administrative body in check by establishing ordinances and evaluating budgets. However, there has been criticism that they aren’t properly playing that role.
The biggest problem is the council members’ qualifications. Most Korean council members lack professional skills and knowledge compared with their counterparts in advanced countries. Many Korean council members are shop owners or builders, so their personal interests are likely entangled with their council job.
Nominations for local council members are usually decided by lawmakers from local constituencies. We should reconsider whether this is the right way to go about things. Those who share the lawmakers, ideas tend to be nominated, and as a result, the interests of the constituencies are not considered and local council members don’t always represent the opinions of local residents. As local council members align their ideas with those of lawmakers, their relations are based on their networks instead of policies. This creates a vicious circle. When political parties excessively interfere with local councils, negative effects are inevitable. Of 106 Seoul Metropolitan Council members, 100 belong to the Grand National Party. The council’s problems seem to have resulted from the fact that most of the members belong to a single party.
This is a chronic, serious problem. The issue is directly related to the question, “Who will bell the cat?” Citizens are uninterested in local council members’ roles or activities. The City of Seoul has to be submissive to council members as they can decide ordinances and budgets.
But if no one keeps council members in check, it is like giving up on democracy.
Grassroots democracy can develop only when an institution of checks and balances is in place.
I put forward three suggestions:
First, there must be an institution that guarantees that residents, local councils, and local governments have balanced power and keep one another in check. Residents must be given the right to dismantle the councils or to fire council members. Local councils must be given the right to hold a vote of no confidence against local government heads. In turn, those heads must also have the right to break up local councils so that the councils and local governments are on guard against each other.
Second, the number of proportional representative council members must be increased. More council members should represent the diverse residents of a certain area. The current 10 percent of local council members who are proportional should be increased to between 20 and 30 percent. Women and people from the labor sector and civic organizations need to become council members so the councils can become more professional and better represent their areas.
Third, wages for local council members must be reduced. Instead of paying local council members a set amount of money, they must only be paid for specific activities, so that the jobs become honorary positions with a minimum amount of wages. It is better to invite professionals in certain areas to apply for a council post than to employ civil servants.
The government must prepare such institutions to keep them in check. Residents also must become interested in local councils. When they are getting paid several million won per month, they get uninterested in their daily tasks or electing local council members.
Residents become interested when corruption and scandals erupt. This is irresponsible of those who elect local council members. The residents who pay for local councils, which handle an enormous amount of taxpayer money, are the most effective means of keeping local councils in check.
*The writer is a professor of public administration at the School of Social Science of Kyung-Hee University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Jong-ho