Get serious about city mergers

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Get serious about city mergers

Seongnam and Hanam in Gyeonggi will merge, their respective mayors announced on Wednesday. If the merger succeeds, the resulting entity will be the largest integrated city in Gyeonggi, with a population of 1.1 million.

The discussion on the necessity to change existing administrative districts started quite some time ago. In the 17th National Assembly, the plenary session adopted a draft reform bill - which a special committee for the reform of administrative districts prepared - after going through public hearings and overseas study tours.

At the summit meeting between the ruling and opposition parties last year, officials circulated an agreement that stipulated “bipartisan cooperation for the promotion of swift reform of the current administrative system.” However, negative remarks saying that it is “even more difficult than constitutional reform” circulated behind the scenes continuously. Those who spread the contradictory view of the change in administrative districts were the politicians and public officials who have a direct interest in the reform plan. They are more concerned with their personal interests and the governmental positions they hold now.

There are two ways to promote the reform. One is doing so on a national level by passing the Special Law for the Reform of the Local Administrative System. In the 18th National Assembly, there are five bills that are pending at the plenary session under the same title. But it will not be easy to coordinate the interests of countless interested parties. It is doubtful that the lawmakers have the will and capacity to initiate the reform plan.

The other way to promote the reform is to use a bottom-up method of giving active support to local governments - like Seongnam and Hanam - that promote integration autonomously. It was because of this that President Lee Myung-bak declared in his Liberation Day address that the government will provide “epochal support to local governments that promote mergers on their own initiative.”

At present, the only incentive the central government provides to local autonomous bodies that promote mergers on their own is just 2 billion won ($1.6 million). This is unreasonably small. It is necessary to give literally “epochal” support to local governments that try to maximize the interests of their residents without waiting till lawmakers take action. Then, the deliberation at the assembly will be accelerated. The driving force of the merger should come from the residents of the country, who are the beneficiaries of the move, not the civil servants.

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