‘War’ erupts over free school meals in Seoul

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‘War’ erupts over free school meals in Seoul

Shortly after the Seoul Metropolitan Council - dominated by opposition Democratic Party members - passed a bill on Wednesday providing free school meals in all Seoul public elementary schools starting next year, the Seoul Metropolitan Government yesterday declared an “all-out war.”

“Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon refused a request by the Seoul Metropolitan Council to appear at the council’s question-and-answer session today in protest over passage of the bill,” Lee Jong-hyun, spokesman for the Seoul Metropolitan Government, said in a press conference yesterday.

“Opposition party councilors are showing recklessness and a violent manner in handling city affairs. They are taking advantage of the power of a majority in the council and they now conclude city affairs in their own interest without seeking dialogue with the other side,” said Lee.

Some 23 Seoul council members from the Grand National Party had occupied the council chairman’s podium since Wednesday morning when they heard DP councilors would vote on the free school lunch bill at 10 a.m.

GNP councilors managed to delay the voting session several times but failed to block Democrats from voting on the bill. Another series of intense scuffles occurred at 8:20 p.m., when GNP councilors were pulled from the podium by staff of the Seoul Metropolitan Council and DP councilors at the request of DP councilor Kim Myeong-su, who heads the council’s steering committee.

At 8:40 p.m., of the 89 council members present at the vote, 71 members approved the bill and 18 abstained. GNP councilors did not take part in the vote in protest.

Kim Yong-seok, a GNP councilor, lashed out at the DP’s “unruly behavior.”

“Councilors from the ruling and opposition parties agreed to hold a Q-and-A session on Dec. 1, and they also agreed to deal with the free school lunch bill either on Dec. 15 or 17,” Kim said. “DP then gave us an ‘abrupt notice’ by text message at 9:04 a.m. on Wednesday that they would put the bill to a vote at 10 a.m.”

Under the bill, Seoul’s public elementary schools will offer free school meals starting next school year, and the city will offer free school meals in middle schools starting in 2012. The bill also requires the Seoul Metropolitan Government to come up with plans for the following year’s school meal program every July.

“The official position of the Seoul Metropolitan Government is that it is firmly against the opposition party councilor’s reckless populism policies,” said Lee, the spokesman. “The Seoul Metropolitan Government can no longer sit idly and watch the Seoul government’s key projects, set out to improve the quality of life of Seoul citizens, being wiped out.”

Heo Kwang-tae, head of the council, yesterday urged the mayor to appear at the council’s question-and-answer session on city affairs.

Heo said that according to a law governing metropolitan governments, when a head of a metropolitan government is requested by its council to appear for a council session, he or she must come to the council to answer councilors’ questions.

“If there are some special reasons he can’t make it, he needs to send a letter notifying he won’t be able to join the council,” Heo said. “Oh notified us he couldn’t come a few minutes before the session. Seoul’s city government and council exist because of Seoul’s 10 million citizens. It was unprofessional behavior that a mayor of Seoul shouldn’t show up for its citizens.”

By Kim Mi-ju [mijukim@joongang.co.kr]
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