An expensive redundancy
Most residents don’t know the names of their council members and the councils fail to do much to help the local residents. The council members fail to represent the people, becoming nothing more than errand boys and campaign workers for National Assembly lawmakers. The 3 million won ($2,780) per month salary that each council member in Seoul earns is a waste of taxpayer money.
District councils, in particular, have no specific administrative tasks of their own, so they have a very weak role in local governance. Because their operations overlap with city councils, it would be better to scrap the district council system and increase the number of members on city councils, so they can properly monitor district office heads.
Provincial governments are different. They oversee large areas with a variety of neighborhoods, from urban settings to farming and fishing villages. But for metropolitan cities, the living conditions are much more similar. There’s no need for district councils because the policies needed to govern a city are practically the same for the whole region. Getting rid of district councils would only increase administrative efficiency. In advanced countries, each level of government has different tasks and responsibilities and are not all identical.
Korea needs to scrap district councils in metropolitan cities while keeping local councils in provinces. In 2010, a special committee on local autonomy reform at the National Assembly, formed by the ruling party and opposition lawmakers, agreed to scrap district councils, but the plan was shelved at the last minute due to strong opposition from some lawmakers. If lawmakers truly want to serve the country and the people, the district council system must be abolished this time.
Many people agree with scrapping the district council system. In a recent survey of 1,068 adults, 54.1 percent said they agreed with abolishing district councils, while 22.5 percent said they disagree. The rest said they don’t have enough information to answer. Those who supported abolishment came from both sides of the political spectrum. According to the poll, 59.6 percent of Saenuri supporters and 50.1 percent of DP supporters approved of abolishing local councils.
Some argue that losing local councils would incapacitate local autonomy, but in fact it would improve it. Instead of having many small, lower-level units, it would be better for the metropolitan city council to absorb their functions and to properly look out for the rights of each locality.
Having many lower-level councils does not guarantee local autonomy. Rather, having stronger voices in city government makes districts stronger. Their rights on finance, appointment and law enforcement should be expanded.
Some argue that abolishing local councils goes against the Constitution’s Clause 1 of Article 118, which requires a local autonomous body to have a legislative council, but that is not true. Clause 2 of Article 117 states that the type of local government should be decided by the relevant laws.
Changing counties and districts in metropolitan cities into administrative units - not local autonomous units - is consistent with the Constitution.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng daily staff.
*The author is a professor of political science at Inha University.
By Kim Yong-ho