Put local autonomy back on track

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Put local autonomy back on track

“You know better, so please stop asking,” former Seoul City Councilman Kwak Jae-woong said when I first called him to talk about corruption in local councils.

Most of their other members refused to talk. After calling more than 20 former and incumbent members, only four would discuss the issue. But later, Kwak said that he had contemplated it and had decided to speak up.

What he disclosed was beyond my expectations. Both the National Assembly members and the local council members represent the citizens, but the two groups have a clear hierarchy. A former Seoul City Council member said that members of the local council have to bow down to those in the National Assembly. Also, when an Assembly member calls, the council members have to abandon their activities and report to them immediately.

The council members had to swallow this insult for clear reasons: they wanted to keep their jobs. And the whistle-blowers risked their political career to publicly discuss the issues.

The problem is that the relationship does not end between National Assembly and local council members. When I covered the story, it was revealed that many council members were involved in local government activities related to the committees they belong to. The items they decide on in local government committees are proposed in the local council, where they vote on bills. As a result, many of them get both legislative and administrative powers, which can lead to corruption.

What can be done to eradicate corruption in local councils? Corruption-related articles often evoke reactions such as “We might as well get rid of local councils.” However, the local legislature checks and censors the administration and policies of local governments. But we cannot trust the ethics and good will of individual council members because of the complicated and systematic chain of corruption.

When asked about solutions, the former and incumbent members said, “When a local Assembly member is involved in corruption, the National Assembly member of the same district should be held accountable. For example, the party could penalize the Assembly member in the next candidate nomination.”

Another said, “The local residents should be more interested in local autonomy. Instead of selecting a candidate based on the party, the voters need to carefully review who can better work for the region and read the campaign material more thoroughly.”

In order for local councils to serve their purpose, members of the local and metropolitan assemblies, as well as National Assembly members and local residents, need to pay more attention.

*The author is a national news reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 15, Page 29

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