Grassroots disappointmentThe time has come for our society to discuss the raison d’etre of our local councils representing districts, counties and small cities, and their cost efficiency. The local assemblies were established to serve as an apparatus for local autonomy with checks and balances on local governments. Therefore, members of councils didn’t receive pay for their work in the early 1990s. But after they gradually started receiving reimbursement for their expenses, they began to receive regular salaries. Members of local councils annually receive as much as 50 million won ($46,510), while their counterparts in metropolitan areas get a maximum of 80 million won as salaries. Yet they have repeatedly triggered public uproars as they raised their own salaries, sometimes even with double-digit increases.
This year is no exception. Each local assembly rushed to raise its members’ salaries - this time by a whopping margin of 10 to 20 percent. After the central government amended the local autonomy law so that local councilmen can raise their salaries only in the year in which local elections are held - and the government also fixed an upper limit of the raises at 20 percent - many local assemblies are endeavoring to raise their members’ salaries to the maximum level.
Local councilmen were originally charged to take care of their own communities while maintaining their own occupations for their livelihoods. In Korea, however, an increasing number of councilors take their public service as their main job, and six out of 10 work as councilmen exclusively. That’s why they want to raise their salaries every year. In Japan, however, local councils only offer payments to their members when their sessions are under way. Our local councils want to pay their members high-level salaries almost on par with those of government employees, regardless of scarce financial resources.
If our local councilmen are doing their fair share, the government has to bear the cost. However, given the chronic malaise seen in their alarmingly low attendance and substandard work - coexisting with an extraordinary sense of privilege - the habitual pay raises must be seriously reconsidered.
Now is the time to re-evaluate not only the efficacy and integrity of our local councils, but also check if the truly disappointing local councils really deserve people’s tax money. If there is an undeniable need for those exclusively devoted to careers as local councilmen, they deserve decent salaries. Otherwise, we must start a serious debate on what to do with our grassroots democracy.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 9, Page 30