A plan to shut down district councils of metropolitan cities including Seoul and Incheon, and revise the direct election system for the districts, is being pushed forward. Furthermore, a plan to integrate the educational administrative autonomy of cities is being discussed. The Presidential Committee on Local Autonomy Development said recently that such plans were approved at a cabinet meeting. The plans are aimed at increasing the efficiency of regional administrations and minimize political influence. Local governments demand the plans be withdrawn, calling them an excuse to concentrate power at the central government and against the democratic currents of our time.
Metropolitan cities have various systems. A metropolitan city can delegate authority to its autonomous districts. In another system, a metropolitan city can recognize partial autonomy of its districts. There are also metropolitan cities that do not give districts autonomy.
In the former system, we see decentralization. In the later, we see centralized authority and power.
Korea has adopted a centralized metropolitan city model, mostly allocating authority and budgets to metropolitan cities, while autonomous districts were only given administrative autonomy. Although the system is focused more on metropolitan cities, it still recognizes the variety and heterogeneous nature of a city’s sections.
Over the past two decades, autonomous districts tried to provide tailor-made services to their residents. The districts are competitively providing such services and have tried to improve the effectiveness of administration through reform. Gangnam District of Seoul’s project to refurbish urban streams has spread nationwide and eventually led to the restoration of the Cheonggye Stream by the Seoul Metropolitan Government. The installation of CCTVs to prevent crimes also started from one district.
Expansion of electronic governments is also an example. Districts are creative spaces that manage to build a distinctive city by overcoming the bureaucracy while respecting the integrity of a metropolitan city.
The latest reform plans by the government are intended to transform the districts organizations that operate under the city government. The reforms are needed, supporters say, because it is impractical for residents to have different administrative services competing in the same city. That reasoning is hard to accept. Even without the change, the city government, which has authority and money, can always bridge the gaps between districts.
Scrapping district autonomy will cause the developmental hubs in a metropolitan city to disappear. All demands will be directed at the city government level and uniform decisions will be made. It will be hard to take into account special situations that exist in each district.
Jeju Province introduced the special autonomous provincial system and took away autonomy from cities and counties. The provincial government is now suffering from administrative burdens. Residents are having a hard time resolving problems. Cities without autonomy cannot become a center point for regional development. They are nothing more than low-level institutions that simply implement orders from a provincial government. In Jeju, the system is generally considered a failure. The provincial government is mulling a plan to revive the local autonomy.
Scrapping district autonomy will repeat the same failure. Decisions by district heads who do not have autonomous power will have to go through the chain of command at the city from the lowest level of public servants.
If district autonomy is scrapped, the gap among districts in metropolitan cities will widen. Resources will be concentrated on the areas with larger populations and powerful residents.
Small districts will have a tougher time getting resources. Scrapping the system will remove a focal point to developing underdeveloped districts. Competition among districts will end. Cities will lose some original facets of their identities while diversity and creativity will be lost.
Metropolitan city governments will also suffer administrative overload. This is why decentralizing a city is important. The current system must be maintained. Problems with the current system should be resolved through other means such as ending party nominations for local elections, improving residents’ oversight and expanding cooperation among districts.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is professor of Inha University’s Graduate School of Law.
By Lee Ki-wu