Representing local governments, barrister Paul Varul noted at Tuesday's session of the Constitutional Review Chamber noted that the 5,000-resident requirement set out in the Administrative Reform Act is not justified in any way. The Supreme Court of Estonia heard all parties' views on the law and while a decision has not yet been reached, they will announce the time of judgment as soon as possible.
"The Administrative Reform Act certainly has good intentions to increase the capacity of local governments, but to do so based only on a number isn't justified by anything," said Varul. According to him, the law provides for exceptions involving a minimum population being listed as 3,500 residents as well as a minimum territorial size, however these exceptions are too narrow.
Varul, who pointed out that the 5,000-resident minimum prescribed by the law was not justified by a single survey or scientific justification, found that the provision calling for the forced mergers of local governments with populations falling below the 5,000-resident minimum should be annulled, noting that such forced mergers were not appropriate, necessary or reasonable for achieving the administrative reform's goals and would violate the Constitution besides.
The Association of Municipalities of Estonia (EML) and the Association of Estonian Cities (ELL) are of the opinion that the Administrative Reform Act is unconstitutional as pertaining to forced mergers and local government minimum population sizes set forth in the law. The two associations also find that the deadlines for voluntary and forced mergers are not adequate enough in length.
Kõpu Municipality: Voluntary merger still actually forced
Kõpu Municipality Mayor Siim Avi noted that the Administrative Reform Act is contrary to the principle of proportionality and that changing administrative-territorial organization of the country's cities and municipalities on the government's initiative is unreasonable.
According to Avi, the administrative reform law is combined with what has already been laid down in legislation, but in this case a reasonable deadline has not been given for merging and that what is being referred to as voluntary merging is in fact still forced, as it has been specified with a deadline by law, and one which is shorter than previously defined.
Constitutional Committee finds law constitutional
According to Chairman of the Constitutional Committee of the Riigikogu Kalle Laanet, the goal of the administrative reform is to change the administrative-territorial organization in such a way that small municipalities and cities would be replaced by local governments capable of self-management from their own resources, more integral local development planning, offering better-quality public services and putting the brakes on the marginalization of rural areas.
"Estonia is a country with a declining population and where there are big enough regional differences," said Laanet. He cited that due to migration as well as the aging of the population, many local governments' investment capabilities and thus substantive financila independence were decreasing. "There are currently 213 local government units in Estonia right now and over half of them have a population of fewer than 1,800," he pointed out.
According to the committee chairman, a population decline of up to 38 percent by the year 2030 has been predicted in Estonia's more peripheral local governments, which would also increase the elderly makeup of these local governments' populations from 22 to 30 percent, or nearly one-third.
Laane also pointed out that the country's organization of local governments must be in compliance with the principle derived from the European Charter of Local Self-Government that local governments must be capable of fulfilling its tasks, and that while it is difficult first and foremost in smaller municipalities to hire enough competent staff and guarantee sufficient access to public services, larger local governments with larger revenue basis have better opportunities to do so.
Government likewise confident law is constitutional
Representing the Estonian government, barrister Jüri Raidla confirmed that the government is convinced of the reform's purposefulness and constitutionality.
"The government's initiated change to the administrative-territorial organization within a concrete and clear timeframe and with its minimum size, which will guarantee individuals' fundamental rights and local governments' ability to cope, is appropriate, necessary and reasonable and, consequently, a constitutional measure," said Raidla.
He noted that the National Audit Office, which surely could not be accused of its preferential treatment of the government, had also issued its own recommendations, and that other countries' experience had also confirmed that larger local governments had larger revenue bases, networks of services and greater competence, which meant in turn that they were better able to remain self-sufficient and ensure residents' basic rights.
Minister of Public Administration Arto Aas confirmed that the the reason why the ceiling for the reimbursement of forced merger-related costs has been set at 100,000 euros is because merger costs thus far have proven to remain within the range of 60,000-70,000 euros, although the government is ready to reimburse further costs if necessary.
Minister of Justice Urmas Reinsalu found that considering the complexity of making changes to administrative-territorial organization as well as taking into account the analyses of various institutions, the measures provided for in the Administrative Reform Act are proportional, appropriate, necessary and reasonable as well as in line with Estonia's Constitution.
Chancellor of Justice: Forced merger timeline problematic ahead of local elections
Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise is of the opinion that the Administrative Reform Act falls largely within the limits of the powers granted to the Riigikogu by the Constitution, however the timeline set forth in the legislation does not allow for the forced merging of municipalities in a manner consistent with the Constitution.
She found that the timeline for forced mergers as laid out in the reform law has been planned too close in time to Estonia's next local elections and contesting a forced merger could lead to a situation where prior to elections it remains unclear to council candidates and voters alike which local government elections are being held for.
"The most serious problem is related to the elections, however this does not affect voluntary mergees, who are in the majority," noted Madise. She added, however, that a situation in which local elections are approached without a clear understanding of whom a community is comprised and there is confusion regarding election districts is against the principles of democracy, and noted that there must be time to form new election coalitions as well.
Nonetheless, Madise found that there was no reason to consider arbitrary or irrelevant the model chosen by legislators for the creation of the opportunity to force local government mergers.
26 local governments unhappy with Administrative Reform Act
A total of 26 local governments have turned to the Supreme Court of Estonia requesting a declaration of the invalidity of specific provisions of Administrative Reform Act in a Constitutional review proceeding: Kõpu, Juuru, Tõstamaa, Abja, Emmaste, Illuka, Järvakandi, Kambja, Kullamaa, Kõo, Käina, Leisi, Luunja, Lüganuse, Mäetaguse, Nõo, Pala, Pöide, Pühalepa, Rakke, Tudulinna, Vaivara, Ülenurme, Haaslava and Karksi Municipal Councils as well as Loksa City Council.
The local governments are challenging the compliance of the provisions of the Administrative Reform Act related to forced mergers with local governments' right to self management, the guarantee of individual legal personality, the requirement of a hearing, financial guarantee and the requirement of units' equal treatment as well as the principles of democracy and legal clarity.
All parties related to the proceeding will be heard by the Supreme Court at the hearing: local government representatives, the chairman of the Constitutional Committee of the Riigikogu, the ministers of justice and public administration as representing the government, the chancellor of justice and one representative each of the EML and ELL.
The local governments' review proceeding will be discussed by a five-member panel of the Constitutional Review Chamber of the Supreme Court including Supreme Court Justices Priit Pikamäe, Jüri Põld, Jaak Luik, Eerik Kergandberg and Indrek Koolmeister.
The Constitutional Review Chamber of the Supreme Court will announce the time and date of the judgment in the case at a later time.
Editor: Editor: Aili Vahtla