The Supreme Court’s constitutional review chamber handed down its decision on Tuesday in the matter of several municipalities contesting the Administrative Reform Act. According to the court, only the cost ceiling for the merger of municipalities is not constitutional.
The 26 municipalities that contested provisions of the Administrative Reform Act argued that several aspects of the law were not constitutional, including the period of time granted for negotiations, the minimum requirement in terms of population size, and the financial incentive by the government to get municipalities to merge voluntarily.
The constitutional review chamber of Estonia’s Supreme Court found that only § 24 section 1 of the Administrative Reform Act was unconstitutional, which stipulates that any municipality to merge with others after the deadline set for voluntary mergers is not entitled to the government incentive, but can only hope for the merger cost to be covered with funding out of the state budget up to the amount of €100,000.
“If the state sets out an obligation, then it has to provide the finances as well,” Chief Justice Priit Pikamäe said on Tuesday explaining the court’s decision. The court also pointed out that changing the administrative division of the country was a matter of the state, which meant that according to the constitution, the state had to cover the cost as well.
Against the complainants’ arguments, the court did not see the measures set out in the act as disproportional, but said that the change of local borders was constitutional, and that the according laws and bylaws had been passed according to proper procedure.
As for the question of the minimum requirement of population size, the court confirmed that the law granted the government the possibility to establish municipalities with a population of fewer than 5,000 people if so needed, and if there were sufficient reasons to do so.
The chamber also found that though the deadlines set out in the act were indeed short, they were not insufficient for municipalities to conduct the necessary proceedings to merge. This, according to the court, also included the fact that Estonia’s next local elections are set for autumn 2017, and that the territorial changes will affect how they are conducted.
The municipalities had the constitutional right to be heard by the government, and to that end could submit their own opinions on the upcoming mergers, the court said.
Talking about the upcoming local elections in more detail, the chamber stated that though there was the possibility that the ongoing changes may adversely affect voters, it was not the legal role of the municipalities to complain about this.
Criticism of the ongoing administrative reform
After the Riigikogu passed the previous government’s Administrative Reform Act, 26 municipalities had approached the Supreme Court with a complaint about the detailed requirements of the law. They argued that the requirements to the new and larger municipalities to be created were out of proportion, that the deadline granted to them before the government would decide on mergers in committee was too short, and that the financial incentive for all those municipalities that merged voluntarily went against the principle of equal treatment.
Concerns relating to Estonia’s ongoing administrative reform include the phenomenon of increased marginalization, with remote villages and towns getting less and less attention. The previous ruling coalitions’ priorities included cost optimization and increasing efficiency, which is why in reforming local public service, their focus was on creating local centers rather than maintaining a more extensive network of schools and authorities’ local offices.
This, as opponents argue, has led to emigration from rural areas, and has left dozens of villages with little to no social and public life. The current Center Party-led government has said it would continue the ongoing reforms, but also pointed out that their impact needed to be dealt with.
Editor: Editor: Dario Cavegn