Külli Taro: Who should be allowed to sit on the council?

Külli Taro.
Külli Taro. Source: ERR

The debate over the incompatibility of local government council members' positions was left unfinished during the Riigikogu's spring session. The Supreme Court tasked the parliament with considering once more which people employed by cities and rural municipalities should be allowed to also serve as council members. The decision to be made in the fall will seriously affect upcoming local elections, Külli Taro writes in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

So far, if a rural municipality or city official or contracted employee is elected at local government council elections, they must decide whether to quit their job and join the council or give up their mandate and continue in their position. The Supreme Court decision taking effect would see contracted workers allowed to keep their job while serving on the council, but public servants would still have to give it up.

There is no time to go into the finer nuances of the case. However, problems raised included that the principles and necessity to make a distinction between public servants and contracted workers is not understood. Local governments employ officials and contracted workers who often perform similar tasks.

According to the law, a public servant is someone who exercises public authority, in other words, makes decisions for the local government. They are in charge of offering public services that cannot be delegated to the private sector. For example, the municipality social worker who decides who qualifies for social benefits and services. Or a construction specialist who issues building permits and authorizations for use.

Officials swear allegiance to the constitutional order and are obligated to observe the official's ethics code. While they can belong to political parties, their job requires them to be politically neutral. In order to avoid politicization, officials have greater job security. They are more difficult to fire and their appointment must follow a public competition. While this reduces flexibility in terms of tasks, it protects officials from arbitrary action by employers.

Contracted workers should be used for tasks which support the execution of public authority. Such employees include accountants, handlers, administrative workers, IT specialists but also municipality bus drivers, maintenance workers or cemetery guards. These are jobs regarding which it doesn't really matter whether they are performed in the public or private sector. The task of an IT specialist is to make sure systems work, irrespective of whether they are employed by a city government or a private company.

Hiring a contracted worker to perform the tasks of an official at first glance looks like a beneficial transaction for both the employer and employee. Work conditions can be more flexible, tedious public competitions can be avoided and the employee is easier to get rid of. However, as a society, we should be interested in public authority falling to people who have given an oath of office to signify that they understand the level of responsibility involved and are at the same time protected from political manipulation.

Coming back to the matter put to the Riigikogu, it is clear why officials who must be and appear neutral in their work cannot at the same time represent the coalition or the opposition in the council.

The situation today is that even an accountant or maintenance worker employed directly by the municipality cannot belong to the council. If the municipality procures the service from a private company, however, the people performing the tasks are allowed to serve on the council. Council members can serve as principals, cultural center managers or board members of city companies and foundations. Who poses a bigger conflict of interest risk when serving on the council – a head of a municipality institution seeking a bigger budget and investments or an IT specialist tending the community office's computers?

There are two main ways to avoid corruption. The first is to introduce extensive preventative restrictions and keep out of the council everyone who might develop a conflict of interest. The other is to introduce fewer restrictions but put in place a removal obligation and mandatory public declaration of interests.

The first option would automatically cut a big part of the local community off from democratic governance, while the second means candidates with better access to local government information could have an advantage at elections.

Neither is perfect. But whichever approach we choose, groups of workers in similar situations cannot be treated unfairly. That said, recent rules include considerable logical errors.

Politicians are understandably reluctant to make changes to the electoral system. Because a change of rules could cause a change in the results. Unpredictable changes to established local lines of force are not risked.

The decision that needs to be made this fall will seriously affect local elections in 2021. The question is who will be there for the voter to choose from in the first place, as well as which positions local power games will revolve around.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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