Self-government reform is being carried out on the initiative of the Government of Georgia, envisioning a reduction in the number of self-governing cities from 12 to five. As a result of the reform, Gori, Ambrolauri, Mtskheta, Ozurgeti, Telavi, Akhaltsikhe and Zugdidi will have their status of self-governing cities, granted to them in 2014, terminated. Of note is that the reform is being carried out in a very hasty and unprepared manner which has caused multiple violations and transgressions.
The Government of Georgia asserts that the reason behind the changes is to optimise the activities of the municipalities because the 2014 reform failed to ensure an effective functioning of the system. For example, one of the explanatory notes to the legislative changes underlines that the division of the municipalities did not result in their increased income. FactCheck published an article on this issue a few weeks ago and our research demonstrated that the aforementioned argument is not true.
According to the Local Self-Government Code (Article 10), the Government of Georgia has the authority to initiate a merger of municipalities or the establishment of new municipalities. The Government of Georgia’s Commission for Regional Development, which is staffed by representatives of different ministries, is responsible for discussing and carrying out respective procedures to divide or merge municipalities. The Commission is chaired by the Minister of Regional Development and Infrastructure.
When the Government of Georgia is the initiator of merging municipalities, the Commission is obliged to hold consultations with the municipal councils of the municipalities which have been selected for merger and sends them the respective documentation. After receiving the documentation, the respective municipal council discusses the merger proposal and then sends the minutes of its meeting on the issue to the Commission within 20 days. This procedure is considered to be a consultation with the municipal council.
Before making a decision, consultations have to be held with the population of a municipality as well. The discussion of the proposal with the population must be held separately in each municipality because the proposal envisions the elimination of some municipalities and the establishment of new ones. At the same time, the Local Self-Government Code contains the following clause: “In the process of public discussion, public meetings with the populations of respective municipalities should be held.” The aim of this procedure is to ensure that the municipal council, which makes the decision in the interests of the population, is aware of the people’s position in the process of the discussion of the proposal as well as making sure that the council’s decision reflects the interests of citizens who live in the municipality.
The Government of Georgia’s Commission for Regional Development sent proposals for the merger of municipalities to their respective municipal councils on 15 May 2017 (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). The proposals had the minutes of the meetings of the National Association of Local Self-Government attached. The Commission decided that these minutes, which contained information about the possible unification of these particular municipalities, were documents reflecting the process of consultation with the population. As the aforementioned minutes show, these meetings were attended by officials from the municipalities and representatives of the governors’ administrations. However, the National Association of Local Self-Government’s meetings cannot be considered as consultations with the population because the organic law decrees that these meetings must be organised by the government’s commission and not by any other organ. Moreover, the National Association of Local Self-Government is not a legal entity of public law and does not have public legal authority. On the other hand, the Association’s meetings were not held in all of the municipalities scheduled for merger. Therefore, the minutes of these meetings are not in themselves documents to prove the holding of consultations with the population of the concerned municipalities.
Article 12 of the Local Self-Government Code decrees that one of the forms of public discussion is the publication of information about the unification of municipalities through the press which is circulated in the same municipality. The Ministry of Regional Development and Infrastructure published the Government of Georgia’s initiative in regard to the merger of municipalities in the newspaper Sakartvelos Respublika on 19 May whilst the Government of Georgia’s Commission for Regional Development decided to submit a proposal about the unification of the municipalities to the Government of Georgia at a meeting held on 29 May. Even though the Local Self-Government Code envisions a 20-day time frame for persons and legal entities to submit their opinions about the unification to the Commission, it was in fact ten days before the publication and the Commission’s submitting the proposal to the Government of Georgia which is a violation of the law (Point 8, Article 12 of the Local Self-Government Code).
At the same time, as we have already mentioned, the period which the municipalities used to discuss the initiative is also important given that the maximum time for the procedure is 20 days. As shown in the documents, proposals to the municipalities were sent on 15 May 2017. By 22 May, all of the councils of the seven self-governing cities and seven municipalities had discussed and approved the initiatives about the merger of their municipalities at extraordinary sessions. As a result, in spite of the 20 days as envisioned by the law, the initiatives were hastily discussed and approved at extraordinary sessions which took a maximum of seven days for each municipality. This is an indicator of the hurried manner of the entire process.
Of importance is the fact that the Parliament of Georgia missed an important detail whilst making its decision. On 15 June 2017, the Parliament of Georgia adopted Bill N997-II about the Establishment of the Gori, Ambrolauri, Mtskheta, Ozurgeti, Telavi, Akhaltsikhe and Zugdidi Municipalities which unified these self-governing cities and their municipalities with each other. These seven cities are the self-governing entities which were selected to have their self-governing city status removed, thereby reducing the number of self-governing cities from 12 to five. The bill was supposed to enter into force on the same date as the announcement of the 2017 local elections. On the other hand, when the Parliament of Georgia adopted this bill, Point 1 of Article 151 of the Organic Law of Georgia on the Local Self-Government Code still contained the following clause: “According to the Law of Georgia on Local Self-Government, the status of a self-governing city is granted to Tbilisi, Rustavi, Kutaisi, Poti, Batumi, Telavi, Ozurgeti, Zugdidi, Gori, Ambrolauri, Mtskheta and Akhaltsikhe.”
According to the Law on Normative Acts, an organic law is hierarchically higher than the bill of the Parliament of Georgia. This means that the organic law is of superior authority and in the case of a contradiction, the subordinate act is not used. In our case, whilst the bill was being adopted and the date of its entering into force was being determined, the list of the self-governing cities given in the organic law was still unaltered. In spite of giving the specific date, the Parliament of Georgia’s bill could not enter into force before a reformulation of Point 1 of Article 151 of the Local Self-Government Code in which the aforementioned seven self-governing cities were supposed to lose their status and be established as municipalities. The Parliament of Georgia realised this problem only at the third hearing for the amendments to the Local Self-Government Code and rectified the final version. Therefore, the Parliament of Georgia finally managed to determine the list of self-governing cities and reduce them from 12 to five by deciding to have one and the same date for the entering into force of both the bill and the changes to the organic law.
On 20 July 2017, the President of Georgia vetoed the amendments adopted by the Parliament of Georgia. Giorgi Margvelashvili criticised the adoption of the changes being made in such a hasty manner, just three months before the elections, because he believes that this weakens the democratic process, pluralism and the citizens’ involvement in the functioning of the state.
In the end, it is obvious that the desire to enact the changes in such a short period of time and implementing the full reform before the local elections have caused multiple violations. A portion of these violations have been rectified whilst another part has remained intact. Therefore, the decision of the President of Georgia not to sign the draft law is important. However, it is likely that the President’s veto will swiftly be overridden and the Parliament of Georgia will not take the President’s motivated remarks into account. This is assumed on the ground that our international partners, as well as the opposition and the NGO sector, have been asking the Parliament of Georgia to refrain from implementing this reform in such a short period of time although the Parliament continued the process and adopted the law at three parliamentary hearings. At the same time, the date for announcing election day is approaching and if the Parliament of Georgia does not override the President’s veto soon, it will be impossible to enact these changes for these elections given that the organic law has to be amended before the election date is announced.