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Monday 20.05.2019 | Name days: Venta, Salvis, Selva

Ventspils opposition: the Constitution stands above municipality’s opinions on city governance

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Baltic news, News from Latvia, BNN.LV, BNN-NEWS.COM, BNN-NEWS.RU«For us to work to our full capacity, we require information and stay in the loop. If the work of the city council was organized during meetings of the city council and committees, we would have this opportunity. But because the work of the city council is put under other institutions – committees, in this case – and we [majority of opposition deputies] are not allowed to participate in those meetings and receive documents, this means our rights as deputies and voters are being limited. This, we believe, is the most important aspect to be breached,» said Ventspils City Council opposition deputy Aivis Landmanis said during a hearing of the Administrative Court in Liepaja in regards to Ventspils City Council’s refusal to adopt proportionality principles in committees and other structures.

According to the explanations provided by co-plaintiffs, Ventspils City Council has a specific system in place that discriminates the opposition and breaches democratic state principles. They explain that there are committees in which it is necessary to ensure equal representation for all deputies, including the opposition, in accordance with the Law on Local Governments. However, only limited-level information is provided to committees. Most of the time projects are developed in committees or work groups whose agenda is kept secret for weeks.

«You can call this parallel structure a committee, work group, sect or elves’ workshop. Names won’t change a thing – there are structures that work in parallel to committees. These structures intentionally do not allow most members of the opposition to participate in their work, which results in refusal to provide information or access to meetings,» BNN was told by minority deputy Aivis Landmanis.

Ventspils City Council’s hired lawyer Ilze Gredzene said in court that anyone is allowed to participate in meetings of the city council’s committees. She said opposition representatives are not prohibited from taking part – they have to make a call or write an e-mail to the head of the committee or its secretary. Opposition deputies, on the other hand, view this as arrogant cynicism, because they’ve spent years trying to participate in work of committees. Repeated request for access and provision of information materials have went unanswered for years. Even in court nothing was provided.

Discussions also addressed the matter if refusal to include members of the opposition in committee meetings is a political decision. If so, then why is this decision signed by the executive director, not the chairman of the city council. And why is the entire administration involved in preparation of this decision.

An unprecedented case – Administrative Court views breach of deputies’ rights

On Thursday, 6 November, Administrative District Court in Liepaja viewed two requests from Ventspils City Council opposition in an open hearing: 1. Cancelling Ventspils City Council’s decision of 29 September 2017 on city council committees and councils, and 2. Ordering Ventspils City Council to include opposition deputies in committees, councils and work groups.

The fact that the court has even agreed to view this plea is only thanks to the ruling of the Supreme Court’s Department for Administrative Cases, which states that any breaches of deputies’ rights are to be viewed by an administrative court. This was the first court hearing in Latvia in which deputies used their newly-provided rights.

The court hearing was attended by opposition deputies Ģirts Valdis Kristovskis, Dace Korna, Aivis Landmanis and Ivars Landmanis. No members of the ruling coalition in Ventspils City Council had graced the court with their presence. Instead the interests of the ruling parties were represented by lawyer Ilze Gredzena and administrative side representative and head of Legal Affairs Committee Ineta Vašuka. As Landmanis said afterward – this situation only serves to outline the differences in the approach between ruling deputies and members of the coalition, considering the interests of the majority deputies are paid for, most likely, by residents of Ventspils, whereas opposition representatives defend interest on their own – both time and cost-wise.

The core of the problem

Both points detailed in the plea mention confidence for the principle of proportionality, which should be part of any good, democratic and open governance practice.

«As deputies, we have been elected with equal rights – just like other deputies. People express their will during elections – some deputies end up in ruling positions, whereas others are left in the opposition. But regardless of that, the rights to participate in the work of the city council and its structures in accordance with the country’s Constitution, good management principles are equal for all deputies,» said opposition deputy Ģirts Valdis Kristovskis.

He says the opposition in Ventspils City Council has experienced the opposite: «We have submitted multiple verbal and written requests to the leadership of Ventspils City Council to explain why some deputies are not allowed to work in the city council’s committees, councils and other structures.»

He continues: «Considering that we got nowhere in the entire explanation process, the Constitutional Court concluded on 29 June that the proportionality principle is binding for committees and commissions.»

Opposition deputy also referenced the ruling of Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court in his plea.

It mentions: «The proportionality principle regulates not only calculation of municipal election results. The municipal council has a duty to comply with proportionality principle to make sure every deputy is able to fully participate in its work. Because the municipal council also works through mediation of committees, the proportionality principle has to be complied with in work performed by committees.»

Application of this principle caused active discussions in court. Lawyer Gredzene said the reference was added only for comparative reasons and does not apply to Latvia’s court. She said that specific formulation did not come from a ruling of the Constitutional Court. Kristovskis, on the other hand, asked the lawyer if she thinks the Constitutional Court added the citation «because of boredom». «Good governance, justice, equality and other applicable principles reinforced by the Constitution stand above any opinions Ventspils City Council may have on how a city should be governed,» said Kristovskis.

In general, opposition deputies point that the dispute does not cover just the breach of deputies’ subjective rights. It is stressed that Ventspils City Council’s work is organized in a way to ensure majority of information is not available to all Ventspils City Council deputies. «Often crucial information is provided shortly before an important meeting, which does not give us much time to prepare. In our written correspondence, which we have provided, you can see that the management of the city council openly states that the requested information is accessible only to exclusive committee members,» Kristovskis told Judge Stella Blūma.

Political or non-political decision – that is the question

The defendant – Ventspils City Council – believes this case should not be viewed in court, because formation of committees is a political matter and «Administrative Court can view administrative cases based on legislative criteria». However, criteria of political decisions are very unclear, and it seems it is only used to describe different types of political plans and manipulation of documents.

City council’s lawyer Gredzena admits that ‘there is not a single regulation in Latvia that clearly defines what a political decision is’. At the same time, she referenced and interpreted conclusions of the Supreme Court that describe how «by mutually separating political decisions administrative acts, it is does not matter if a decision was made in a team or by someone on their own». Additionally, she said «in the case with political decisions, regulations do not state it is necessary explain how decisions are made».

The opposition, meanwhile, stresses that this particular case is not about political decisions made by majority or minority deputies. The fact that one party has a more advantageous position is clear. What is in question is the ability to participate in discussions and development of projects as secured by proportionality, whose importance in city council activities was emphasized by the Constitutional Court on 29 June.

«We do not question the fact that the majority deputies have made decisions in accordance with their political beliefs. The question is what if political beliefs lead to serious legal consequences,» says Kristovskis.

Opposition points towards the indifference with which political and administrative decisions are differentiated. For example, the decision the opposition has appealed and which Gredzena calls political was signed by Ventspils City Council executive director Aldis Ābele. «The Law on Local Governments clearly details the functions performed by the executive director. He is not allowed to participate in political decisions,’ says Landmanis. It is stressed that this decision was not prepared just by the majority politicians, but also other institutions, including Legislation Committee, public representatives and others. ‘This alone demonstrates the preparation of this decision was and administrative process,» says Kristovskis.

Democracy in committees, authority in committees – lazy legislators or preferential interpretation

Considering that the Law on Local Governments does not offer any clear definitions how committees are formed, the principle of proportionality is not applicable to committees, the defendant says. Both Gredzena and Vašuka stress that committees do not make decisions. They said committees only have an advisory function. This was immediately challenged by Dace Korna – a member of the Administrative Committee, Education Committee and Social Affairs Committee – decisions, she said, are made by committees.

Lawyer Gredzena says: «Legislators is either lazy or has intentionally decided to not regulate this sector, leaving this matter in the hands of municipalities».

Kristovskis completely disagrees with this: «I believe it is a completely wrong approach. It is necessary to look at goals and results when forming committees. Committees or work groups, councils or boards are tools of municipalities. The legislator had anticipated the possibility of such institutions. If the legislator had anticipated formation of committees in full accordance with the Constitution with the principle of proportionality in mind, the analogy in regards to other structures becomes clear and applicable».

He adds that the legislator has given rights to the management of municipalities to structure their work mechanism on their own, but this does not mean the legislator has also given them the right to act illegally and «breach good management, rule of law, openness, equality and other democratic principles included in the country’s constitution.»

«Looking from these positions, it all comes to the realization that Ventspils City Council’s administration believes that everything that applied to meetings of the city council is regulated by the Law on Local Governments, everything that applies to formation of committees and proportionality principle is important, whereas all institutions below that are subjected to free interpretation –no rules covered by the Constitution or the definition of proportionality principles detailed in the law. It is permitted to do whatever and arbitrarily limit deputies subjective rights – prohibit them from working in committees, oppose ruling parties’ will, etc.» Kristovskis says.

Call and write – all we can do

«I know what Ventspils City Council will say – committees are open, and everyone can participate. Yes, we can attend meetings, but only when we know when meetings of committees are organized. Unfortunately, Ventspils City Council’s internet portal does not have any information on topics discussed by committees or times when they are organized. We can only look up the names of members of committees,» Kristovskis says.

When asked where and when it is possible to look through plans regarding committees’ meetings and their times, Legal Affairs Committee’s head Vašuka said the following: «Committee meetings approved by the city council are organized by heads of committees and announced by the section that covers recording and organizational details. Materials of meetings are accessible in accordance with specific rules.»

Gredzena said the legislator guarantees rights for participation in meetings of committees. However, deputies have to look up meeting dates on their own. Kristovskis countered this by saying this means he has to call all 26 committees individually. Assuming a normal conversation lasts three to five minutes, the deputy concluded: «This means I have to spend two and a half hours enquiring about each committee’s work schedule».

«Good management principle points towards openness. We are residents’ representatives, we want the right to work actively and efficiently. If the city council puts obstacles in our way and only verbally comply with requirements of the law, it means violation of good management principles,» the deputy concluded.

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