San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Should Mayors Have More Power?

Who will win the municipal elections Dec. 3? Does anyone care?

What reforms are needed to give mayors the tools they now lack to make a difference in their communities?

These and other questions brought analysts and politicians to the table at the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) in San José this week to discuss what one called the “permanent crisis” local governments here face.

Costa Rica is the most centralized nation in Latin America, but has booming investment, population growth and a flourishing tourism industry outside the Central Valley.

Because of this, the country desperately needs to give municipalities more funding and more responsibility, as well as funds for political parties for municipal campaigns, participants said – though support and training for municipal leaders are also essential.

“Costa Rica has been centralized since Braulio Carrillo,” said panelist Fabio Molina, president of the Institute for Municipal Development (IFAM), referring to the man who served as head of state from 1835-1842.

“Everything was concentrated in San José… that model worked until 20 years ago.”

Leaders from around Central America who gathered at another recent conference on decentralization, this one at the Hotel Ramada Herradura Oct. 5, said decentralization should be a regional goal. According to Rokael Cardona, executive director of the Guatemala-based Central American Institute for Local Development (IDELCA), a highly centralized state is a threat to the democracy, perpetuating inequalities and reducing faith in the political system at the local level – which is “the closest authority to the citizenry.”

“The 40 million Central Americans are demanding a new type of statehood,” Cardona said.

Stuck in the Middle

In their presentations Wednesday, Molina, TSE magistrate Eugenia Zamora and State of the Nation analyst Ronald Alfaro made it clear that improving and strengthening local governments would be no easy task.

Both portrayed Costa Rica’s 81 municipalities as plagued by a host of problems, from lack of funds to mayors’ inability to form consensus on their municipal councils.

The absence of a reliable cadastre, or property mapping system, makes it very difficult for municipalities to collect municipal taxes in an effective manner; the resulting high rates of evasion mean authorities don’t have the funds to executive their other responsibilities, Zamora said.

Molina, a former mayor of Alajuela who spent part of his speech defending municipal leaders, said that while the press reports that mayors don’t spend all the funds they’re given, this is often because their hands are tied by regulations. For example, municipalities are supposed to have their budgets completed by September, the end of the fiscal year, but sometimes they don’t receive the gas-tax funds they’re due from the National Roadway Council (CONAVI) until October, so the funds go to waste that year, he said.

Mayors’ lack of power is another problem, according to Alfaro. Costa Rica is the only Latin American country where municipal leaders are elected at two different times: municipal councils are elected along with the President and Legislative Assembly during the national elections, while mayors and district leaders are elected 10 months later.

(Before 2002, the country had not mayors but rather “municipal executives” chosen by the municipal council.)

This creates a lack of cohesion, as does the lack of municipalities where the mayor has a majority from his party on the council.

The Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) won 42 of the 81 mayoral seats in the 2002 elections, but in 12 of those regions, there were no PUSC council members; in 30, there was only one.

“How can a mayor, under those conditions, generate consensus? S/he can’t,” Alfaro said, adding that because of the collapse of the bipartisan system, and particularly PUSC, since 2002, that could be an even more severe problem during the next fouryear terms.

Lack of funding is another problem.

Molina cited a 1997 study that shows only 2.3% of Costa Rica’s public spending going to municipalities, the lowest in Latin America (Argentina was the most decentralized, with 49.9% of spending occurring at the local level). Today, it’s even more extreme, with only 1.7% of spending taking place at the municipal level.

This translates to a “digital gap,” in which 89% of access to Internet is the Central Valley; a lack of resources in coastal municipalities, where the booming tourism industry is held back by municipal incompetence; and a general lack of public services at the local level, said participants at the Oct. 5 conference. This week, Molina said strong local governments are quicker and provide taxpayers with more bang for their buck, since fewer funds get lost in a large bureaucracy.

Some participants, however, had some words of warning. Juan Antonio Vargas of the National Confederation of Development Associations (CONADECO) said he’s leery of calls to “transfer powers” to municipalities, since some don’t do well with the ones they’ve got.

He said a certain municipality north of San José with trash collection problems – presumably Tibás, where garbage filled the streets for months because of a municipal snafu – is an example of how the central government has sometimes had to intervene because of municipalities failing to follow through with their existing duties. (Another municipality got bad press this week when Pastor Gómez, mayor of the northern Pacific municipality of Santa Cruz, was suspended for six months by a San José criminal court while he is investigated for an allegedly shady concessions deal, according to the daily La Nación. He says this won’t stop his ongoing re-election campaign.)

Still, Vargas agreed that Costa Rica must work toward “a vertical government (power structure) that successful countries have” in which high levels of government don’t complete tasks a lower level could accomplish.

So What?

What does all this mean for average citizens? So far, not much. Plans for changes mentioned at the two conferences – such creating a standard municipal development plan that could be modified for each region, increasing the power of mayors and providing municipal authorities with technological training – are still in the distance.

Three-time PUSC legislator Jorge Eduardo Sánchez, who spoke at the TSE, told The Tico Times yesterday that the current legislature, which took office in May, seems more open than previous assemblies to decentralization proposals. But the Municipal Affairs Commission, on which he serves, is just “listening to all the national sectors” at this point, getting feedback before moving ahead with reforms.

A constitutional reform that would allow municipalities to set their own taxes is farther along, having already reached the Legislative Assembly floor, though he said he’s reluctant to speculate when it might reach a vote.

However, Aida Soto, mayor of the small Southern Zone city of Golfito, who did not attend the recent events but spoke to The Tico Times yesterday by phone, said decentralization reforms are already taking place on a local level. Authorities in her region are working to give district councils within the municipality power to manage their own resources, since the long distances and rural roads of the area make it crucial for town leaders to have greater freedom. She said similar efforts are taking place in rural areas of the Cartago province and NicoyaPeninsula.

For the Elections Tribunal, the immediate concern is the Dec. 3 elections. In the first-ever election of mayors in 2002, only 21% of the 2.3 million registered Costa Rican voters cast valid votes (TT, Dec. 6, 2002). TSE president Oscar Fonseca told La Nación this week he doesn’t expect much better this time around.

The State of the Nation’s Alfaro said he hopes abstention will decrease, but said the reduced approval rating for political parties don’t bode well.

Increasing a state contribution to mayoral campaigns to support local parties and raise citizen awareness is one of the most urgent steps, Zamora said.

“You can’t make chocolate without cacao,” she said.

If reforms to draw more attention to municipal campaigns and improve local governments can get off the ground, the change could reduce voter apathy to politics as a whole, shown to be on the rise in Costa Rica in recent years, according to Sánchez. Residents of places with effective municipalities “feel that it’s there where their problems get decided,” he said. “It’s not in some abstract place in the Central Valley.”


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