‘I’ll give you a permit if you vote for me’ behaviour is being ironed out as minister expected to issue decrees this week

Forget for a second the complexity of the coming elections for the new system of local government – the smorgasbord of different ballots, candidates galore, and so forth. Because it turns out that even the administrative workings of the system – once it kicks in – have some ‘grey areas’ of their own. As one source remarked, “God help us on July 1.”

Don’t picture that chaos will ensue, that’s taking it too far. Still, there are some kinks that need ironing out, even at this late hour.

The single biggest change compared to the current system of local government is the establishment of district-level organisations – one in each district. These entities will effectively become major power centres in terms of administrative functions. What’s still in question is whether they’ll become loci of political power as well – but more on that later.

The district-level organisations will act as all-in-one town planning and building permit authorities. Additionally, they’ll take over the functions of the various district water boards and sewerage boards, as well as solid waste management. They will also run their own citizen service centres, and have their own budget.

The chairman of each such organisation is elected by all the registered voters in the district in question. The electorate includes people living in the new-fangled municipalities or communities. A lot of votes entail a great deal of political power. It’s no surprise, then, that current Nicosia mayor Constantinos Yiorkadjis is running for the position of chairman of the Nicosia district-level organisation.

In brief, the new system will see 18 new Metropolitan municipalities emerge from the fusion of the 28 current municipalities and 63 communities. In addition, two municipalities (those of Paphos and Strovolos) will remain as is, for a total of 20 municipalities – down from 30 now.

The Metropolitan municipalities will be granted more financial autonomy. They will gain new responsibilities and competences in domains such as social affairs, permit issuing, local infrastructure maintenance, environmental protection and quality of life, and schools.

Meanwhile we’ll get 30 ‘local clusters’ (a new type of public-law organisation) for the remaining 286 communities – those not merged with municipalities. Clusters will provide aggregated services (collection and general waste management, secretariat provision, accounting and technical services). These administrative bodies will provide a wider range of services and will support the community councils in discharging their obligations.

The new municipalities will have expanded jurisdictions – like setting up a municipal police force, taking charge of school boards (as of 2029) and road maintenance. But they won’t have jurisdiction over town planning or building permits – these powers go to the aforementioned district-level organisations. They are king.

Permanent secretary at the interior ministry Elikkos Elia explained the district officer has until now issued building permits in villages/communities, that is to say, locations where no municipality existed. But from July 1, the granting/issuing of these permits falls under the district-level entities.

“Say you live in the village of Agros. Up until now, you used to visit the Limassol district office for a town planning permit, and then the district officer for the building permit. And if you reside inside the city of Limassol, you’d go to the municipality directly for both those permits. Now, the permits will be issued by the district-level organisation regardless where you live.”

As for the district officers – civil servants working for the central government – they’ll still be around. But their tasks will be curtailed, limited to having jurisdiction over certain projects within communities or overseeing elections there.

And according to Elia, there’s no issue of jurisdictional overlap. “The new functions of the district officer are clearly spelled out.”

What’s not spelled out – yet – relates to an incipient situation which, the Cyprus Mail understands, the government wants to nip in the bud. How much political power the district-level entities will wield.

Just like the chairmen of these district-level entities (or district governors), their boards will get elected directly by the people. The boards will comprise a mix of the heads of municipalities and local communities.

What isn’t set in stone is who gets to green-light the granting of the urban planning or building permits. Each district-level organisation will have a permits department, with a departmental head and staff – unelected technocrats.

One source, speaking on condition of anonymity, explained that the government prefers the technocrats to have the final say on permits. The board of any given district-level entity would then merely rubberstamp the technocrats’ decision.

“Probably not a good idea to let elected officials be in charge of permits, because then you get clientelism, patronage,” said the source. “I’ll give you a permit if you vote for me, that kind of thing.”

The source added: “Just look at Limassol municipality and how they went crazy issuing permits left and right for skyscrapers. At the end of the day, elected politicians are susceptible to influence.”

But according to the same source, this grey area will get settled “very soon” – in the coming days. The interior minister is about to issue decrees mandating that the final say on permits will rest with the technocrats in the district-level organisations, not the elected officials.

But Elia stressed that the interior ministry (central government) will retain control of zoning. Going forward, the interior minister can override the district-level entity should the latter issue permit decisions that breach zoning regulations.

But asked how this might play out, Elia said only that the minister will act based on a complaint filed by a member of the public. In other words, the central government will react after the fact in cases of zoning violations.

Moving on to another potential ‘twilight zone’ – the role of the deputy mayors. Under the new system, 92 – yes you read that number correctly – deputy mayors will serve. But legislation explicitly states that deputy mayors lack de facto powers – any powers they do exercise are delegated to them by the mayor.

Deputy mayors head up administrative boroughs in any given new municipality. The boroughs collectively, plus the municipalities, make up the Metropolitan municipalities, the latter headed by the so-called ‘super mayors’.

The legislation is cleat that the mayor delegates any powers to deputy mayors – even on matters that are local to the borough which the deputy mayor leads. Effectively, the deputy mayor – and the borough itself – is reduced to an advisory body. It can make recommendations – for example on local projects like green areas – but then the proposal is debated and voted on at the municipality level.

As an interior ministry officer explained it, under the new system the core unit of local government is the municipality. The borough itself is not self-governing.

“For instance: any official document, like a permit, even when it concerns a borough, will bear the stamp of the municipality,” said our source.

Which begs the question: what if you get a mayor who’s a control freak and doesn’t like to delegate any powers to his deputy mayors? Do the latter just sit around doing nothing while drawing a salary?

“We don’t think that’s going to happen,” the source offered.

Speaking of the 92 deputy mayors, their salary depends on the population size of their borough. And a deputy mayor’s salary is pegged to the salary of the mayor. It can range from 20 to 50 per cent of the mayor’s salary. Likewise, the mayor’s salary depends on the population size of the municipality.

For example, the deputy mayor of a borough with one to 300 people receives 20 per cent of the mayor’s salary; between 301 and 500 people, 30 per cent of the mayor’s salary; between 501 and 1,000 people, 40 per cent of the salary; and between 1,001 and 100,000, 50 per cent of the salary.

The mayors on the highest wages are obviously those in the large metropolitan areas – Nicosia, Limassol, Paphos and Paralimni. They will get €6,446 per month. That includes the allowance for travel and attendance of public functions. The mayor of Lefkara sits on the lowest rung, earning €3,868 a month.

By comparison, the highest salary for deputy mayors clocks in at €3,223. The lowest salary comes to €1,031, with the ‘lucky’ recipient being the deputy mayor of the borough of Chrysochou – whereas the mayor of the new Chrysochou municipality gets a cool €5,157.

According to a spreadsheet seen by the Cyprus Mail, the total annual payouts on salaries (for mayors, deputy mayors, councillors) works out at €6,543 million.