What happens in my city? Municipalities exclude citizens from decision-making, and avoid public consultations
Resul Baleta and other residents of Gur i Bardhë village were called by the Municipality of Mat for public consultations, two years after the Municipal Council of Mat had decided to build a hydropower plant in the village. The public consultation, he said, took place in 2019 and despite that 95 percent of the participants were against the project, they even today are afraid that the works may start any day now.
The case of the residents of Guri i Bardhë is one of the dozens of cases of the municipalities of the country, where decisions related to infrastructure, budget, historical objects, or even increase in the price of transport tickets are held not with the public, without first thinking of the taxpayers, residents of the city.
Public consultations, an important act for the transparency of local government, represent one of the forms that makes citizens part of the decision-making process, but it turns out that they are carried out only as a procedure and formally.
Although Covid-19 moved all physical activity online, the pandemic did not make municipalities use the website as an official information center for citizens, but instead, during the period of February-July 2020, it became an excuse not to conduct public consultations with citizens and interest groups.
Law no.139/2015 article 16 on local self-government and law no. 146/2014 on Public Notification and Consultation, oblige municipalities to notify and invite citizens to public consultations of the municipality. However, our oversight of the situation shows that they are reluctant to inform the public about the place, time and project proposal for public consultations, and also do not inform about the process of approving various projects in order to have a better life for the community. This law has been violated for many years and even more so during the Covid-19 pandemic.
For this article, the official websites of 61 municipalities were monitored, during the period of 1-7 July 2021, for the period under examination of February-July 2020, to see if the municipalities have published notices for public consultations and if they have published detailed information in order to inform what happened during the public consultation. But both of these legal obligations have been violated by 45 Municipalities.
Formally, all municipalities on their official website have created a space entitled “Public Consultation”, but this space is empty, either with announcements published outside the legal deadline or with posts of 2 or 3 years old. During the monitoring, we had to try the search option as well, since the Public Consultation option almost always turned out to be empty.
According to the monitoring we conducted: 45 Municipalities did not notify citizens and interest groups about public consultations and do not post meetings on the website; only 5 Municipalities notify citizens and interest groups about public consultations and post the meetings on the website 3 Municipalities, although they tried to publish the public consultation notice, were in violation of the law as the notifications were made only 1 day before or after the public consultation, just as an announcement procedure on the website; 7 websites in the monitoring period were found to have problems and were not open, and 1 Municipality does not have a website.
Although we are in August 2021, only in 5 Municipalities we see announcements and posts from published meetings, Durrës, Shkodër, Tropojë, Ura Vajgurore and Vau i Dejës. 45 Municipalities, including large municipalities such as: Tirana, Elbasan, Vlora, Berat, Korca, Fier, Kukes, Gjirokastra, Dibra, Lushnje, Përmet, Saranda, Tepelena, etc., do not notify citizens and interest groups for public consultations and do not post meetings on the website.
Law no. 146/2014 article 17 item 2, on Notification and Public Consultation clearly specifies that the institution must notify the citizens about the project and be given not less than 20 working days time before the public consultation. Article 17 item 2, provides that “Interested parties, invited to participate in public meetings, are given the necessary time to prepare. In any case, they are informed not less than 20 working days before the public meeting, making available copies of the draft act to be discussed.” But in fact, municipalities notify consultations 24 hours in advance or one day late.
Experts: Lack of transparency limits citizens’ participation in decision-making
However, are municipalities hindering transparency to the public by working this way? Are they excluding citizens from decision-making? According to Evelina Azizaj, Program Manager for Local Government and Integrated Development at IDM, the lack of transparency limits the participation of citizens in decision-making actin. Furthermore, after the consultations, the minutes of the public hearing should be published. This lack of information undoubtedly limits the participation of the community and stakeholders in attending public hearings and giving their opinions and positions. “In fact, local decision-making naturally requires consultation with the public in order to improve the decisions that are taken,” she said.
Agron Haxhimali, executive director of the Association of Albanian Municipalities, describes technology as a convenience in communicating with citizens, which helps to inform citizens and he emphasizes that announcements should be accessible. Municipalities have a legal obligation to be transparent and to advertise their announcements on the official website. Municipalities must also have a strategic plan for transparency and communication, and this plan must be presented to anyone interested in participating. “Municipalities for important issues such as budget, investments, taxes and fees, or even the announcement of vacancies and any announcement for a meeting of the municipal council and its decision, should be made available to citizens,” he said.
Experts list cases where public consultations are also formal. “Sometimes citizens are only interested in some issues and not all. If you talk to citizens and interest groups will show that municipalities hold meetings with invited citizens on the basis of knowledge or political affiliation. The halls are filled with militants. Or the consultations are done formally”, says Evelina Azizaj.
From official communication to that through social networks …
Website is the most official form of communication of the municipality, but some municipalities prefer to use Facebook for various announcements and promotions. We accidentally checked the Facebook pages of some municipalities and the same problem was noticed with the violation of the deadline and notification without any supporting documents. The announcements were published one day after the public consultation was over and the concrete case is as follows with the Municipality of Mat, Memaliaj and Devoll (in Albanian).
On the other hand, experts also consider social media as a channel without financial costs, where municipalities can easily invite citizens to decision-making processes.
“There are many ways you can follow to increase participation and communicate with citizens. For example, online meetings or free social media are channels that simply enable an open, but even one-sided, communicative approach. It is enough for the municipality to speak, to tell the citizens its plans and to listen to them”, says Agron Haxhimali.
Faced with this data, experts comment on it as a lack of transparency.
“It is carelessness, lack of organizational culture of communication. So they see it as a non-priority issue in relation to the many problems that municipalities have with public and administrative services. This is the main focus of municipalities. I think that communication and transparency should become part of the behavior and culture of the municipality “, says Agron Haxhimali.
“Despite the indifference of citizens and their partial interest in only a few issues, municipalities must ensure transparency regarding public consultation, as part of their legal obligations. Transparency is the first step to increase civic participation and further citizen interaction with the municipality. An increased and positive interaction is likely to have a positive impact on the trust of citizens in the municipality”, says Evelina Azizaj.
Although not heard, citizens are reluctant to complain…
The Office of the Commissioner for the Right to Information and Personal Data Protection informs that over the years it has received complaints from citizens for violating the right to notification and public consultation, but in recent years these complaints have been decreasing.
During the years 2015-2016, the Office of the Commissioner for the Right to Information and Personal Data Protection has received 2 complaints with the object “Violation of the right to notification and public consultation”; for the years 2017-2018, the Office of the Commissioner has received 8 complaints; while for the years 2019-2021, the Office of the Commissioner has not received any complaint with the object “Violation of the right to notification and public consultation”.
Regarding the decision-making of the Office of the Commissioner, for complaints against local self-government units, the Office of the Commissioner has accepted the complaint against the Municipality of Shkodra, approving Decision no. 54, dated 21.03.2017 (in Albanian).
Agron Haxhimali shows us some factors that influence the citizens not to be interested in participating in decision making. “Citizens’ interest falls if they see that the organization is closed, and they have to spend time to find out what is happening in the municipality. But today everyone has a limited time, and if you are going to involve the citizens in decision-making, the municipalities themselves must create opportunities for you. Most even have these opportunities. The rest of the medium and small municipalities face problems related to the lack of human resources, communication specialists, lack of technology and its knowledge, etc. But the problem remains the way the municipality approaches transparency, how much it has the vision and the will.”
The Law of 2014 no. 146/2014 “On public notification and consultation” provides, among other things, that municipalities must post draft acts on the official websites for public consultation and not only on it, but can also use the official website www.konsultimipublik.gov.al. However, the latest updates on this site refer only to the ministries and there is no data for the municipalities of the country.
Beyond the obligations arising from the law and the need for transparency to the citizens, the municipalities refuse to listen to them and make them part of their decisions, even when they seal the implementation of projects worth millions of euros, for which residents are often between two choices. : shrug or protest.