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Local government and their accountability between elections

On Wednesday elections will be held for all local and district municipalities in the country.  

This is an opportunity, that comes around once every five years, for voters to hold local government to account. However the accountability of elected representatives should permeate the full term of the administration and cannot be confined to two exercises every decade.

The extent to which local government can be held accountable between elections is largely a product of the governance system used in that council. There are three different systems of local government used in the country. Each system has an impact on how the municipality is governed  and, more importantly, how easily residents can access decision makers and hold them to account between elections.

In all three forms of government the role of the Executive Committee (EXCO) is central. The main role of the EXCO is to co-ordinate council business and to make sure that things run smoothly. This includes making preparations for any decisions that have to be put to a full council meeting. Whereas councils may make decisions/ recommendations on specific issues, it falls to the executive committees to ensure that those decisions are implementable and fit into wider plans.

The most widely used form of local government is the Executive mayor system. Executive Mayors have been established in most municipalities and all metros other than eThekwini. Under this system of governance voters elect who represents them in the local government council. The council then elects an executive mayor to run the municipality. The mayor, in turn, appoints an executive committee to assist him/her in running municipal affairs.  In essence the mayor can be seen as a local president and the mayoral committee his/her cabinet.

Given the complexity of the system the path of accountability between the electorate and the mayor is long and convoluted. A resident with an important concern has to bring it up with their councillor. The councillor then brings the issue up at the next council meeting (where the councillor may be one of 200 people in the meeting) . Council may then give direction on the issue to the executive mayor who will bring it up with the executive committee. Decisions arising from that process are then directed to the municipal manager to address the concern.

By contrast the Plenary Council system has the most direct form of accountability. Once again voters elect council. But under the Plenary system council itself acts as the executive committee for the municipality. To facilitate proceedings a mayor (without executive powers) is appointed.  In effect voters can access the decision making process through their elected representative (the councillors). While the  Plenary system offers the most direct form of accountability to the electorate it is only used in small municipalities and its adoption is largely confined to the Eastern Cape.

The third form of local government is the Collective system. Here voters elect council members. Council then elects both the mayor and the executive committee. In contrast to the Executive Mayor system the executive committee is accountable to the Council rather to the mayor.  Members of the executive committee are appointed from political parties in proportion to the votes each party gets in the municipal election. Council delegates responsibilities , in particular the day-to-day issues, to the executive committee. The Collective council system is widely used in KwaZulu-Natal including eThekwini. The residents access to municipal decision making process is, once again, via their councillor. However their councillors are able to influence processes and decisions far more easily than under the Executive Mayor system.

Although the Executive Mayor system is the most widely used form of local government it has been criticised for affording too much power to a single individual.  Despite this political parties are comfortable with this system – particularly when coalitions are needed to run local government. Under Plenary and Collective systems the defections and breakdowns of the coalition may more readily undermine governance.

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