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THE MUNICIPAL CHARTER, LEGISLATIVE POWER FOR THE PUBLIC
by Eduard Paricio, technical director of the Federation of Municipalities of Catalonia

After ten years under consideration, the Barcelona Municipal Charter bill has been passed by the Parliament of Catalonia and is in the final process before becoming law. The contents of the draft bill was analysed in Issue 36 of B.MM. In the present article, Eduard Paricio, the technical director of the Federation of Municipalities of Catalonia, describes the main and most innovative contents of the Charter, which include its enshrining the rights of the inhabitants of Barcelona; revitalisation of public participation in local government, and the reinforcement of the jurisdiction and the competence of the municipal administration.
The draft Barcelona Municipal Charter, which is the product of negotiation between the City Hall and the Generalitat (the Regional Government of Catalonia), should be examined in terms of its capacity to respond to the situation and needs not only of the City Hall, as an organisation, but also of the citizens of Barcelona. And it is precisely this area which contains the most significant advances.
Some of the most innovative contents of the Charter are the consequence of the fact that the bill has been drafted from the ground upwards. (...) Throughout the text, the position of the citizen is defined as enjoying rights, including newly created rights, while establishing the corresponding municipal obligation to satisfy these rights. Of note is the right of citizens to be protected with respect to public service companies, the right to a quality telecommunications system, the right to sports facilities, to enjoy social assistance in the event of want, the formal recognition of the right to the environment, and the right to road safety. (...)
The acknowledging of rights by the Barcelona Charter clearly displays a progressive approach. The administration-citizen relationship is one of the cornerstones of contemporary political thinking. The traditional clientele concept of power does not view the exercise of power in the spirit of serving the public. Thus the position of the citizen is quite different under these two approaches. In the former situation, the citizen is the recipient of favours by the powers essentially on a discretion basis; in the latter, the citizen is vested in rights which he or she may demand from the Administration and which the Administration is legally obliged to ensure. The Barcelona Charter reflects the latter view.
Another problem which the Charter Bill tackles is the revitalization of citizen participation as an essential instrument of the political system. (...)
The proximity of the City Hall to the public, greater facility to participate in and to control the action of the municipal government are more interesting means of revitalising the democratic system. The redesign of local administrations in the public power structure not only displays the decentralisation of power and the greater access to the exercise of power to the public, but also the opening up of the system to participation, since local administrations by their nature channel public opinion.
Public participation and the decentralisation of the municipal administration is one of the identifying features of the Charter. However apart from this general principle, there is constant reference throughout the text to the specific mechanisms for participation.
Article 28 establishes public initiatives for the enacting of municipal legislation, in much more open terms than its immediate predecessor for public initiatives. Under the Charter, the initiative must be signed by 1 per cent of the population, whereas the pre-existing situation was that 5 per cent was required.
The draft Charter also incorporates public audience as a direct mechanism to enable citizens to receive information on matters of particular importance and, at the same time, to enable the public to propose municipal solutions or measures. (...)
The matter of greatest concern in this constitutional period has been the loss of legal authority by municipal administrations, which has greatly reduced its capacity to act effectively in relation to the life of the community. (...)
In the process of reclaiming this authority over recent years, Barcelona City Council has identified the question of authority as one of the essential features for the restoration of municipal activity. This has constituted a significant contribution by the City Hall to the so-called local agreement and, previously, to the movement of other large Spanish cities.
The draft Charter approaches this question from different perspectives. It acknowledges municipal power to interpret the Charter by legislation, the authority of the Lord Mayor is protected by new criminal offences, the opening license is reintroduced for all activities carried on in the city, it reviews the fines under planning and development regulations, the City Hall is empowered to legislate in relation to traffic, vandalism, public betting on the street, the possession of animals which may frighten or cause injuries to the public, disturbances outside bars and night-clubs, xenophobic and racist acts and other anti-social behaviour. (...)
This new Charter comes on the public stage at a time of serious review of the need for decentralisation of the political system, and the basis for the transfer of competence over different areas to the local administrations. This has led to the so-called local agreement, which is now coming up with resistance from the regional governments since it has not increased in the slightest the competence already exercised. (...)
Nevertheless, despite the tensions between the Generalitat and the Catalan municipalities in relation to decentralisation of power and financial resources, there has been a peculiar development in the relations of Barcelona City Council with the Generalitat. Common sense and practicality have led to genuine co-operation between the two most powerful administrative bodies in Catalonia. In recent years, there has been a constant increase in joint partnerships and other initiatives for the sharing in common of functions. This has been the case of the Health Service Consortium, the Orchestra and the Auditorium, the Palau de la Música, the transport authority, and there are many other examples. (...)
The Charter recognises that decentralisation will not be accepted by the administrative apparatus of the Generalitat and poses a realistic and suitable alternative: the continuation of this experiment in joint management. There are proposals for the creation of a number of administrative partnerships to join forces and share the management of areas as central to city life such as housing, education, health and cultural heritage.
However, despite the partnerships which are created under the Barcelona Charter, the draft legislation does not renounce the possibility of retrieving various powers which cannot be denied to City Hall. This is the case of the competence over the final approval of the development plans under the Metropolitan Plan, which the State acknowledges for municipalities with a population of more than 50,000, but which, however, in the case of Catalonia, Barcelona City Hall has not been able to exercise. (...)
Perhaps the most constructive feature of the Charter is it tackling of areas where agreement is possible and postponing other areas for a better time. This is a wise and prudent course of action, but it is also true that the metropolitan, national and international dimension of Barcelona remains to be dealt with and this issue will have to be confronted sooner or later.