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JURIST's Spain Correspondent is Dr. Fernando Martin Diz, Assistant Professor of Procedural Law at the Faculty of Law, University of Salamanca. This special report is written by his colleague Dr. Zulima Sanchez, Professor of Administrative Law.
[Salamanca; Special to JURIST] This report considers one of the most important political and legal units in Spain and elsewhere: the city. The importance of the city is reflected in its historical influence on the policies of the national government during certain periods and, more recently, the search for new instruments to manage services and implement laws more efficiently. City halls are the purest example of ancient Greek democracy. Cities provide a last chance to solve the crisis in representative democracy. They could be the vehicle for providing a sense of community and fulfilling the citizens' need to participate in the decision making process.

In order to understand how the city can reinvigorate democracy, we must understand how Spanish city halls work. This report first describes the division of power among the political units of this old country. In order to place the modern city in perspective, the report then provides a brief history of the evolution of cities. Finally, this report examines how the Spanish city hall is organized, including the main functions of its elected officials.

Article 1.3 of the Spanish Constitution of 1978 establishes Spain as a Parliamentarian Monarchy. In Article 2, the Constitution states that Spain is a united nation, but that each of the different regions that form Spain enjoys a certain amount of autonomy. (explained by the Constitutional Court in court decisions as STC 4/1981 [RTC 1981, 4], F3; STC 100/1984 [rtc 1984, 100] F2). The Constitution grants different powers to the central government and to the regions, called autonomies, similar to the manner in which the American Constitution reserves certain areas of regulation for the federal government and leaves others to the states. This division of powers between the two levels, national and regional, has caused many problems relating to the implementation of Constitutional mandates through the different laws. As the power of the autonomies grows, the number and complexity of cases the Constitutional Court must resolve increases every year.

Article 149.1.18 of the Spanish Constitution empowers the national legislature to enact laws providing the basic structure for the foundation, development and government of local units. In April 1985, the national Congress approved the Ley Reguladora de las Bases del R馮imen Local (the Law 7/1985). This law regulates the general organization of cities in Spain. Article 149.3 of the Constitution permits the autonoma to regulate areas not addressed by the National Legislature. If the autonomia leaves a field unoccupied, the city may step in and legislate as a result of the absence of national or regional action. Spanish cities rarely exercise this residual power.

Most of the cities and towns in Spain were founded during the ancien r馮ime. In those years, each city was granted a fueros, or municipal charter, permitting it to exercise a group of rights independent from the kingdom. Each village had a different level of freedom depending on the content of its charter. The first Spanish Constitution, enacted in 1812, started a process that was intended to standardize certain laws across all of Spain. These laws provided either more or less freedom of legislation to the villages, depending on the centralism or liberalism of the national government. Notwithstanding this attempt to standardize laws across the country, the general laws do not even today apply to some villages with small populations. Particularly in the north of Spain some villages still enjoy the freedoms of their old charters. In those places, as with some towns in New England, each citizen participates in the governance of the city. The reality, however, is far from this ideal because most of the active participation in the town meetings comes from people dependant upon the main political parties that exist in Spain, as well as some people with significant economic interests in the area.

With the exception discussed above, the same laws rule villages and cities in Spain. The laws vary little between cities in located in different autonomies. The basic law drafted by the national legislature in 1985 establishes the main differences, which are dependant on the population of the cities. The law entitles citizens to different levels of services based on the size of the city. As a result, some services provided by the city or town may be optional, while others are compulsory.

The national government or the autonomia can delegate certain powers to the cities. Generally, the national government and autonomia only delegate the power to manage the decisions of superior governmental levels, including those coming from the European Union. The EU is attempting to increase the ability of local governments to implement laws and to strengthen local power in relation to regional and national governments. Local control could be particularly effective at solving some modern problems, especially with respect to environmental law and economic development. Implementation of directives addressing the environment takes place primarily at the national level and in some instances at the autonomia level. Legislation from these levels fails to effectively address problems specific to a certain locale because it is enacted by legislative bodies who do not posses the expertise necessary to determine how European laws should be implemented in specific areas.

City halls in villages, cities and towns across Spain exercise the powers delegated by other levels or written in some law in similar manners. The citizens elect a group of town councillors every four years. The councillor with the majority of votes becomes the mayor. The mayors have always possessed significant power to influence the town council's decision-making process. The mayor's power increased even more after the Local Pact of 1999 changed numerous articles in the laws.

The mayor's power results from the fact that he sets the agenda for city meetings. Citizens can be present in the meetings and have the right to participate in them, but their opinions are not necessarily taken into consideration by the members of the city council. Neighborhood associations are permitted a place on commissions that draft rules, particularly those involving zoning, before the rule is placed before a meeting of the city council for debate. Rules regarding other regulatory fields accept participation of associations only after the initial text is passed at a city council meeting. Suggestions by citizen associations may or may not be take in account. Citizen associations are entitled to sue city hall in the Administrative Court once a decision of the city council is confirmed. Even though there are other ways to participate in city decision-making, but this ability to have the Administrative Court review decisions of the city council is the most important. Citizen associations, however, rarely win appeals to the Administrative Court.

The mayor and the other elected members are powerful enough to eliminate the ability of citizens to participate in the governance of their own cities. As a result, Spanish cities are very far from being a direct democracy. Instead, Spainish city councils of today are the starting point for political careers leading to the national Parliament.

Dr. Zulima Sanchez
Professor of Administrative Law
Faculdad de Derecho, Universidad de Salamanca
Salamanca, SPAIN September 13, 2000


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