The Italian local system is rooted in the ideas of the 1798 French Revolution and, specifically, in that of «Pouvoir municipal». In this context, the figure of the «prefect» (prefetto), with its strong Napoleonic influence, was pivotal in making the «revolutionary whirlwind» a «regular mechanism». The model was incorporated in the process of administrative «colonization»of power, and firmly adhered to by Italian patriots, particularly in the Piedmont region, which was ruled by the Savoias, and with Italian Unification (1861) and the administrative Unification Laws (1865) that extended throughout the territory of the new state. Historically, the system is based on the following key elements:
(a) Generalization of the municipal system rather than the system based on acquired or conceded privileges, that extended throughout the state territory before Unification.
(b) Institution of a municipality for every territorial community, regardless of its size. In Italy, the division of the territory into municipalities was the result of pre-existing demands and administrative traditions, that had already led to widespread territorial fragmentation. At the time of the Unification, there were 7,720 municipalities, which is similar to the current number of 8,096. More than 50% of these municipalities have populations of fewer than 3,000 inhabitants (768 have less than 500).
(c) Uniformity of the municipal system, generated by the implementation of uniform rules for all municipalities, regardless of their dimensions. Italy opted for the French-Piedmontese system of juridical uniformity, as stated in key administrative legislation enacted during the national Unification (Law No. 2248 of 20 March 1865), instead of the Austrian model of differentiation;
(d) Adoption of an electoral system for local authorities, particularly, for the city Council, as an essential characteristic of local democracy;
(e) Assignment of inherent and delegated functions to the municipalities and a dual role (in political and administrative terms) for mayors. The first category («inherent functions») refers to the intrinsic affairs of the community and concerned only local interests and relationships; the second category («delegated functions») involved connections with state government. There was also a connection between the bipartition of functions and the double configuration of the municipal bodies, particularly in reference to mayors, who were at the same time the leaders of municipal administrations and agents of the state administration. In this latter capacity, mayors were a cog inserted in a hierarchical system, directly dependent on State authorities.
(f) Controls. State authorities had broad and controlling powers over local government to protect the general interests of the population.
(g) Provincial level and the prefect (prefetto). The entire state territory was divided into districts «for all subjects concerning public surveillance and the quick execution of affairs». Every district («provincia») had an elective college and a prefect, who was responsible for implementing the laws and orders passed by the Ministers. This established the dual nature of the Province as a local authority and the Province as a District of the State Government.
(h) The «prefect» played a double role: on the one hand, that of a representative of the central government in the territorial periphery, interacting directly with ministers, transmiting their orders to lower levels of government. On the other hand, the role of a controlling authority, who supervised the activity of local authorities.
These original characteristics, dating from legislation enacted during the French Revolution and Napoleonic times, were incorporated in the legislation of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia in 1859, and extended a few years later, under the Laws of Administrative Unification in 1865, to the entire new Italian State.
Since then, municipal and provincial legislation has kept continuity, as expressed in the Consolidated Acts on Local Government of 1915 and 1934. The more recent Act, adopted during the fascist period, eliminated the direct election of municipal bodies in exchange for the unique «podestà», instituted by the Government. Following the Liberation, in 1945, the «podestà» was eliminated and the legislation passed in 1915 was re-enacted. Other aspects of the 1934 Act were operative even after ratification of the 1948 Constitution, which established local autonomy as a fundamental constitutional principle (art. 5).
The Constitution also granted legislative powers to regions (art. 20), but this authority was not fully transferred nation-wide, until 1970. Previously, only five Autonomous Regions with special statutes had obtained these competences: Aosta Valley, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Sicily, Sardinia.
Legislation on local authorities was renewed under the Act No. 142, 1990, the first general law on local authorities passed during the Republic, and a few
years later, Act No. 81, 1993, introduced the direct election of the mayor and the president of the provinces.
In 2000, these reforms were consolidated in a new act (hereinafter, «the Consolidated Act»). This legal amalgamation was followed by the amendment of Title V of the Constitution, pertaining to autonomies. These constitutional amendments, however, are still pending a full incorporation into legislation.
During the summer of 2011 several legislative proposals for the reorganisation and reduction in the number of municipalities and provinces took place.1
However, their final concretization and their date of effectiveness are still murky at the time of writing this contribution.
In Italy, the fundamental levels of the local government comprise three types of territorial bodies: the Municipality, the Province and the Metropolitan Town. In addition, there are other local authorities of an associative nature, for instance the unions of municipalities (unioni di comuni).
There are 8,096 municipalities, of which 7,467 are very small (with fewer than 15,000 inhabitants). Almost 2,000 have less than 1,000 inhabitants. The average population in the municipalities is about 7,250 inhabitants. The number of provinces is 110 provinces, the average population being close to 563,000 inhabitants. There are also about 650 unions and upland authorities. Finally, and although they are not «local government» in pure sense, it is noteworthy to point that Italy has 20 regions, of which 15 have «ordinary» status and 5 are autonomies with a special status.
The municipality («comune») is the local authority nearest to citizens and represents the interests of the local community. According to the 2000 Consolidated Act, municipalities «perform the administrative functions for citizens and the municipal territory, such community services, the general framework for land-use economic development, and any other responsibilities not assigned to other government bodies by State or regional law, according to their competences». Every municipality has a city council and a mayor, who are elected directly by the citizens, and a collective executive body – the Executive Board – composed of aldermen nominated by the mayor.
The province («provincia») is a district-type local authority of a larger geographical scope. These bodies have broad competences, defined by the Consolidated Act, which include «administrative functions of provincial interest that concern large inter-municipal zones or the whole provincial territory», with particular reference to sectors such as soil protection, road networks, transportation, environment, waste, secondary education, and land use planning. Provinces have the same type of government as municipalities, with a council and a president who are elected directly.
As established by the Constitution, the «metropolitan town» (Città metro-politana) is a substitute for the province and has unique functions. It refers to Italy’s biggest urban areas. According to current legislation, Turin, Milan, Genoa, Venice, Bologna, Florence, Naples, Bari, and Reggio Calabria are designated metropolitan towns, as are towns established by autonomous regions with special statutes such as Palermo, Catania, Messina, and Cagliari. Although, on...