Local Government in Poland

Author:Angel-Manuel Moreno

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1. Brief historical evolution

The history of territorial government in Poland1reflects the dynamics of Poland’s political transformation over the last one hundred years. Before 1918, Poland was a nation divided among three neighbouring countries (Russia, Prussia and Austria) that had different administrative systems, including self-government schemes. Following World Ward III, the Polish state was re-instated after more than 120 years. Then, Poland started building uniform local government structures. The constitutional foundations for local and regional self-government were established in the Constitution of 1921, but the structures of territorial government were not developed until later. The municipality was the major territorial figure in this process, and was to appear throughout the country.

After World War II, the communist regime did not view self-government as a force independent from authoritarian government. In 1950, local governments were abolished and their assets were nationalized. The figure was replaced by a system of people’s councils (rady narodowe, soviets), which later became territorial branches of the central government. The councils suffered from a lack of electoral democracy, independent powers and independent budgets. These councils had nothing to do with local local government in terms of communities having the right to manage their own affairs.

The reconstruction of local government became one of the first and most important pillars of the 1989 political transformation in Poland. As a first step, the fundamental amendments to the Constitution were passed in December

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1989, and they substituted the unified system of people’s councils for self-government institutions, which had been traditional in Poland. Secondly, in March 1990, local self-government in the Municipality or «commune» (gmina) was legally restored with the enactment of the Territorial Self-Government Act. Finally, in May 1990, representatives from almost 2,500 local councils were elected in fully democratic elections for the first time in Polish postwar history. This event closed the initial stage of administrative reforms aimed at significant decentralization of the public management system. Quick restoration of local self-government was feasible, because in the early 80’s, a group of independent experts associated with the democratic opposition, had elaborated the strategic concepts of self-government, and the sudden collapse of the communist system unexpectedly opened the way for the implementation of their plans.2The second stage of decentralization reforms occurred in 1998-1999. The legislative package passed in June 1998 and enacted on 1 January 1999, consisted of two core elements:

– Restoration of the powiat (county) as a second, supramunicipal tier of local government, which was traditional in Poland. Pursuant to this legislation, 314 counties have been established since 1 January 1999.

– Creation of self-government at the regional level with 16 voivodeships (regions, provinces) that replaced 49 former small voivodeships managed by the central administration.

Elections for counties and voivodeship councils were held in autumn of 1998, and, as a result, the State and public management system were spectacularly and significantly transformed. The final outcome produced one of the more sophisticated and original administrative systems in Europe, which includes:

– A three-tier territorial system, where municipalities and counties perform the functions of local government, and voivodeships operate at the regional level. It should be noted that, unlike other major European countries (Germany, Spain and Italy) regional government in Poland is not based on politically autonomous or federal units, but on administrative government. At the regional level, the voivodes are general representatives of the central government, whose competences and powers include, among others, the administrative oversight local authorities and the implementation of tasks relating to general security and order, crisis management, natural disaster prevention etc.

– The specific agendas of central government operate at both the regional and local levels, and competences include security services (police, fire protection, construction supervision) consolidated within the powiat’s ad-

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ministration, as well as other State inspections including tax inspections conducted by officials associated with the central authorities.

In 1997, the new Constitution strengthened local government. Among the fundamental rules of the State and its political system, the Constitution mentions both decentralization (article 15) and the delegation of local and regional communities (represented by self-governing institutions) to perform «a substantial part of public tasks on their own behalf and under their own responsibility» (article 16). Furthermore, the preamble of the Constitution introduces the principle of subsidiarity, which is one of the doctrinal foundations of local and regional self-government. The rules for self-government are regulated in a separate chapter.

These reforms allowed Poland to build a system of territorial government that society could approve, and after twenty years of implementation, no revolutionary changes are expected in this model, its tasks, or in its constitutional foundations. Local and regional government in Poland has entered a period of stabilization and strengthening of its existing structures. However, there are expectations of a third wave of local and regional government reforms that will be of a «soft» nature and will avoid any organizational changes. Such reforms will include:

– developing and strengthening tools for broader public participation in decision making processes and performing public tasks at both local and regional levels. This should guarantee conditions for effective implementation of the collaborative and participatory governance paradigm at local and regional levels;

– developing and strengthening tools and incentives for intragovernmental cooperation schemes (multi-level governance schemes). This is particularly important, because each tier of local government enjoys independent status with no hierarchical relations among them. For this reason, legislation should guarantee the consistency of the local authorities’ activities through specific cooperation and coordination, and the exchange of information schemes; and

– territorial stabilization, after more than two decades and hundreds of boundary changes that altered the map of municipalities and counties. This process should lose its impetus once plans are implemented to amend the procedure that governs these transformations. Hopefully, new legislation will strengthen the territorial stabilization of local authorities units by supporting participatory governance mechanisms.

Another challenge for Polish self-government is the critical need to reduce the ever increasing debt. Central government urges local authorities to secure greater budgetary discipline, but local governments argue that demands for the rapid reduction of their debt would dramatically undermine local development and investment policies.

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2. Basic facts and figures

Local government in Poland has two levels: the municipality (gmina) and the county (powiat), but in each level different types or bodies may be found. Thus, there are three forms of municipalities:

– Municipality (urban commune, [c4a][c50][c4c][c51][c44][c03][c50][c4c][c48][c4d][c56][c4e][c44]). This type of local body covers the area of towns and there are less than 300. Within this group there are large differences in their size: from about 1,000 residents to about 1.7 million residents (City of Warsaw).

– Rural commune ([c4a][c50][c4c][c51][c44][c03][c5a][c4c][c48][c4d][c56][c4e][c44]): this type includes only the non-urban areas. There are some 1,500 such units.

– Urban-rural commune ([c4a][c50][c4c][c51][c44][c03][c50][c4c][c48][c4d][c56][c4e][c52][c10][c5a][c4c][c48][c4d][c56][c4e][c44]). This type is a mixed or consolidated form covering towns or townships and the area of the villages adjacent to them – formerly they were separate rural communes (al-most 600).

Within the rural communes, the parishes ([c56][c52][ce3][c48][c46][c57][c5a][c52]) represent the basic form of neighbourhood self-organization of rural communities in villages. Currently, there are over 40,000 parishes, which are generally very small and typically include a single village area. Parishes represent the interests of the village within the commune. It should be emphasized that parishes are not independent local authorities, but rather auxiliary units created by the municipality, to perform specific tasks entrusted to them. An example of these tasks is the organization of cultural or sport events, common activities, local road improvement, village water supply and sewage systems, flood protection etc. The elected chair of a village council ([c56][c52][c...

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