Higher standards for assemblies

AHyogo prefectural assemblyman bawls hysterically in public after being accused of misusing millions of yen in public allowances — over which he eventually resigns.

• A Tokyo metropolitan assemblyman hurls sexist taunts against a fellow female member of the assembly, then apologizes for the act days later after repeatedly denying he had done so.

• A 60-year-old member of the Yamaguchi municipal assembly is arrested for shoplifting and use of illegal drugs.

• A Hokkaido prefectural assembly member quits after entering a drunken quarrel with a fellow passenger aboard a flight to Germany.

These are recent examples of a growing number of scandals that involve members of prefectural and municipal assemblies around the country.

In the city of Hirakawa, Aomori Prefecture, operation of the municipal assembly was crippled after 15 of its 20 members were arrested on suspicion of taking part in massive vote-buying during a mayoral election in January.

Such incidents have led many citizens to suspect a serious deterioration in the overall quality of local assembly members, whose role of checking on the work of local governments and making proposals is supposed to have become all the more important after the 2000 reforms, which gave local administrations greater autonomy and decision-making powers.

Assembly members across the nation need to cultivate a greater awareness of the importance of their duties and conduct themselves accordingly.

Voters, for their part, should realize that they are electing assembly members whose daily actions and performance can have a direct bearing on lives in their local communities, and make sure to choose the right persons to do the job and keep watchful eyes on them.

Some say the quality of local assembly members has declined because so many face little effective competition in elections. In some prefectural and municipal assembly elections, the number of candidates do not even exceed the number of seats up for grabs, so all of them “win.”

In the last unified series of local elections in 2011, the number of uncontested prefectural assembly seats reached 410, or roughly one in every five.

In city assembly elections, 116 of the total 7,104 seats were uncontested, while 893 of the 4,418 successful candidates in town and village assembly races won seats without voters casting ballots.

In prefectural and municipal assembly elections, the number of candidates was only 1.1 to 1.5 times greater than the number of seats up for grabs.

Voter turnout is also generally lower than in national elections and continues to fall. In the 2011 local elections, the average voter turnout in prefectural assembly races plunged to a record low of 48.15 percent.

Low voter turnout tends to favor candidates who are backed by organized votes or by those who have established strong local connections, such as people “inheriting” the supporters of retiring assembly members. This tendency can discourage new entrants in assembly races, further reducing the chances of effective competition. If voters in local elections are unhappy with the quality of the assembly members in their constituencies, they should understand that the problem is at least partly of their own making.

The public allowance for policy study activities of assembly members was highlighted in the case of ex-Hyogo assemblyman Ryutaro Nonomura. It made headlines nationwide after the image of his bizarre behavior at a news conference was widely seen.

This allowance was in fact introduced as a measure to improve the policy-formulating abilities of local assembly members when the 2000 administrative decentralization expanded the powers of local governments. It is separate from the salaries that members of local assemblies receive for the job itself. It comes from taxpayer money for transportation and other expenses related to policy research.

Nonomura came under fire for receiving ¥3 million in such allowances in fiscal 2013 and claiming to have spent the money on 195 trips to four locations over a year. Through a loophole in the system, he neither produced a single receipt for the trips nor specified their purposes.

After resigning as an assembly member in July, Nonomura returned the entire ¥18.3 million amount in such allowances he had received since 2011.

The opaque nature of the way such allowances are dispensed was a target of criticism long before Nonomura’s case surfaced. A number of lawsuits filed by local residents called for the return of inappropriate expenses.

In fact, it’s difficult to verify that the money has been used on policy-formulating activities, giving rise to criticism that the allowances are effectively another form of compensation for assembly members.

In fiscal 2014, a total of ¥17.4 billion has been earmarked for such allowances for members of local assemblies of the nation’s 47 prefectures and 20 designated major cities. Most assemblies itemize how the allowances are used, listing them under “research expenses” for example.

Kyodo News has reported that only 42 of 67 assemblies surveyed recently required members to submit detailed expense reports. While most assemblies require their members to submit receipts for expenses and make them available for public inspection, there are exceptions for small-expense items and train fares. Seven local governments do require that the expense reports be audited by third parties such as certified public accountants.

Efforts to win back public trust in the activities of local assembly members can start with the reform of the allowance system to make it more transparent and to ensure that such allowances are indeed used to fund the policy-related work of assembly members.

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