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Seoul mayor proposes holding citizen poll on disputed free school meals

Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon on Monday proposed holding a citizen poll to settle an ongoing dispute with the opposition party over providing free lunches to all elementary, middle and high school students in the capital.

   The proposal comes four days after the opposition-controlled city council proclaimed an ordinance to provide free meals to all elementary school children under its jurisdiction from the new semester in defiance of the city government's call to pay heed to the limited state budget.

   The ordinance sets out to allocate 69.5 billion won (US$62 million) for the free meals from last month's budget bill passed by the council. The mayor's office has accused the opposition of flaunting a populist welfare campaign and said it will not put the budget into effect, while seeking a court injunction against the ordinance.

   Free lunches for all students are controversial, as the program's proponents say it will remove the stigma attached to needy children who receive the free meals while opponents say the government should not cover meals for students who can afford them.

   Oh, a member of the ruling Grand National Party (GNP), and the council's opposition Democratic Party (DP) members have been at loggerheads for months over the new welfare plan, offered as one of the DP's key campaign pledges in last year's local elections.

   "Seoul's administration is being held back by the free lunch program, and (we) cannot allow the city's future and the lives of its citizens to be neglected in the process," Oh said during a press conference, explaining his reasons for suggesting the poll.

   "I am proposing a citizen poll out of desperation because our country's future will sway if Seoul is unable to stop the ruinous free welfare tsunami," Oh said. (Yonhap News)

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