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Suwon mayor fights for local government power

Suwon becomes a ‘special city’ under Mayor Yeom Tae-young

Suwon Mayor Yeom Tae-young (Suwon City)
Suwon Mayor Yeom Tae-young (Suwon City)
Suwon Mayor Yeom Tae-young’s “Special City Operation” was a success. Yeom’s quest to make Suwon a designated “special city” began when he was the first of 226 local government leaders to be elected as the supreme council member of the ruling Democratic Party last year.

As a supreme council member, it placed Yeom in a position to reflect the small voices of local governments across the country, and they were attentively listened to by Korea’s political central sphere in Yeouido. In order to make Suwon a special city, he dived head first into politics in Yeouido.

Previously, several heads of local governments have attempted for the supreme council member position, but all have failed. As Yeom, who is serving his third-term as mayor, was elected as a supreme council member of the Democratic Party of Korea last year, local governments entered a new era of decentralization of power.

During his term, he was known to have coined a new term that was widely used by the government and policymakers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The term, which roughly translates to “overreact,” means Korea should go all out when responding to natural disasters to ensure that all aspects are well taken care of in the case of a natural disaster.

It is difficult to find an individual like Yeom. During Korea’s Middle East Respiratory Syndrome outbreak, he had been named a “warrior” for creating a white paper on how to handle the public health crisis. Yeom’s white paper was again referred to when the government was formulating a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To cushion the blow of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Suwon government has earmarked 35 billion-won worth of emergency relief funds to the city’s residents over a course of two rounds before and after the Lunar New Year holiday.

Before the Lunar New Year holiday, the local government provided about 7.5 billion won for revitalizing the local economy, supporting childcare blind spots, providing damage relief for the transportation industry and reducing tax cuts and user fees.

The second round of handouts will be in March. It will provide about 27.5 billion won to projects such as stabilizing living conditions for quasi employees and freelancers, resolving blind spots with government support and revitalizing the local economy.

Yeom plans to lend support to those who are struggling due to the prolonged pandemic, those who are put under the government’s quarantine measures and citizens who are overlooked by authorities and Gyeonggi Province support policies.

The Suwon government first aided areas that needed emergency relief before the Lunar New Year holiday. It will provide a second round of support for areas that require system supplementation and preparation.

“We will provide emergency relief funding to those who suffered damage from social distancing quarantine rules. We will minimize civil damage by supplementing any blind spots of the central and Gyeonggi Province governments,” Yeom said.

The direction Suwon takes this year is monumental.

”The three pillars of Suwon in 2021 will be quarantine, economy and special cities,“ he said.

In the 2021 New Year Citizens’ Empathy Open Discussion, which was held online, Yeom said, ”We will strive to protect the lives and safety of our citizens with thorough quarantine measures and vaccination while removing shadows on the economy.”

“2021 will be dedicated to preparing the true qualities of a special city,” he said. “We will secure administrative and financial affairs to be on par with those of metropolitan cities and ensure that the benefits go to the citizens.”

“The ban on private gatherings of five or more had been extended until the Lunar New Year holiday, and it is a pity that family meetings are limited,” he said. “Please hold back and postpone any meetings for a little longer so that we can meet healthier on a better day.”

Last year, Suwon, Yongin, Goyang and Changwon -- four cities each with a population of 1 million -- were designated as special cities at the National Assembly’s plenary session. Three of these cities, excluding Changwon, are located in Gyeonggi Province. With the official designation, special cities are considered to have a more important status, and are given more government resources and advantages for innovation and other policy areas.

“I never doubted (Suwon) being designated as a special city,” Yeom had said at the time.

Critics credited the achievement to Yeom’s perseverance, saying it opened a new horizon for local autonomy.

Suwon Mayor Yeom Tae-young poses with mayors and officials from Gyeonggi Province. (Suwon City)
Suwon Mayor Yeom Tae-young poses with mayors and officials from Gyeonggi Province. (Suwon City)
Yeom has been dubbed a “bulldozer mayor,” with people saying that once he believes something is right, he runs towards it like a “tank on fire.”

As an advocate of power decentralization, Yeom has gone “all out” in his political career. He is considered by others as a politician who is consistent with his words. Yeom has the backing of the 226 local governments across the country as well as a special connection with President Moon Jae-in.

He has also won various awards. He received the Best Head of Local Government Division at the 2nd Governance Local Politics Award in 2020 and the Best Local Election Award at the Manifesto Promise Award in 2018. Yeom was also appointed second chairman of the Local Government Association from October 2020.

To the public, Yeom is well known as a global gentleman. He is the only decentralization advocate that all local governments across the country have trusted and relied on as a key local government figure.

While he comes off as a genteel, friendly person, he also has a strong side and is also a caring politician who is attentive to small details. With the backing of local governments, Yeom has grown into one of the major supreme council members of the Democratic Party.

Yongin and Suwon were given the title of special cities and extended to the next level, as the Local Government Act was revised for the first time in 32 years.

The title means those cities maintain the status of a local government but is given differentiated autonomy and discretion from the typical local government city. In addition, these cities are open to urban development, so customized development strategies can be established accordingly.

With this, policy decisions can quickly be made by directly negotiating with the central government without going through metropolitan governments.

“The revision bill of the Local Government Act will serve as a foundation for institutionalizing the status and authority of the basic local government. We will further work on local autonomy so that Korea becomes a country of the citizens,” Yeom promised.

He added, “It is also a big step forward that we can designate a large city with a population of 1 million as a special city. This puts special provisions of cities, counties and provinces while considering respective administrative demands, national balance development and local village extinction.”

Yeom expects that Suwon as a special city will address some of the challenges its residents have faced. Until now, Suwon citizens have had relatively fewer benefits than those of metropolitan and provincial governments with fewer populations because they were citizens of local governments. With this, Yeom proposed a “fulfillment of the special city, Suwon” as a key promise to the seventh popular election.

The population of Suwon hit 1.23 million at the end of last year after exceeding 1 million for the first time in 2002. It is more than the 1.16 million population of Ulsan, which became the last metropolitan city in Korea.

However, as of last June, the average number of residents per civil servant in Suwon stood at 350, while the average number in Ulsan metropolitan city had 210. In addition, Ulsan is administratively divided into four districts, one county district and 56 towns, townships and neighborhood districts, but Suwon only operates on 44 neighborhood districts. This means that Suwon citizens will have to wait longer for public services.

As such, Suwon operated a small administration compared to its size. This is because it is tied and limited to the metropolitan standard of the Local Government Act, which calls for a population of more than 500,000 people. Although Suwon has more than double of the 500,000 people-threshold, the same rules are applied as any other city with more than 500,000 people. Suwon citizens say they are also not given fair access to welfare services. The current criteria for selecting welfare service recipients are divided into large cities, medium-to-small cities and rural cities to calculate different property limits.

Suwon City Hall (Suwon City)
Suwon City Hall (Suwon City)
Residents of Suwon, which is classified as a “medium-to-small sized city” according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, could only receive social welfare benefits worth up to 90 million won for residential properties and 42 million won for other properties. However, the limit is raised to 120 million won and 69 million won for those living in the autonomous districts of special cities and metropolitan cities.

Even if residents of Suwon have similar prices and property as residents of larger cities, they cannot receive the same welfare benefits under legal standards because Suwon does not have the same administrative classification. In other words, the singular self-governing system without taking the size of the city into consideration causes administration inefficiency and leaves residents to suffer from certain disadvantages.

The introduction of a special city was to address what Suwon residents said were discriminating welfare policies towards them. City authorities began to voice the need for autonomous decentralization to be on par with those of metropolitan cities as early as in 2013, when the population exceeded 1.17 million during the fifth popular election. At the time, five large cities, Suwon, Goyang, Changwon, Seongnam and Yongin, requested the Korea Institute of Local Finance to do research and jointly form a decentralization model of metropolitan cities with more than a population of 1 million and adopt a joint proposal to fit such cities.

To legalize this process, there were countless sessions to persuade various members of the National Assembly, including the Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, party leaders, the Public Administration and Security Committee, Legislative Review Subcommittee, local lawmakers and specialists.

Yeom also worked hard to explain and convince the need for special cities by meeting with ministers from central and government agencies, vice ministers and officials from central departments and local decentralization committees. There was also a roundtable discussion involving citizens, a policy debate involving experts from various subjects and a series of joint proposals from large cities.

As the Moon administration included power decentralization in its 100 national tasks in 2017, the Local Government Act revision seemed to have gained momentum but faced challenges in the legalization process.

The bill raised expectations when it was submitted to the 20th National Assembly in May 2019 but was automatically discarded without being discussed for about a year.

Later in July 2019, the Ministry of the Interior and Safety submitted a revision bill to the 21st National Assembly, which lowered the standard for special cities to more than 500,000, causing controversy. However, the bill was finally passed after revising the number to over 1 million in population.

At the 382nd plenary session on Nov. 9 last year, the 21st National Assembly voted on the “full revision of the Local Government Act” and gave the name “special city” to cities with more than 1 million people, including Suwon. The government revised the Local Government Act for the first time in 32 years, seeking to change the actual local autonomy.

“The city, county and province designated by the Minister of Interior and Safety are allowed to set special exceptions in consideration of cities with a population over 1 million,” said Rep. Oh Young-hwan at the time.

In the electronic vote, the bill (alternative) to revise the Local Government Act was voted by 272 members, where 238 approved, seven voted against and 27 abstained from votes.

“Our earnest desire to put Suwon in a new position fit for its size has finally been granted allowing us to do bigger and greater things for the better lives of our citizens,” Yeom said. ”While boosting the special characteristics of local governments, we will take responsibility for the future of Korean administration through the development of vibrant networking between districts.”

By Song Donna and Park Joung-kyu (donnadsong@heraldcorp.com)  (fob140@heraldcorp.com)
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