DIRECT DEMOCRACY IN ACTION
I was allowed to be present as a listener to the first meeting of a new commune which was formed by three villages in the Gruyere. The Canton of Fribourg has been encouraging its communes to join together for greater efficiency, offering money to cover the cost and with considerable success. Many citizens were in favour of the whole valley of eight communes becoming one, but setting it up proved too difficult. Four communes joined to form Haut Intyamon and the other four entered into discussions to become Bas Intyamon. But when the citizens were asked to approve the fusion last April (the ballot is not secret) the voters of Grandvillard, influenced, it was said, by pressure from the leading families, largely rejected the proposal. Those against claimed Grandvillard would not get a fair deal for its water. The communes already had common school and fire systems and each time Grandvillard had been late to join with the other villages. The vote caused ill-feeling and satisfaction. Some feel Grandvillard tends to dominate this end of the valley. Naturally there is much intermarriage so it could be described as a family quarrel. The delegates set to work and quickly prepared a new plan for the remaining three communes to fuse at the end of the year and this was approved with one village 100% in favour. The new commune of a thousand voters came into existence on the 1st of January 2004.
|One village seen from another
|A rare survival of an 18th century communal archive building
The meeting was chaired by the syndic, the equivalent of a mayor. He is from the largest of the original communes, as is the secretary who is available in the administrative offices several hours a week and has a clerical aid. There is a committee, two members from each of the old communes, each having a responsibility. To this first meeting came 107 voters, about two-thirds men. The first need was to wind up the business of the constituant communes so each person received a voting card as they entered, coloured according to the commune where they reside. There was no need to ask people. The secretary standing at the door of the meeting room above the inn, knew everyone and later when people wanted to speak the syndic addressed them by their first name.
Finances took up a lot of the meeting. One commune is smaller and one is not on the main road and the railway line and is entirely rural. The constituant communes have had different tax incomes and debts and they also own forests, grazing land, building plots and buildings. Individuals and enterprises are assessed for taxes by the canton and the communes then set a rate which is paid using the same tax brackets. It is hard to draw up the first budget because there will be some delay until the new commune knows its income. Contributions must be made towards education, health services, roads and other amenities. Subsidies will be received because it is a mountain area of relatively low income.
There are two overseeing committees, one for the finances and one for buildings. A member from each of the old communes was proposed and voting took place by secret ballot. While these were counted the current budget was discussed. The items to be paid for include new, larger communal offices, repairs to one of the school buildings, repairs after winter storm damage, access to the rubbish disposal area and future water supplies, which will just the same be a joint venture with Grandvillard. Being a rural area ecological considerations make the disposal of rubbish an important task. Two of the communes had paid to use the facilities in Grandvillard. This money is lost as now they must switch to the tip within the new commune which a contractor is paid to empty. One of those present said to me afterwards
"If it is a large item, like the expected deficit for the first year, no-one blinks an eyelid. But some small sum will lead to heated discussion."
Each commune, within the framework of federal and cantonal legislation, has its own way of going about its tasks which include maintenance, managing its property, issuing building licences and passports and other administrative tasks for the inhabitants. Therefore each has sets of regulations and now these must be rewritten to apply to the fused communes. Three sets were ready for approval and special meetings will be held as others are available. The three approved were for the fire service, the cemeteries and the costs of various documents issued by the commune. The most controversial item of the evening was the new regulations for the fire service which is still run jointly with Grandvillard.
Everyone residing in the commune, whatever their nationality, between the ages of twenty and fifty is liable for fire service. But there are some exceptions and these were the bone of contention because failure to serve is replaced with an annual fine. An amendment was moved and it took a moment to come to a way of dealing with this clearly unusual occurrence. The service must have a minimum of twenty-five trained members. Here each village provides ten people who work within the commune, so are quickly available. In practice this means most are dairy farmers, but as they probably have most need of the service to safeguard their buildings, animals and foodstocks, it is not unfair. Others are in reserve but generally re-inforcements will come from the town in case of a major disaster.
The meeting had lasted over three hours by the time the last item on the agenda, any other business, was reached, but this did not stop people asking how certain minor matters were going to be treated in the new commune - dogs and bicycles. The dairy farmers would be up in six hours time to milk the cows. I was impressed by how much time people like the syndic, the fire chief, who is a carpenter and others, including a lorry driver, who drew up the new regulations had given to the affairs of the commune after working full time and how well they expressed themselves. One of the retiring secretaries was presenting the accounts of his commune for the thirtieth time. They receive a small remuneration, as do the people who turn up for a fire. I also remarked that there was no sign of any notable dominating the meeting.
Anker celebrated local democracy in pictures of the village secretary and the council meeting.
7th May 2004