AIM: start

TUE, 11 SEP 2001 02:52:33 GMT

Sofia Too Hasty with the Institution of Ombudsman

Municipal councilmen of Sofia did not wait for the passing of the law on public defence attorney

AIM Sofia

As of September 1, the citizens of Sofia will be able to express their discontent with the work of state administration to Ombudsman of Sofia Antoaneta Coneva. City Council of Sofia elected the first public defence attorney who will receive a salary of 700 levs, i.e. German marks, and who is entitled to appoint a three-member team of experts.

Every citizen has the right to address the Ombudsman if he/she is refused a service or did not get full and correct information on his/her rights in relations with the administration. The Ombudsman is engaged as a mediator between the citizens and the administration in finding a way to ensure that the citizens are rendered services they are entitled to.

The two-year project of introduction of the institution of a public mediator in Sofia was initiated by the Centre of Social Services together with the municipality of Sofia and with financial support of the Open Society Foundation. The sum of 25 thousand dollars was provided for it in the first year.

The Centre for Social Services was engaged in the introduction of the institution of Ombudsman since 1994, and there are 10 municipal ombudsmen in Bulgaria so far.

In fact, introduction of a similar institution was seriously considered back in 1991 in connection with passing of the new Constitution. At the time opinion prevailed that it would be better to wait until the democratic system took root. However, neither at the time nor in the past ten years had there been any doubt that the institution of ombudsmen would not be introduced in Bulgaria.

After the initial euphoria, certain delicate explanations followed that an ombudsman in Sofia would have great difficulties in carrying out his duty. One of the complaints was that the municipality of Sofia has decided to nominate a public mediator although there still was no law on ombudsman. In other words, Ms. Coneva will work without normatively guaranteed power of attorney.

In practice municipal councilmen have elected a clerk - ombudsman - who they will pay a salary in order to check their work. There is really no logic in that. The post of ombudsman is deprived of its sense in this way.

The institution of ombudsman created almost two centuries ago in Scandinavian countries was introduced in order to control state administration. In some countries ombudsman is the "European commissar for the protection of human rights", and in others he is the "Commissar for administration". Regardless of the name, the essence of the institution is the same everywhere. This person is a public defence attorney who protects the rights and the interests of the citizens from actions and decisions and documents of the administration.

However, European ombudsman is an independent public agency. That is the difference between a public attorney and an ombudsman who has instruments of power at his disposal. He is not only entitled to demand information from bureaucrats but can also sanction and order payment of compensation to citizens because of inappropriate behavior of administration.

What is confusing in case of Sofia's ombudsman is that she will not check the agreed privatisation business deals or activities of municipal societies. This is the sphere in which the municipal council limited the jurisdiction of this institution.

Besides, the Ombudsman will answer for her work to the municipal council of Sofia and the mayor, and not its citizens. However, they claim at the municipal council, this public defence attorney will submit annual reports that will be approved by the municipal council at its sessions. The report will, therefore, in fact be submitted to the municipal councilmen and not the mayor, therefore to the citizens, especially since it will be published.

And what will happen if the councilmen refuse to approve the submitted report? That would mean that they do not approve the activity of the institution itself and they could vote in favour of withdrawing the power of attorney entrusted to it.

There is no doubt that the institution of ombudsman is necessary. For the time being its role is to warn and control the administration because it is an institution that defends justice but does not administer it. An ombudsman cannot decide on a case with the power of passing a sentence, so the scope of the operation can be only in the administration – central or local.

According to the opinion of experts perhaps it would have been better to wait until the end of the year in order to pass a relevant law. There are several draft laws at the Committee for Human Rights. They prescribe deputy’s immunity for the ombudsman who is entitled to create an apparatus which would include local ombudsmen. Like in ombudsman’s homeland, Sweden, in many other European countries ombudsman’s jurisdiction covers the whole territory of a state. This will be given priority in the draft law of the ruling Simeno the Second National Movement (NPSD) which the deputies hope will be passed by the end of the year. According to the authors it would be best if the parliament elects the people’s defence attorney.

However, according to numerous political observers in Sofia, in order to make this institution operational, at least the next generation will have to replace this one. It is necessary to change the mentality of the Bulgarians and make them aware that the state and its agencies are obliged to protect their rights and take care of them. To put it simply, it is necessary to create the type of communication that implies that the state and the citizen – tax payer – will equally take care of each other.

Plamen Kulinski

(AIM Sofia)