Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Provincial Elders Speak

Although A View from Acqualoreto is a new blog, its title is not entirely appropriate at the moment since we’re in winter exile in Perugia. Nevertheless, Perugia is still Umbria, indeed it’s the capital of Umbria. Last week I noticed a poster advertising a joint meeting of the provincial councils of Terni and Perugia, open to the public, to discuss the role of provincial governments in the new political plan for Italy. This is not an insignificant issue. The Italian Constitution was modified seven years ago with a view to delegating more autonomy and responsibility to local government but thus far the Government has not managed to define how the federalism is to work. It seems that now the Berlusconi Government has proposed the elimination of the provincial governments.

There are four levels of government here: national, regional, provincial and local. The two Houses of Parliament in Rome have about 950 members. There are 20 regions of varying sizes, each with its own regional government, and within the regions there are a number of provinces, each with its own full supply of elected officials. The number of provinces per region varies, from the eleven of Lombardia to the two of smaller regions such as Umbria, with a total of 103 provinces in all of Italy. Within the provinces there are large numbers of comuni, or townships and their size varies enormously. For example, the Comune di Roma contains more than three million people while our Comune of Baschi has about 1800 residents. Of Perugia’s 50 or 60 comuni, only 15 have more than 5000 residents. The complications are predictable and I’ve seen some of them before in New York, where New York City building regulations often conflict with those of the state, and some national codes and standards must also be complied with. Building applications routinely require the services of a whole new professional category, the expeditor. It is perhaps worse in Italy where overlapping jurisdictions are the rule.

The meeting was scheduled for 10:00 AM in the meeting chamber of the Province of Perugia. Stepped banks of seats on all four sides were individually labeled with the name of their occupants, while in the central (orchestra) section, the first two rows of seats were all marked “reserved”, leaving three rows of seats (18 total) for the public. At 10:00, apart from a few people at the assistants’ and press tables on the periphery, the only seat occupied in the room was the one I had taken. Eventually a few councilors wandered in to take their seats and “the public” doubled to its final size of two with the arrival of a 68 year old geometra from Giove. He later got up to make an impassioned plea for the diffusion of solar panels, an interesting and welcome discourse which seemed to have nothing to do with the topic at hand. At 10:30 a woman, the President of the Province I believe, tried to call the meeting to order to hear a live speech on a huge TV screen by another official, probably the President of the Association of Provincial Governments, who couldn’t be there. At first the audio didn’t work but after a few minutes a crackling, inaudible sound was established for the remainder of the speech. Whatever might have been able to be heard was drowned out by the continual chattering of the 20 or 25 delegates, out of the anticipated 50 or 60, who eventually showed up.

Many live speeches followed. One of the first, by Sig. Giovagnoli, a representative of the Region, said that while the Constitution must be respected, it was essential that the inefficiencies and overlapping responsibilities be eliminated. The last and best speaker that I heard, (I left after 3 hours)a councilor named Ruggiani, spoke articulately and passionately, saying that if something needed to be eliminated, it should be all the appointed agencies, never accountable to the voters, which had been created to administer the water resources, the forests, parks, etc., and that the provinces should reassume the responsibilities for what they are supposed to administer. Between those two speeches, most others were nearly incomprehensible to me. In part, this is because after 35 years, my comprehension of spoken Italian is not what it should be, and in part because my hearing isn’t all that good anymore. Nevertheless, some of it was because many of the speakers mumbled, spoke in a monotone, or worse, spoke in an empty political rhetoric signifying nothing. Virtually all started by affirming that they would never defend the role of the provincial government just to protect their jobs and proceeded to say how they only wanted to protect the Constitution and the citizenry. I’m not sure that the elimination of the institution of the Province is a good thing, but the conduct of this meeting was as good an argument for its abolition as I could imagine.

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