“Municipal councils are barely keeping up with their municipal executives”

In the run-up to the local elections: Professor Klaartje Peters on the power of the municipal council

14-02-2022 · Background

MAASTRICHT. The municipal elections in the Netherlands will be held on Wednesday 16 March 2022. What awaits the newly elected members? They will have their work cut out for them, says Klaartje Peters, professor in Local and Regional Governance at UM.

“Being on the municipal council is a tough job. Councillors receive hardly any support and they have to balance their council work with their day job or studies. The mayor and aldermen usually hold full-time positions, and they have an entire administrative apparatus to fall back on.”

Klaartje Peters has been doing research on municipal councils for over fifteen years. In 2018, she received a grant from the Thorbecke Fund to study how to strengthen the position of municipal councils. And she’s not just doing it from behind a desk. In addition to having frequent contact with councillors, she has been affiliated with the Maastricht Court of Audit since 2006 (first as a member, later as its chair) and with its Venlo counterpart since 2019 (also as its chair). Municipal courts of audit were established about twenty years ago to audit local authorities and strengthen the position of the councils: are municipal policy decisions effective? Are they reaching the groups they are intended for? What about the costs? Are they in line with national legislation?


The principal duty of the municipal council is to scrutinise the work of the municipal executive, which consists of the mayor and aldermen. This duty of oversight is “challenging”, says Peters with a fair degree of understatement. In fact, it has become nearly impossible ever since the municipalities were given many additional responsibilities in 2015. “Take the Social Support Act (WMO), youth care, the Participation Act. The gap between the executive and the council has only widened as a result. In many municipalities, the council has very few support staff; they usually don’t get around to doing more than collecting documents for council meetings. Local representatives are very disadvantaged – and things are not much better on the national level: the House of Representatives also has far fewer support resources. Municipal councils are barely keeping up with their municipal executives. It won’t be long until we have a political scandal like the Dutch childcare benefits scandal at the local level.”

But Peters doesn’t think the municipal executives are the only ones to blame. The councils also get in their own way. “The coalition reaches a coalition agreement. Subsequently, most councillors don’t want to be publicly disloyal to their alderman. You don’t want your alderman to be ripped apart by the local newspaper. In the House of Representatives, they also don’t appreciate it when a member of parliament opposes their ‘own’ minister, as MP Pieter Omtzigt did. He and MP Renske Leijten made a statement together; they refused to back down. With the childcare benefits scandal, they showed that institutionalised distrust is very important for a representative.”


On the other side you have the members of the opposition, who often struggle to make themselves heard and in return start “yelling that they can’t get anything done”. It’s “dysfunctional oversight”, says Peters. “For the council to properly scrutinise the work of the executive, they must sometimes work together and take a stand together. That’s what I tell them when I present my research results to them. Both sides are often annoyed when I say this. It’s way too easy to put the responsibility on the coalition, they say; the opposition is always opposing us, and then we’re the ones who have to extend an olive branch? And the opposition says: no matter what we do, they freeze us out. They don’t take us seriously.”

This pattern can be seen in a lot of municipalities, says Peters. “I know that mayors, who chair the councils, are troubled by it. They often try to change the culture together with the clerk, but it’s difficult. But if the council is divided and consequently less powerful, the aldermen are the ones who ultimately benefit.”


It doesn’t have to be that way. In Zeist, a municipality in the central Netherlands, Peters encountered a municipal council that does work together and has been doing so for years. In fact, they can hardly remember a time when they didn’t. They couldn’t answer her question of how they managed to achieve this, she says. “Don’t you ever have a party that goes straight for the jugular? I asked them. Yes, they said, that sometimes happens with new parties, but then we have a few good talks about it and after that it’s fine.”

The Zeist council has also come up with a solution to defend itself against the excessive regionalisation that has become “a serious threat” to the authority of municipalities, says Peters. More and more issues are being decided at the regional level. “Take the Safety Regions [the regional administrative authorities under which the fire services, emergency medical assistance and crisis management are organised in the Netherlands]. During the first COVID-19 lockdown, the Heuvelland area was closed to outsiders, including Maastricht residents. The municipal council of Maastricht called the mayor out on this. She said: I can’t do anything about it, the decision was made by the Safety Region. And there are no councillors in that room. This is happening in all kinds of areas: youth care, the Participation Act. Councillors are responsible for scrutinising the work of their executives, but when an alderman comes back from a regional meeting and says that the decision was made to install 800 wind turbines, and the council is against it, the alderman will say: I am one of the 18 aldermen, the decision has already been made.”

Regionalisation is getting out of hand, says Peters. “It’s taking an axe to the roots of local democracy. Twenty per cent of the municipal budget is already going to the regional level. In Maastricht, this goes for parts of youth care, the municipal health service, the Safety Region, energy supply. By the time an issue reaches the council, it’s already too late.”

The Zeist council sends two councillors to each regional authority, one member of the opposition and one member of the coalition, who subsequently report to the council. “But that only works if the rest of the council trusts both of those councillors.”

Collective memory

Another thing that doesn’t help is that it keeps getting more difficult to find new candidates for the councils. People who are elected often begin with high hopes, but quite a lot of councillors resign early, says Peters. She regularly gives training courses for councils about their oversight role and the oversight instruments at their disposal. “Collective memory is fading. On top of that, the documentation is poor: the councils and the executives each have their own information systems, and there is no link between them. All of this complicates the work and affects the quality.”

Author: Riki Janssen

Photo: Loraine Bodewes and archive KP

Tags: elections,municipal council,klaartje peters,power,instagram,municipality elections, elections2022,local elections

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