Supreme Court upholds mergers

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PHOTO: Toomas Herm

The Supreme Court has decided that the government has complied with the law in merging the rural municipalities of Koeru, Rakke, and Lüganuse with their neighbors, and that relevant regulations are not unconstitutional.

The case concerned regulations to change the administrative-territorial organization, borders, and names of said rural municipalities.

The Administrative Reform Act, passed in June of 2016, obligated the government to propose local government units with fewer than 5,000 residents merge and gave it the right to make merger decisions even in cases where local governments did not agree to the terms.

The Supreme Court reviewed the constitutionality of the act in fall of 2016 and only found nonconformity regarding the principles of financing of mergers. The court found the reform itself to be constitutional.

The Supreme Court upheld its earlier position in the three cases in question and did not reevaluate the constitutionality of the reform. The constitutional review chamber only looked at whether the government has adhered to legal requirements in merging the local government units.

The chamber concluded that while the government’s decision limits local government units’ right to decide whether and whom to merge with, decisions pertaining to administrative-territorial organization rest with the legislator. The latter has in turn left decisions up to the government as concerns local governments.

In the case of challenges by Koeru, Rakke, and Lüganuse rural municipality councils, the Supreme Court found the government has complied with legal requirements in deciding administrative-territorial changes, and that the regulation is not unconstitutional.

The government has weighed options for changing the rural municipalities’ administrative-territorial organization and explained effect of mergers highlighted in the proposal in terms of important circumstances.

The chamber added that the court cannot take the government’s place in deciding whether other ways of achieving the goal of the reform (including mergers of rural municipalities) would have been more expedient or able to produce a more positive effect.

Sworn layer at law firm Ellex Raidla that represented the government, Arne Ots, said that the rulings were to be expected and confirmed the earlier conviction that the government had complied with all relevant regulations in merging the three rural municipalities.

“The Supreme Court formed an opinion on constitutionality of the administrative reform a year ago, and today we have confirmation that the government has acted in accordance with the earlier decision in executing mandatory mergers,” Ots said. “It is worth pointing out as concerns today’s rulings that the Supreme Court found that in case of rural municipalities that do not want to merge voluntarily, the bigger picture must be considered and one of the goals of the administrative reform – to achieve saving – kept in mind.”

Ots emphasized that the state has the right to carry out reforms to ensure efficiency and sustainability in situations where they are not to everyone’s liking.

The Supreme Court’s decision will see the creation of new rural municipalities: Väike-Maarja (merged with Rakke) with 6,000 residents, Järva (former Albu, Ambla, Imavere, Järva-Jaani, Kareda, Koeru, and Koigi rural municipalities) with 9,000 residents, and Lüganuse (as a result of the merger of the city of Kiviõli with Sonda and Lüganuse rural municipalities) with more than 9,000 residents.

One of the leaders of the Järva rural municipality merger, Ambla mayor Rait Pihelgas was glad the matter of the mandatory merger of Koeru was settled before local government council elections’ advance polls. “The decision cannot be appealed, and now it is finally clear Koeru is a part of Järva rural municipality,” Pihelgas told Järva Teataja.

He said that people in Koeru have allegedly been told not to vote because the Supreme Court has not made its position known. “That kind of talk is done now,” he said.

Pihelgas emphasized that Koeru residents have nothing to fear in Järva rural municipality as the region and its people will be treated the same as the other six rural municipalities.

A total of 17 rural municipality councils have turned to the Supreme Court with challenges of mandatory merger decisions. The court will resume hearing the complaints of the remaining 14 municipalities on October 10.