Municipal Election Results: Gains for Progressives Across Iceland

iceland election

Last Saturday’s municipal elections will go down in Icelandic history books, both for the Progressive Party’s success across the country, and the Independence Party’s worst-ever outcome in Reykjavík. The Progressive Party doubled its following nationwide compared to the last municipal election, held in 2018, and more than tripled its number of councillors from 22 to 67.

Iceland holds municipal elections every four years, in all municipalities concurrently. While the results gave the Progressive Party much to celebrate, several other parties saw losses in their number of seats on local councils, including the Centre Party, the Social-Democratic Alliance, and the Reform Party. While the Independence Party lost following across the country, it remains the party with the most local councillors nationwide: 110.

Reykjavík results

Reykjavík’s four-party governing coalition – consisting of the Social-Democratic Alliance, Reform Party, Pirate Party, and Left-Green Movement – lost two of its 12 seats in the election, and therefore has lost its majority on the 23-seat Reykjavík City Council. The Social-Democratic Alliance and Reform Party both lost seats, the Left-Green Party held its single seat, while the Pirate Party increased its number of seats from two to three.

As elsewhere in the country, the Progressive Party saw great success in Reykjavík, going from zero seats on the City Council to four. The Socialist Party also saw an increase in voters, doubling their seats from one to two. While it received the largest proportion of the vote, or nearly 25%, the Independence Party lost one seat, going from seven to six councillors following the election.

Poor voter turnout

Voter turnout decreased in all of the country’s largest municipalities except Hafnarfjörður, where it increased by 2.4%. The lowest voter turnout was in Reykjanesbær, where less than half of registered voters turned up to the polls. Voter turnout was 63% across the country, a drop from 68% in the last municipal elections.

In Reykjavík, voter turnout was 61.1%, or 5.9% lower than in 2018. It bears noting, however, that amendments to election legislation that took effect in January increased the number of registered voters in the city by around 10,000. A total of 61,359 people voted in the city in this year’s election, while in 2018 that number was 60,417.

Coalition talks begin

In light of the weekend results, parties across the country are beginning coalition talks. In Reykjavík, Mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson has announced that his Social-Democratic Alliance has begun negotiations with the Pirate Party and the Reform Party on forming a governing coalition. Progressive Party councillor Einar Þorsteinsson said he was open to collaborating with all parties with seats on the council. Independence Party councillor Hildur Björnsdóttir stated she had had several informal talks with other councillors, while Left-Green Movement councillor Lif Magneudóttir has stated the party will not participate in majority coalition talks this term.

City of Reykjavík Spent ISK 2 Million on Working Environment Report

A report the City of Reykjavík commissioned on the working environment within City Council had a price tag of ISK 2 million ($14,500/€12,300), RÚV reports. Centre Party Councillor Vigdís Hauksdóttir has filed a complaint with the Data Protection Authority regarding the appraisal and requested the Ministry of Local Government repeal the report. Some City Council members have described the working environment as “unbearable,” in part due to tension between Vigdís and the secretary of the mayor’s office, Helga Björg Ragnarsdóttir.

Accusations of Bullying

The City Council’s Execute Committee decided to hire psychological clinic Líf og sál to assess the working environment of the City Council and the psychosocial risk factors for staff who attend council meetings on a regular basis. At council meetings this term, Vigdís has turned her back on Helga and submitted minutes in which she criticises Hegla’s presence at the meetings. Both Vigdís and Helga have described the other’s behaviour as bullying.

Vigdís filed a complaint with the Data Protection Authority regarding the assessment, and it has responded by sending detailed questions to city authorities. She has also requested the Ministry of Transport and Local Government revoke the Executive Committee’s decision to have the audit done.

Participation Was Optional

The city council majority stated, however, that participation in the assessment was optional and that all were allowed to withdraw their consent. The assessment was not focused on specific individuals, rather risk factors in the work environment of those who chose to participate.

People’s Party Councillor Kolbrún Baldursdóttir has called the report “utter nonsense” and that the methods used by Líf og Sál were questionable. What was first and foremost necessary, stated Kolbrún, was to teach people some manners, and “that does not cost 20 million.”

East Iceland Votes in New “Home Councils” Next Week

East Iceland residents go to the polls next week to vote in the first government of a newly-merged municipality. Residents of Borgarfjarðarhreppur, Fljótsdalshérað, Seyðisfjörður, and Djúpavogshreppur voted last October to merge their municipalities under a single government. Each of the four localities will also elect a so-called “home council,” representing a brand-new form of local government in Iceland.

The new municipality, which is yet to be named, will be the largest in Iceland, at over 11,000 square kilometres (4,250 square miles) and will contain around 5,000 residents. Five parties are running for election to the new government: Austurlistinn, the Progressive Party, the Centre Party, the Independence Party, and the Left-Green Movement. In addition to the municipal council, each of the four localities will also have a three-person home council, which will serve as a link between the municipal government and the locality’s residents. The concept is built on experimental provisions on governance in 2011 legislation concerning local government. This will be the first time the provision is applied.

Read More: Municipal Mergers in Iceland

When they show up to the polls, East Iceland residents will not only be voting on council members but also nominating residents to their own home council. Everyone who holds the right to vote is eligible to sit on a home council, and to nominate someone, voters simply write down their name and address on the ballot. This means that interested parties do not necessarily need to campaign publicly to win a seat on their home council. Those who would like to do so, however, are able to register online.

Two out of three members of each home council will be drawn from the locality, while the third member will be a sitting municipal councillor. Home councils will hold a significant amount of authority within each locality. They will oversee detailed land-use plans, the granting of licenses, nature conservation, and cultural events in their area.

In Focus: Municipal Mergers

It’s Monday morning. Katrín wakes up and gets her daughter ready for school. After dropping her off, she heads to the local library, where she does freelance work. On her way there, she notices the progress in the apartment housing being built across the street: she’s renting now but has put a down payment on an apartment there. During her lunch break, Katrín drives out of town for a walk at her favourite hiking spot. Since it was designated as a protected area several years ago, it’s been getting more popular. She works until 5.00pm. Her daughter participates in an after-school program until then. After picking her up, they head to the local pool for a bit of fun before dinner. One organisation has had a hand in every aspect of Katrín’s day, as well as her daughter’s: her local council.

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Food Costs High for City Council Meetings

Reykjavík City Hall

Twenty Reykjavík City Council meetings between June 2018 and July 2019 cost the city ISK 17 million ($140,000/€126,000). Each meeting cost on average ISK 850,000 ($7,000/€6,300). RÚV reported first. The cost of food and drink at the meetings has attracted particular attention, averaging ISK 360,000 ($3,000/€2,700) per meeting. Several councillors say it would be simple to lower such expenses.

An inquiry into the cost of City Council meetings was submitted by Councillor Pawel Bartoszek in September, to which the City’s Department of Finance and Risk Management provided a detailed answer in late November.

While city councillors number 23, around 40 individuals in total are fed at each City Council meeting, including substitute councillors, City Hall staff, and security guards. That means that for catering one meeting at ISK 360,000, the cost per person is around ISK 9,000 ($74/€67). Múlakaffi was the main contractor during the one-year period considered, receiving ISK 5.8 million ($48,000/€43,000) for providing meals, coffee, and snacks. An additional ISK 1.3 million ($10,700/€9,700) went to other food and drink provided at the meetings.

Late meetings hike up costs

Much of the costs incurred by the meetings are due to their scheduling. When they run later than 6.00pm, not only is dinner provided, but the three caretakers remain on the premises are also paid overtime. “If City Council meetings ran shorter than to 6.00pm, food costs would be saved, streaming costs and the overtime of the caretakers,” the Department of Finance’s answer reads.

Could pay for their own food

Socialist Party MP Sanna Magdalena Mörtudóttir proposed several ways to cut down costs in a Facebook post on the issue. “Start earlier, end earlier, that reduces the likelihood that we eat dinner on location.” She revealed that City Council meetings usually begin at 2.00pm but occasionally earlier if there are large issues on the agenda. “I also think you could charge us councillors for the food, we can afford it. Why aren’t we instead offering meals to people with low salaries who do important jobs for the city?”

Pawel added that City Council had begun ordering pizza in recent months to cut down on catering costs, but agrees that costs could be brought lower. “We need to be aware that there is always some cost in sustaining democratic debate. That cost is never zero and we shouldn’t aim for that, but it’s a matter of course to look for ways to lower the cost of meetings.”

Live streaming costs

While food expenses at City Council meetings are high, they only make up 42% of the meetings’ overall cost. The rest, or 56%, are technical costs for live streaming the meetings on the City of Reykjavík website and RÚV. People’s Party MP Kolbrún Baldursdóttir stated she had discussed the cost of streaming with specialists who say it can be done for less and suggested renegotiating the city’s contracts for the services.

Merge to Form Largest Municipality in Iceland

east iceland consolidation

Four East Iceland municipalities will be consolidated to form the largest municipality in the country. Residents of Fljótsdalshérað, Borgarfjarðarhreppur, Seyðisfjarðarhreppur, and Djúpavogshreppur voted on Saturday to consolidate the four municipalities under a single local government. The new municipality will be the largest in Iceland geographically, with an area over 11,000 square kilometres (4,250 square miles) and will contain around 5,000 residents.

Voter turnout was relatively high in all four municipalities. Djúpavogshreppur had the highest voter turnout at 78%, followed by Borgarfjarðarhreppur at 71.6%, Seyðisfjarðarkaupstaður at 70.7% and Fljótsdalshérað at 53.6%. Though Fljótsdalshérað showed the lowest voter turnout, residents there were the most supportive of consolidation, with 92.9% voting for merging the four municipalities. Voters were supportive of the merger overall, with 86.7% voting for in Seyðisfjarðarkaupstaður, 64.7% in Borgarfjarðarhreppur, and 63.7% in Djúpavogshreppur.

The municipalities plan to hold elections next spring for the new local council. One of the council’s first tasks will be to choose a name for the new municipality. A press release on Seyðisfjarðarkaupstaður’s website says it is likely residents will be given the chance to suggest names and vote from a shortlist.

While the council will have 11 representatives who are responsible for the entire muncipality, each of the four regions will also retain a council of three members with more localised authority. The concept is built on experimental provisions on governance in 2011 legislation concerning local government. This will be the first time the provision is applied.

North Iceland Municipality Develops Multicultural Policy

One fourth of Skútustaðahreppur municipality’s residents are foreign citizens, RÚV reports, compared to around 13% in Iceland’s overall population. It’s a recent demographic development driven by the tourism industry. The municipality has been preparing a special multicultural policy to better welcome and integrate its newest residents.

Skútustaðahreppur contains Mývatn lake, one of the most visited sites in North Iceland. The stream of tourists to the region has led to a population boom in recent years. “Over 40% since 2013, which is a little bit refreshing but has been a bit of a strain on our infrastructure,” says Þorsteinn Gunnarsson, the municipality’s mayor, who says the increase can largely be explained by tourism. “Foreign labour is the basis. We are in the unusual position that a quarter of the population here are foreign residents and therefore it’s very important to welcome them into our community,” Þorsteinn stated.

The municipality’s new multicultural policy has been in preparation for almost a year, and addresses issues such as local services to residents and how Skútustaðahreppur schools can support students of foreign origin. The policy also explores how the municipality can provide a good quality of life for all its residents.

Skútustaðahreppur is not the only Icelandic municipality working to better address the needs of its foreign residents. The neighbouring municipality of Norðurþing employs a multicultural representative in a part-time position. The municipalities of Norðurþing, Skútustaðahreppur, and Þingeyjarsveit are all considering creating a full-time position in the field.

Reykjavík Receives Environmental Innovation Grant

Reykjavík pond

The City of Reykjavík and Reykjavík Energy have received an ISK 160 million ($1.3m/€1.2m) grant from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Technological Development Programme. The grant is used toward carbon offsetting and energy exchange projects in cities.

Two European cities, Espoo in Finland and Leipzig in Germany, have the role of developing carbon offsetting and energy exchange solutions, while five other European cities, including Reykjavík, test-run the solutions in a variety of environments.

The project focuses on energy exchange in transport, and the development of smart and energy-friendly infrastructure. The project also touches on the transformation of cities through the interaction between authorities, administrations, and stakeholders, while the involvement of the public is another key element. The grant is distributed over a five-year period.

East Iceland Towns Propose New Form of Local Government

Borgarfjörður eystri east iceland

Residents of four East Iceland localities will vote later this month on whether or not to consolidate under a single municipal government. If the localities do join together, each would retain a three-member “home council,” an arrangement unprecedented in Iceland. RÚV reported first.

On October 26, residents of Borgarfjarðarhreppur, Djúpavogshreppur, Fjótsdalshreppur, and Seyðisfjörður vote on the proposal to merge their municipalities under a single government. If the proposal is accepted, the localities would share a single council of 11 representatives, while each of the four localities would retain a council of three members with more localised authority.

The idea of home councils was put forth as a response to the criticism that smaller communities would lose influence through consolidation. The councils’ goal is to ensure that local residents still have an impact on their local services. The concept is built on experimental provisions on governance in 2011 legislation concerning local government. If the four localities do join together, it will be the first time the provision is applied.

Home councils oversee land use

Two members of each home council would be elected directly by the locality’s residents, while the third would have a seat on the municipal council. The representatives would have equal authority. While the municipal government would decide on general zoning plans, detailed land-use plans would be under the jurisdiction of the home councils. While the general environmental policy would be determined by the municipal council, specific environmental projects within a locality’s area would be in the hands of its home council. Home councils would therefore have a big influence on environmental protection as well as development within their locality.

Fewer representatives with more authority

The four East Iceland localities currently have a total of 113 representatives on their local councils. With the merging of the four localities, this number would be lowered to 42.

Majority of Regional Archives Not Prepared for Disaster

The National Archives of Iceland have been housed at Laugavegur 162 since the 1980s.

Less than a third of Iceland’s regional archives have made copies of important documents, as is dictated by disaster preparedness protocols, RÚV reports. On top of this, about two thirds of the regional archives do not have any emergency plan in place for how to respond to large-scale disasters.

According to Eiríkur G. Guðmundsson, Director General of the National Archives, the biggest reason for this oversight is that the regional archives simply do not have the resources, either in terms of staffing or funding. Eiríkur said that these archives must be prioritised if the situation is to be remedied.

Iceland has 20 regional archives, all of which are under the oversight of the country’s national archives. These archives are the repositories for institutional and governmental documents for local districts around the country.

Per Icelandic public archival laws, last amended in 2014, the country’s most important documents must be preserved on film, in electronic copy, or by means of other electronic storage method. These copies are then stored in a separate location away from the main archives. Thus far, however, only three of the 20 regional archives have assessed what documents would need to be transferred in the event of a disaster, and where.