Formal Negotiations for Reykjavík City Council Begin

Einar Þorsteinsson

The Progressive Party has begun formal negotiations with the Social-Democratic Alliance, the Pirate Party, and the Reform Party on forming a governing majority on the Reykjavík City Council, RÚV reports. Under the leadership of first-time councillor Einar Þorsteinsson, the Progressive Party went from zero seats on the council to four following the May 14 municipal elections. Both Einar and incumbent mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson have stated they are not insistent on becoming mayor in the upcoming term: negotiations will focus on the issues before responsibilities are divided up.

Majority lost in election

Reykjavík’s four-party governing coalition of last term – 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 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 Independence Party, while it received the largest proportion of the vote (nearly 25%), lost one seat, going from seven to six councillors.

Rule out coalition with Independence Party

As is normally the case for municipal elections in Reykjavík, no party won enough seats to form a majority on its own. While many different party coalitions are technically possible, several have been ruled out by party councillors, who are not willing to work with just anyone. The Left-Green Movement’s only councillor Lif Magneudóttir has stated the party will not participate in majority negotiations at all. The Pirate Party has ruled out a coalition with the Independence Party on political grounds, while the Social-Democratic Alliance, the Reform Party, and the Pirate Party have decided to band together in the negotiation process, ruling out a coalition that would include the Independence Party.

Socialist Party councillor Sanna Magdalena Mörtudóttir criticised the three-party grouping for negotiations, stating that the additional seats won by the Socialist Party and Pirate Party indicated voters were calling for a left-leaning city council, not a right-leaning one. The Socialist Party has refused to be in a majority government with the Reform Party, which it labels as a right-wing party.

“We see that the Reform Party speaks in favour of privatisation, outsourcing, and these market solutions, as was clearly stated in their election campaign. We Socialists speak for socialists and social solutions and very much in like with the emphases that should be expressed by the Social Democrats.”

Stykkishólmur Works to Improve Integration of New Residents

Stykkishólmur - Stykkishólmshöfn - Breiðafjörður - Snæfellsnes

The West Iceland municipality of Stykkishólmur (pop. 1,193) wants to be more accessible for new residents, especially those of foreign origin, RÚV reports. The municipal authorities have appointed a task force that will work toward this goal, placing its focus on immigrants. The measures are aimed at the community as a whole, including businesses, social organisations, and municipal services.

“The women’s club, the Lions Club, the sports club,” are just a few examples of organisations that the task force will assist in making more open to new residents, Stykkishólmur mayor Jakob Björgvin Jakobsson stated. The proportion of immigrants in Stykkishólmur is close to the national average, or around 15% of all residents. Nearly one quarter of children in the municipality are bilingual or multilingual, or 23%.

According to Jakob, Stykkishólmur hopes to set up a procedure to help new residents adapt. That procedure would include subsidies for children to join local sports activities and meetings and interviews with other locals that could help new families adjust. “These are the procedures that we are implementing here in Stykkishólmur with the emphasis on multiculturalism.”

Akureyri City Council Abolishes Governing Majority

There is no longer a governing majority nor an opposing minority in the City Council of Akureyri, North Iceland, RÚV reports. Instead, all hands are on deck: councillors from all parties will work together for the remainder of this term in an attempt to tackle the large operational deficit facing the region’s largest town.

“We face big projects ahead, both due to the pandemic and the conditions of society today, and we believe that we will achieve better results if we all work together on those projects,” stated Halla Björk Reynisdóttir, the council’s president and councillor for the party L-listinn.

After the last municipal elections, the Progressive Party, Social Democratic Alliance, and L-listinn formed a governing majority. The Independence Party, Left-Green Party, and Centre Party formed the opposing minority in the 11-seat council. Now those alignments have been abolished. In order to redistribute authority, councillors from the former minority parties have taken over chairmanship in five of the city’s boards and councils (chairmanship of the largest boards and councils remains unchanged).

The new council was announced in a press conference at cultural centre Hof in Akureyri yesterday. Akureyri’s operational deficit this year is projected at ISK 3 billion ($21.7m/€18.6m), and the council’s governing agreement outlines austerity measures in order to turn the trend around. These measures include sale of property, a revision of senior officials’ salaries, and an increase in tariffs.

Independence Party Councillor Gunnar Gíslason says the reorganisation of Akureyri’s City Council is meant to help councillors “reach a consensus on what measures we take to reverse this [financial] development.”

Efling Workers Resume Strike Next Week, Affecting Schools

Efling strike Reykjavík

Efling Union workers employed by five municipalities in the capital area and South Iceland will resume striking on Tuesday, May 5. The members working for the municipalities of Kópavogur, Seltjarnarnes, Mosfellsbær, Hveragerði, and Ölfus voted overwhelmingly in support of strike action. The union’s negotiation committee postponed strike action during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, but announced that the strike would be voted on again after Easter.

“The members of Efling who work for these municipalities demand an agreement with comparable benefits as those found in agreements between Efling and the City of Reykjavik and the government of Iceland,” reads a statement on Efling’s website. Efling members working for the City of Reykjavík reached an agreement with the municipality last month following a three-week strike that affected preschools and welfare services in the capital.

All members of Efling Union working for the five municipalities will stop work indefinitely on Tuesday, May 5, the day after COVID-19 restrictions are loosened and schools return from reduced to regular programming. The strike will affect elementary schools and home services.

Voter turnout among Efling members was high, with 65% of eligible members voting on the strike. A notable 89% voted in favour of a strike in elementary schools and 88% voted in favour of a strike in other workplaces.

“These are incredible results. They show amazing courage, the will to fight and the unity of our members. Low wage workers are going to get the recognition that society cannot function without them. Pandemic or not – The members of Efling will not allow themselves to be forced into submission,” said Sólveig Anna Jónsdóttir, Chairman of Efling.

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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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.

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.

Local Councils Demand Share of Tourist Tax

The local council of Skútustaðahreppur wants to see taxes collected from overnight stays directed to local authorities for the building of tourist infrastructure, RÚV reports. The government previously pledged to transfer the funds earned through taxation of overnight stays to municipal governments during this electoral term as part of a revision of income. The matter, however, is absent from next year’s budget bill and not listed on the parliament’s agenda this winter.

The local council of Skútustapahreppur expressed disappointment at the lack of action on the issue. Þorsteinn Gunnarsson, the council’s director, said the funds were much needed. “There are a number of projects that have been on hold that this funding could be used for. Construction of toilet facilities, hiking and cycling paths around Mývatn lake and many more. So this is funding that would immediately go into the development of infrastructure here.”

Based on the number of overnight stays, it is estimated the tax will put ISK 30 to 35 million ($256,000-299,000/€221,000-258,000) in the treasury’s coffers, which could be funnelled to local governments. Þorsteinn Gunnarsson says transferring the taxes to municipalities should be a simple matter.

Aldís Hafsteinsdóttir, the new chairperson of the Icelandic Association of Local Authorities, urges the government to amend the budget bill and transfer the overnight stay tax to local councils starting next year. “The overnight stay tax is intended to support development at tourist destinations all across the country. So it is important that it goes to those who are overseeing the destinations, which are to the greatest extent the local councils.”

More Women Than Men on City Council Committees

There are more women than men on three out of six of the City of Reykjavík’s standing councils. This is not in compliance with gender equality laws, which state that the ratio of men to women must be as equal as possible on all municipal committees and councils, RÚV reports.

Three committees are currently each comprised of five women and two men: Human Rights and Democracy, Environment and Health, and the Welfare Committee. The gender balance on the remaining three standing committees—Sport and Leisure, Planning and Transportation, and Education and Youth—is more even.

Asked about the imbalance, Left Green councilor Líf Magneudóttir explained that the committee membership had been reshuffled after the last election in order to rebalance the gender ratios as much as possible, but that the situation had become more difficult after an increase in the number of councilors and changes made to City Council’s organizational structure.

There is also the fact that women now make up the majority—or 15 out of 23 councilors. In order to fulfill their duties as a councilor, Líf says, they must sit on at least two committees, meaning that there would naturally be a gender imbalance on the committees. The city council needs to address the issue as a whole, however, she says, after the summer recess is over.