New law ties environmentalists to their desks

In all the debate surrounding the new law on Territorial Administration, which went into effect this summer, one consequence went largely unnoticed - the disappearance of local environmental offices. The government says that absorbing the once-independent offices into regional administration centers will make them more efficient, but environmentalists and opposition MPs say no, fearing that the environment will suffer as a result. "I believe the environmental offices should not be absorbed into an integrated state administration," said Ľudovít Černák, a member of parliament for the opposition Democratic Union (DU), after a press conference the DU held on the issue. "Instead, we should grant them greater jurisdiction in the care of waste, water, and air control... Things are much better now than they were before the Velvet Revolution, and nowhere in the world do people change what works well."

In all the debate surrounding the new law on Territorial Administration, which went into effect this summer, one consequence went largely unnoticed - the disappearance of local environmental offices. The government says that absorbing the once-independent offices into regional administration centers will make them more efficient, but environmentalists and opposition MPs say no, fearing that the environment will suffer as a result.

"I believe the environmental offices should not be absorbed into an integrated state administration," said Ľudovít Černák, a member of parliament for the opposition Democratic Union (DU), after a press conference the DU held on the issue. "Instead, we should grant them greater jurisdiction in the care of waste, water, and air control... Things are much better now than they were before the Velvet Revolution, and nowhere in the world do people change what works well."

By reorganizing Slovakia's 31 districts and 121 municipalities into 79 districts and eight regional centers, the new law reduced the number of workers in local government by 3,000 to less than 20,000. Parliamentary debate placed it in the line of fire: trade unions protested the reduction of workers, and opposition MPs argued that redistricting created an unfair political advantage for Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar by upgrading towns and regions that traditionally support his party.

While cuts were made across the board, the environmental divisions were hit particularly hard, losing 300-400 workers around the country. The offices, which first came into being after 1989, were responsible for monitoring environmental protection laws in towns and villages, for granting building permits, and for approving regional development projects.

Although they fell under the budget and jurisdiction of the Ministry of Environment, they received a fair level of independence, levying and collecting fines themselves. "The independence of these offices was always relative," explained Mikuláš Huba, chairman of the Society for Sustainable Development, an environmental non-governmental organization (NGO).

"But because they were directly under Ministry of the Environment [and did not answer to local powers], they had a lot more freedom than they will have now. In this new system, they will be only the fifth wheel on the car and their authority will decline."

Now, the responsibilities once held by the independent offices will fall to the environmental section of each of the 8 regions, or kraj. "We will have all the same responsibilities," said Ján Hovranek the director of the environmental office for the Bratislava region.

Both he and Gejza Petrík, director of the local government department at the Ministry of the Interior, insist that the changes will not hurt the offices' ability to protect the environment; in fact, Petrík said, streamlining will make them more efficient.

"The old structure wasn't very effective because there were so many administrative employees," he said. "Because there were separate offices [for the environment, education, culture and so forth], it meant each office had its own secretary, accountant, etc." Because mostly superfluous staff were let go, he added, the "professionals" were not reduced. But for the environmental departments, the administrative cutbacks pack a double wallop, by tying the pros, who do the bulk of their work in the field, to their desks.

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