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Tuesday, May 15, 2001

Citizens' group keeps an eye on local politicians

Staff writer

AMAGASAKI, Hyogo Pref. -- The members of local assemblies may play a major role in formulating policies affecting the citizens they represent, but few people have a chance to follow their day-to-day activities.

Wild rice grows around a stainless-steel sculpture (above) on the roof of the Kamigata Ukiyo-e Museum in Chuo Ward, Osaka. Below, a sculpture depicts a single grain of rice.

To address this lack of information and to help voters make informed decisions when the next election rolls around, an Amagasaki citizens' group issued a report last month evaluating the activities of each current assembly member.

"The city will not become a better place until the quality of local assembly members improves," said Sakae Matsuura, head of Shimin Onbuzu (civic ombudsman) Amagasaki, the group that published the report. "We hope citizens use it as a reference when they vote next month."

The Amagasaki Municipal Assembly election is scheduled for June 17.

The report, evaluating each of the 48 assembly members, includes such information as the number of days they were absent during plenary sessions, how many questions they posed to the city administration during committee meetings and whether they made public their personal assets.

The assessments were based on records kept by the assembly's secretariat since the last election, in 1997, and on observations of assembly sessions made by group members in September.

According to the report, four members spoke only twice during plenary sessions between July 1997 and last September, and one member was absent for five hours from a three-day plenary session.

"We were disappointed to see the results," Matsuura said. "Many of them didn't seem to be doing their job properly. As they are paid with our tax money, it is their duty to at least attend assembly sessions."

A visitor studies "kamigata" ukiyo-e prints, named after the Kyoto-Osaka area.

Not surprisingly, the report triggered a stir among the assembly members, with many charging it isn't fair to be evaluated on such limited criteria.

Hajime Sakai, who belongs to a two-member group in the assembly, said that although he appreciates the watchdog efforts, checking some items alone does not properly reflect members' abilities and performance.

Relevant information, such as an explanation of why a member skipped a particular session, should also be given to voters, he said.

"I think this kind of evaluation is necessary, but it needs improvement. For instance, the number of times an assembly member asks questions does not really mean much, as those belonging to large groups have fewer opportunities (to speak) than those who belong to smaller groups."

Yukio Senba, a member of the local chapter of New Komeito, said his four-day absence from assembly sessions was due to his father's death. Without an explanation in the report, Senba said, readers could be mislead.

According to Senba, Shimin Onbuzu Amagasaki is not purely a citizens' group but rather a political group that intends to field its own candidates in the coming election.

"I understand the role of a third party in evaluating the performance of assembly members to improve their quality, but I consider Onbuzu Amagasaki a political group. It's research results may be intended to oust incumbent members for new ones."

Hirokazu Kobayashi, a professor at Senshu University in Tokyo and an expert on local administration and politics, said that while watchdog assessments carry many difficulties, he still advocates such activities.

"It is difficult to evaluate assembly members only with such items as those used by the Amagasaki group," he said, suggesting that the group add such information as: how many policy proposals members make; how they work to achieve their campaign promises, including the quality of the promises; how much information they give to the public; how they communicate with citizens; and how they contribute to advancing the local administration.

"I realize that evaluating assembly members' performance requires a lot of effort as well as an enormous amount of time," Kobayashi said. "But it is better that more than one citizens' group engage in such an activity, while also stating in a clear manner on what basis they are making their assessments."

Although the notion of citizens taking action to evaluate their assembly representatives is relatively new, Kobayashi expects the trend to spread, leading to an increase in the number of "civilians" running for office.

"Evaluating assembly members is necessary to eliminate distrust in local politics. As citizens' groups increasingly scrutinize local politics, it is natural that more people will decide to go into politics for themselves after finding there is nobody they want to cast a ballot for."

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