Composition of the city planning working group (TAS 318/2019, issued on 24 March 2020)
The Ombudsman for Equality was asked to investigate whether the composition of the city planning working group of city X complies with the quota provision laid down on equality between women and men. Only one of the seven members of the planning group is a woman.
According to section 4a(1) of the Act on Equality between Women and Men (Equality Act), the proportion of both women and men in government committees, advisory boards and other corresponding bodies, and in municipal bodies and bodies established for the purpose of inter-municipal cooperation, but excluding municipal councils, must be at least 40 per cent, unless there are special reasons to the contrary.
The quota provision of the Equality Act does not specify in more detail which municipal bodies it is applied to, except that the municipal council has been excluded from the application of the quota provision. The Supreme Administrative Court has stated that in some cases the bodies referred to in the quota provision may also include bodies other than those referred to in section 17 of the Local Government Act (365/1995), such as working groups. The interpretation is influenced by the role and tasks of the body concerned in municipal decision-making. In the assessment, attention may also be paid to the composition of the body and the duration of the term or frequency of meetings set for the body.
The quota provision is applied separately to both ordinary members and deputy members. Exceptions to the quota requirement may be made for special reasons, for example when the experts in a particular special field represent one gender only. In the view of the Ombudsman for Equality, the concept of a special reason must be interpreted narrowly and the party invoking a special reason must justify its decision. It is the responsibility of the authority preparing the establishment of a body to ensure that the quota provision is complied with.
In legal practice, the local governments have had the right to deviate from the gender quota of the Equality Act mainly when members are appointed to municipal bodies based on their position as public servants or elected officials. In most cases, these are committees for which officials can also be appointed on the basis of their public servant status. The position of a public servant or elected official cannot automatically be considered a special reason referred to in the Equality Act. In practice, however, there may be situations where, taking into account the role of the body, it is objectively justified to compose the municipal body of elected officials and public servants acting at a certain level. However, this should always be carefully considered and justified on a case-by-case basis. Special reasons should not be invoked retrospectively if they were not taken into account when the body was being set up.
Assessment of the case
The members appointed to the planning working group on the basis of their public servant status were the city manager, technical director and city architect. In addition, as elected official members in the working group the City Board appointed the first vice-chair of the City Board, the second vice-chair of the City Council, a member of the City Board and the vice-chair of the community committee. The working group consists of seven members, one of whom is a woman.
In the office holder's decision, the quota provision of the Equality Act was not taken into account, because, considering the purpose and working methods of the working group, it was not considered necessary. Furthermore, in its statement, the city referred to the fact that the planning working group in question is not a body as referred to in the Local Government Act.
According to the statement, the city is continuously running or setting up projects related to zoning and other land use. It has been discovered that a working group supporting the work of the planners brings benefits mainly to the brainstorming, planning and other preparation of zoning as well as the evaluation of the results and other implementation of zoning.
As stated above, the purpose of the working group concerned was to prepare land use planning and thus influence societal decision-making. The Ombudsman for Equality considered that, taking account of its task, the planning working group can be considered a municipal body that must be appointed in accordance with the 40% quota provision laid down in the Act on the Equality between Women and Men.
Based on their public servant status, the city manager had appointed the city manager, the technical director and the city architect as members of the planning working group. The Ombudsman for Equality considered that the task of the working group was of such a nature that it was possible to appoint the aforementioned persons as members based on their public servant status. The elected official members appointed to the working group were the first vice-chair of the City Board, the second vice-chair of the City Council, a member of the City Board and the vice-chair of the Urban Committee. Therefore, the membership of the elected officials does not seem to be tied to holding an elected official status at a particular level as required above.
In other words, three members of the planning working group were appointed based on their public servant status. Two of them were men and one was a woman. The four elected official members were all men. In order for the composition of the planning working group to comply with section 4a(1) of the Act on Equality between Women and Men, two women should have been appointed as elected official members.
The Ombudsman for Equality considered that, when preparing the matter, the city manager and the City Board had not taken sufficient measures to ensure the implementation of the quota provision. The Ombudsman for Equality reminded the city X that compliance with the quota provision of the Equality Act is an official duty and called on the city to pay closer attention to the requirements of section 4a of the Equality Act in the future when setting up bodies referred to in the provision.