Honduras is administratively divided into eighteen departments (Atlántida, Choluteca, Colón, Comayagua, Copán, Cortés, El Paraíso, Francisco Morazán, Gracias a Dios, Intibucá, Islas de la Bahía (Bay Islands), La Paz, Lempira, Ocotepeque, Olancho, Santa Bárbara, Valle, and Yoro), each with a designated department capital (cabecera). The president of the republic freely appoints, and may freely remove, governors for each department. Departmental governors represent the executive branch in official acts in their department and serve as the tie between the executive branch and other national agencies and institutions that might have delegations working in the department. Each governor may freely appoint and remove a secretary to assist him or her. If a governor is absent more than five days, the mayor of the departmental capital substitutes for the governor. The costs of running the departmental governments fall under the budget of the Ministry of Government and Justice.
The departments are further divided into 291 municipalities (municipios) nationwide, including a Central District consisting of the cities of Tegucigalpa and Comayagüela. A municipality in Honduras may include more than one city within its boundaries, and is therefore similar to the jurisdiction of county in the United States. In addition to cities, municipalities may also include aldeas (villages) and caseríos (hamlets), which are scattered concentrations of populations outside urban areas. The urbanized cities may be divided into smaller divisions known as colonias (colonies) and barrios (neighborhoods).
The municipalities are administered by elected corporations, deliberative organs that are accountable to the courts of justice for abuses, and are supposed to be autonomous or independent of the central government's powers. The municipal corporations consist of a mayor (alcalde), who is the paramount executive authority in a municipality, and a municipal council that varies in size depending on the population of the municipality. Those municipalities with a population of less than 5,000 have four council members, those with a population of between 5,000 and 10,000 have six, and those with a population between 10,000 and 80,000 have eight. All the department capitals, regardless of their population, and municipalities with a population of more than 80,000 have ten council members.
The municipal corporations meet at least two times per month in ordinary sessions, but special sessions may be called by the mayor or by at least two council members. Each municipal corporation has a secretary, freely appointed and removed by a majority of the members of the corporation, and a treasurer, named by the corporation at the request of the mayor. Municipalities with annual revenue of more than one million lempiras are to have an auditor named by the municipal corporation; however, in the early 1990s, the majority of Honduran municipalities had an annual revenue of less than one million lempiras.
The constitution sets forth several provisions regarding the municipalities. According to Article 299, the economic and social development of the municipalities must form part of the nation's development plans. Each municipality is also to have sufficient communal land in order to ensure its existence and development. Citizens of municipalities are entitled to form civic associations, federations, or confederations in order to ensure the improvement and development of the municipalities. In general, income and investment taxes in a municipality are paid into the municipal treasury.
In 1990 a new Law of Municipalities covering both departmental and municipal administration superseded the previous municipal law issued in 1927. The new law set forth the numerous rights and responsibilities of the municipalities and public administration at the municipal level. It also outlined the concept of municipal autonomy, characterized by free elections; free public administration and decisions; the collection and investment of resources with special attention on the preservation of the environment; the development, approval, and administration of a municipal budget; the organization and management of public services; the right of the municipality to create its own administrative structure; and municipal control over natural resources. The law also outlines twenty-one functions of the municipal corporations, which include the following responsibilities: organizing public administration and services, developing and implementing a municipal budget, appointing public employees and naming needed public commissions, planning urban development, and consulting the public through plebiscites on important municipal issues and through open public meetings with representatives of the various social sectors of the municipality.
Under the law, each municipality has a Municipal Development Council named by the corporation and consisting of representatives of the various economic and social sectors of the municipality. The Municipal Development Council functions in an advisory capacity by providing the corporations with information and input for making decisions. The law also calls for a special law to be enacted to regulate the organization and functioning of a national Institute of Municipal Development to promote the integrated development of municipalities in Honduras.
Traditionally, the central government in Honduras, whether civilian or military, has dominated local government, and some observers maintain that local mayors and municipal corporations have served largely as administrative arms of the central government. With the return to democratic rule in 1982, however, there has been a shift, at least in theory, to promote the economic development and political independence of the municipalities. New provisions in the 1982 constitution call for economic and social development in the municipalities to form parts of national development programs and outline the right of citizens to form organizations to ensure the improvement and development of the municipalities.
The Callejas government emphasized support for political and administrative decentralization from the executive branch to the municipalities. In fact, one of the objectives in establishing the Modernization of the State Commission in 1990 was to reduce the centralism of the executive branch through the effective and orderly transfer of functions and resources to the municipalities in order to fortify their autonomy. The promulgation of the new Law of Municipalities in 1990 was further evidence of the Callejas government's emphasis on municipal development. Observers noted, however, that the executive branch, particularly through the decentralized agencies and institutions, still wielded significant power at the local level in the early 1990s.
One significant measure approved in 1992 was reform of the nation's electoral law for the 1993 national elections. For the first time, the law would allow voters to cast their ballots separately for mayoral candidates. In previous elections, the practice of split-party voting was not allowed, and the mayors were elected based on the percentage of the vote received by the presidential candidates. The reform of the electoral law is significant in that it makes elected mayors directly accountable to the electorate and strengthens the democratic process at the local level. The reform could also strengthen the chances for the nation's two smaller parties to gain representation in the municipalities.
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