Gemeentes: what are Dutch municipalities and how do they work?

Every once in a while, we all get letters from the almighty, all-knowing, and all-seeing gemeente.

It could be a letter demanding your gemeentelijke belasting (municipal tax), or payment for a boete (fine) for cycling in the city centre, or maybe a love letter from the mayor just because they miss you and wanna check up on you. Just kidding.

However, many people, especially expats in the Netherlands, don’t know what the gemeente is or how it works. But don’t worry, we gotcha covered!

First of all, what is the gemeente? If you ever needed an example for the Dutch’s obsession with structure, hierarchy, and control, then voilà, you’ve got the gemeente!

Gemeente is the Dutch word for “municipality”. It’s basically a group of residential areas (villages, cities, or townships) jointly controlled by a political apparatus. The number of gemeenten or municipalities has decreased considerably in recent years as many small ones have been merged. On January 1, 2020, the Netherlands counted 355 municipalities compared to 913 in 1970.

In the Netherlands, the gemeente is the lowest layer of the political governance structure. At the head of this governance structure is the mayor who works with The College of Aldermen and Alderwomen and the Municipal Council. Together, they’re called ‘the municipality’ and are responsible for the day-to-day management of your gemeente.

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The structure of the gemeenteraad (municipal council)

Elections for the municipal council are held in the Netherlands once every four years. The next municipal elections will take place on Wednesday, March 16, 2022.

The gemeenteraad is usually concerned with matters that are directly and exclusively of interest to their inhabitants. This includes the provision of several services and facilities. They can decide on many matters independently but are also expected to implement some national laws. Examples of this are implementing the National Assistance Act, the Unemployment Insurance Act and the Environmental Management Act.

In the past few years, the Dutch cabinet (central government) has transferred more and more tasks and powers to local municipalities, and they are also often given a lot of room to perform these tasks as they see fit. Still, sometimes the government also imposes specific guidelines for said implementation.

What does a gemeente do?

Gementee-city-hall-in-Gouda
Don’t worry not (all) government officials are vampires. Image: christophe.cappelli/Depositphotos

The municipality has many different tasks but often does it in collaboration with other public or private bodies. Take the collection of household waste or the construction of roads and other infrastructures as examples. These are usually outsourced to private companies and organisations.

Some of a municipality’s tasks can be found in the following areas:

Civil Affairs

The municipality keeps track of everyone who lives in the municipality. This is done in the Personal Records Database (BRP). They’re also responsible for issuing all kinds of official documents, such as a passport, an identity card, and a driver’s license.

Public order and safety

The mayor in the municipality has authority over the police and the fire brigade. They can exercise this authority whenever necessary for the safety of the municipality. Municipalities also have enforcement officers and inspectors. You often find them in uniform on bikes and scooters patrolling and, like Chamillionaire said, often “trying to catch you riding dirty”.

Their job is to mostly ensure that as many inhabitants as possible comply with the rules in the city. They also give out fines when they catch inhabitants breaking the rules. Every municipality also has a General Municipality By-Law (APV), which contains rules about, for example, setting off fireworks (during New Year’s Eve and other holidays), the closing times of cafes and the installation of surveillance cameras.

Commerce

The municipality is in charge of the day-to-day commercial activities in the municipality. They understand the benefits of beautiful shopping streets as well as the importance of weekly local markets. Infrastructure meant to make commerce easier are then built by the municipality. They also determine the opening hours of shops.

Social affairs and (un)employment

The municipality is responsible for the implementation of the Participation Act. While it may try to get as many people as possible to work, it also has to provide unemployment benefits or assistance to those who cannot work. These benefits often come with demands.

Welfare and public healthcare

The implementation of the Social Support Act (Wmo) is an important task of the municipality. This law regulates, among other things, all kinds of tasks in the field of care for those who can’t care for themselves (home care mostly). Under certain conditions, the municipality may award a personal budget (PGB).

You can use this sum to pay for your own care support services. The money is not transferred directly to your own account but to the Social Insurance Bank (SVB), which is expected to manage your PGB and pay your care provider’s bills. In addition, every municipality has a GGD, a municipal health service. GGDs in certain regions often work together in providing free healthcare to the populace.

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Asylum policy and integration

Municipalities also have to accommodate asylum seekers with a temporary residence permit per specific guidelines from the central government. After five years, these asylum seekers may apply for a permit for an indefinite period. If they also want to become Dutch citizens, participation in a naturalisation ceremony is mandatory. Such a ceremony is organised by the municipality with the Mayor making an appearance.

Education

The most important task in the field of education is housing the schools. The building of schools, paying teachers, and acquiring the needed materials for teaching are all municipality tasks. In addition, municipalities are also expected to spend some extra money on students who need extra guidance. They also monitor the populace’s compliance with the Compulsory Education Act (leerplicht).

Spatial planning and public housing

Infrastructural visions and zoning plans must be drawn up, and a clear layout of the municipality determined and presented to the inhabitants. In a zoning plan, the city determines precisely what an area should look like. Which parts are intended for houses, nature, playgrounds, and which parts are intended for companies? The municipality also supervises the construction of houses and makes agreements about this with housing associations.

Traffic and transport

Accessibility and the easy movement of people and goods is an important task of the municipality. Streets and roads, footpaths, canals, parking areas and bicycle routes: all have to be planned, designed, built, and maintained by the municipality. To ensure that all traffic runs smoothly, many municipalities draw up a traffic and transport plan. This states which roads are for cars and which roads are for cyclists and pedestrians only.

Bicycle-lane-towards-the-beach-in-the-Netherlands
It turns out the gemeente is in charge of maintaining these beauties. Image: Zveiger/Depositphotos

Environmental management

An important national law is the Environmental Management Act. This regulates, among other things, the separate collection of household waste and air quality. The municipality ensures the implementation and compliance with this law, mostly by issuing environmental permits to companies.

Culture, sports, and recreation

This often involves subsidies and making spaces available for cultural, sporting, and recreational events. Think of theatres, public sports fields, skate parks, or a municipal swimming pool. The municipality also often takes care of nature reserves, where people can spend their free time in peace.

Income generation

Carrying out municipal tasks always costs a lot of money. Just ask Mayor Femke Halsema, whose municipal council is currently overseeing the construction of an underground bicycle park in Amsterdam Central station that started in 2018 and is expected to be finished in 2021.

Infrastructure costs money, and that money has to come from somewhere. The municipality receives about 60% of its income from the government. Depending on the number of inhabitants, the surface area, and several other circumstances, each municipality receives a contribution from the so-called Municipalities Fund. Sometimes, in certain special circumstances like disasters, the cabinet may also give some extra money to some municipalities.

In addition to the income from the central government, municipalities also receive money from their own residents and businesses who operate there. Some of the methods of income generation are:

  • municipal taxes: for example, real estate, dog, car, and boat parking tax;
  • levies: for example, sewerage and cleaning levies;
  • fees: for example for the public swimming pool;
  • official fees: for example for issuing building permits, ID cards, and passports, and of course, boetes: Every municipality’s favourite. Municipalities just love to dish out boetes;
  • equity, assets and companies, for example, a municipal port authority. Think about the ports of Rotterdam and Amsterdam.

Budget and annual accounts

Every year, The College (Mayor and Aldermen and Alderwomen) presents a budget, which the Municipal Council subsequently adopts. The budget debate is an important event for the municipal council. This takes place on two occasions. The main points are discussed in the spring, and then the budget is adopted in the autumn.

At the end of a budget year, The College must report to the Municipal Council on how its policies have used the budget to better the populace’s lives. The College does this in its annual accounts and annual report. The Municipal Council may then approve these reports if they find them satisfactory.

Organisational structure of the gemeente

Each municipality has a ‘Municipal Council’ and a ‘College of Mayor and Aldermen or Alderwomen’ or Burgemeester en Wethouders (B and W) in Dutch. Together, they form the governing structure of the gemeente. An important task of the Municipal Council is to check The College (sweet checks and balances, right?). The College is, therefore, accountable to the Municipal Council.

Are municipal councillors elected?

The Municipal Council, also known as ‘The Council’, is elected directly by the municipality’s inhabitants. This happens every four years during the municipal elections. The next council elections will take place in 2022. The number of councillors depends on the number of inhabitants of the municipality. The smallest municipalities have nine councillors, the largest 45.

Tip: You can vote in municipal elections if you’re an international living in the Netherlands as long as you’re registered as a resident with your municipality and have a BSN (Burgerservicenummer).

Rotterdam-city-hall-gemeente-building
Mayors have such pretty offices. Image: TeoLazarev/Depositphotos

What are municipal council duties and committees?

Municipal council meetings are usually held monthly. They can be more frequent in large municipalities. These meetings are always very public, and the agenda is announced well in advance, often via the local newspaper and the municipality’s website. The municipal council is the highest body of a municipality and has three main tasks.

  • The council determines the broad outlines of a municipality’s policy. Council members often focus on what the municipality should look like in the future. For example, what are the infrastructural ambitions of the municipality for the future? Should there be more roads or bicycle lanes? Should the municipality become more attractive to tourists? Should the municipality do more to go green and increase air quality?
  • The council checks whether the college is carrying out its administrative tasks properly. Does the college’s policy fit within the guidelines set out by the council? Is the college doing everything the council has asked of it? To properly assess this, the college must be accountable to the council.
  • It’s the task of municipal councillors to represent the inhabitants of the municipality. That is why it is good for council members to talk a lot with the inhabitants — at meetings and on the streets. Inhabitants are also encouraged to send letters with their demands and suggestions to their municipal councillors. By the way, when last did you send a letter to your municipal councillor? Do you know who your municipal councillors are?

The municipal council can set up its own committees. These council committees prepare the decision-making process in the council and consult with the college. The mayor and the aldermen and alderwomen can’t be members of a council committee. Still, a council committee can ask them to participate in the consultation on a certain subject. When things go wrong and the council feels that the college must be held responsible, the council must always set up committees of inquiry to properly carry out an investigation.

How is a majority formed after elections?

The College of Mayor and Aldermen and Alderwomen forms the governing body of the municipality. The Mayor is the Chairman of The College. The number of aldermen and alderwomen, like the number of councillors, depends on the number of inhabitants of the municipality: a minimum of two and a maximum of nine.

The College has its own administrative powers based on all kinds of national laws and regulations, for example, the implementation of the Participation Act and the application of the Environmental Management Act. In addition, The College is responsible for the preparation of matters on which the Municipal Council decides. The College is also responsible for the implementation of council decisions and demands.

After municipal elections (gemeenteraadsverkiezingen), various parties, which form a majority in the council, sit down to discuss and negotiate an executive council or college formation. The council that has a majority of the parties is called a majority council.

But there is also the option of a minority college. In that case, one or more parties that don’t have a majority in the council may form a coalition and become a council. Such a scenario can only occur if the (majority) parties can’t agree on forming a majority coalition (college).

Aldermen and Alderwomen

The city council elects the councillors. If they come from the city council itself, they resign from council membership after taking up their position. It’s also possible to appoint aldermen and alderwomen from outside the council, even if they live in another municipality. In such cases, the council must permit the relevant alderman or alderwoman to continue living there.

Each alderman or alderwoman has their own area of responsibility or portfolio, for example, education, finance, housing, sports, and culture. At the same time, the municipal policy is a matter for the college (collegial management). These college policies are discussed during board meetings and decided upon by majority vote. Board meetings are not public.

The College is accountable to the Municipal Council, and as such, has to explain and justify all of its policies to the council. If the college no longer has the confidence of the council, then it must resign. If early elections aren’t possible at the municipal level, a new college must then be formed based on the existing distribution of seats in the municipal council.

What are the duties of a mayor?

The mayor chairs both The College and the Municipal Council. As chairperson or president of the college, the mayor has the right to vote on adopting policies. A mayor’s vote can even be decisive if the aldermen and alderwomen in the college come to a tie during voting. As chairperson of the Municipal Council, the mayor doesn’t have the right to vote. They may, however, participate in the council meeting discussions.

The mayor is responsible for maintaining public order and safety in the municipality and has some portfolios, such as administrative organisation and automation. In addition, they have several statutory duties and powers, such as promoting the unity of college policy and the ability to put topics on the college agenda. Many mayors are also active in promoting their municipalities to the outside world to bring in foreign investments and tourists.

Are mayors elected or appointed by the Crown?

Unlike municipal councillors and aldermen and alderwomen, mayors aren’t elected but appointed by the Crown, specifically the King or Queen and ministers. This is on the recommendation of the Minister of the Interior and Kingdom Relations.

If there’s a vacancy in the mayoral position, a ‘Confidential Committee’ of the municipal council is set up. This usually includes the leaders of all parties in the council. The committee draws up a list of requirements or criteria that a new mayor must meet. The confidential committee then conducts interviews with candidates and then makes a recommendation to the minister. The minister almost always follows the recommendation of the municipal council, so in reality, the municipal council actually appoints the mayor and not the King or Queen.

Mayors are expected to hold office for a period of six years. When their term expires, the municipal council will review whether the mayor and if they are satisfied, they will be recommended for reappointment. The municipal council can’t fire or dismiss the mayor; only the Crown (the King or Queen, and the ministers) can do that.

READ MORE | How to get Dutch Citizenship in 2021: Becoming a Nederlander

Running a municipality is no easy feat. While it is actually imperative, many people tend to either ignore the tasks of their municipal councils or even not take any interest at all. Most people only care about the gemeente when they are slapped with a fine and have to pay or appeal, have to apply for a passport, or want to pick up their brand new drivers licenses? Some don’t even bother to vote in the municipal elections. Use your vote, people!

But maybe if more people knew how their gemeente works, they would be more interested in it. And who knows, they might even want to join their municipality’s gemeenteraad. The decisions that your mayors and municipal councillors make daily affect you more than the decisions from the prime minister and the cabinet.

Have you ever voted in a municipal election? Do you know your municipal councillors? Tell us in the comments below!

Feature Image: photoweges/Depositphotos

Chuka Nwanaziahttps://www.beejonson.com/
A renegade wordsmith, freelance writer, poet, and digital marketer based in Amsterdam. Besides writing, he extremely enjoys traveling around Europe in search of old and rare books, writing poems while riding the train to nowhere, performing at poetry events, spending too much time reading books, contemplating the meaning of life, preparing tasty dishes and desserts, and searching for the perfect bookshelf.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. I’m sorry to have to point out that this article start with a statement that isn’t true. You will never get a fine for running a red light from the municipality. All traffic fines are handled by the Central Bureau of judicial collection. They will notify you of any fines you have received. The only traffic related fine you can get from the municipality is a fine for not paying a parking fee. They just don’t call it a fine but an after-tax, because officially you do not pay a fee for the use of a parking spot, it’s a parking tax.

  2. The municipality doesn’t collect the license exam fee for drivers licenses. The CBR collects those fees themselves. But when you’ve passed your exam you do need to pay a fee to get the drivers license from the municipality (and each municipality charges different fees.). The CBR only gives you a paper stating that you’ve passed your driving exam, the municipality hands out the actual license. Also good to know; having a statement from the CBR that you’ve passed your exam does not entitle you to start driving your car, because you’re officially still not licensed to drive. If you get pulled over by the police, you can ( and most certainly will ) get a ticket. The minimum fine is €360, the maximum fine is €8700. On a side note, when you get involved in an accident you will be regarded as an uninsured driver by the insurance company. So they will find you and recoup everything they had to pay on damages on you.

  3. A few translation things to consider. The council group that forms a majority is probably better translated as the “majority caucus”, not the “majority council”. A caucus is a group of legislators while the council is the governing body itself. Also, I find that Dutch always translate wethouders as aldermen (in the English world, that’s a bit passé- alderpeople or alders is more modern), but I think a better translation would be commissioners. Perhaps this is a British thing, but in the US, an alder is usually a city council member, not a department head. Appointed technical staff are sometimes called commissioners too.

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