ONE in seven of Northern Ireland's councillors are unelected – with 80 of our local government representatives co-opted by their parties.
At one authority, Newry and Mourne District Council, a third of current members was selected by their parties rather than the public.
Recent months have seen a sudden rise in co-options, with over 50 cases since September.
The practice has been branded "a complete abuse" of the democratic process and similar to the operations of the Politburo in Soviet Russia.
The Belfast Telegraph has analysed every case of a councillor being replaced since the last local government elections in May 2011.
In that time, 80 of the 582 councillors have been co-opted – around one in seven.
Of these, 54 have been co-opted since last September.
In most cases the councillors were also MLAs and resigned as part of moves to end double-jobbing. Several others were co-opted to replace deceased members.
In another case Ballymena councillor David Tweed was jailed for child abuse, leaving his seat vacant.
Austen Lennon sits as an independent on North Down Borough Council, where a fifth of members has been co-opted.
He said the policy was bad for democracy.
"This could only happen in Northern Ireland – it is a complete abuse of the system," he said.
"People should have the right to chose who they want to vote for, but this is being denied to them in a huge way.
"These are moves which the Politburo would have made in Russia – it is completely devoid of democracy.
"In many cases we don't know who these people are, what they stand for, what their history is. They are merely mouthpieces for the parties who put them there."
The issue of co-option has come to the fore after it emerged that six prominent Sinn Fein members of Newry and Mourne council had been replaced.
In total, eight of the council's 25 members – one in three – have been co-opted.
Davy Hyland (right), a former Sinn Fein councillor who now sits on Newry and Mourne as an independent, branded it a clever manipulation of the system.
However, Conor Murphy, the Sinn Fein MP for Newry and Armagh, said the six who were replaced indicated they would not be part of the new super-councils, due to come into place next year.
He said the co-options were a way of managing the change.
"There was an opportunity to bring in new people as part of the transition," he told the BBC.
"These people will essentially be half of the team.
"We are retaining a number of very experienced councillors, and these people will be part of the team that manages the transition from the old council arrangements to the new."
A number of the 26 DUP co-options saw councillors replaced by a relative.
Jonathan Craig and Trevor Clarke were replaced by their wives while another three – Paul Girvan, Stephen Moutray and Gordon Dunne – were replaced by a son.
North Down DUP MLA Peter Weir said all the appointments had been the result of a competitive process, with just a small number passing between family members.
"We have had an open process and in a lot of these cases there has been strong competition.
"We picked the best people," he said.