Pavel Bém: City Hall gets a facelift

Prague’s new lord mayor has divided the city council into two camps – one hoping for major changes, the other convinced Bém is just an ODS puppet used to attract votes. His responses here are revealing.

You are psychiatrist by profession. Why did you enter community politics four years ago as the mayor of Prague 6?
I have always had the feeling that I should become actively involved in current events. And following our election losses of 1998 and the subsequent takeover of the government by the ČSSD, I decided to try to help the ODS regain the reins of power.

Did you also see politics as a career-growth opportunity?
Quite the contrary – I returned from a government position as the general secretary of the Interdepartmental Anti-Drug Commission, to the daily life of a single community – Prague 6. I decided to begin my political career from the very beginning, because I didn’t want to fall prey to the fates of some politicians who became overnight stars in the political firmament with no prior experience with community politics.

Although the right prevailed in the Prague elections, once again an ODS/ČSSD coalition is governing. Personal animosities among the ODS and the European Democrats or the US-DEU apparently won out over citizens’ wishes. Don’t you see this as a squandered opportunity?
Yes and no. It’s a shame, because today we must face a dramatic lean to a leftist view. On the other hand, if you look at the individual parties’ platforms for resolving various community problems, you’ll discover that ninety percent of the time they are convergent. The ODS didn’t have much to choose from – Jan Kasl’s party was established a few weeks before the parliamentary elections, and it has no history. It failed to issue a policy statement or membership base. Furthermore, the European Democrats define themselves as an anti-ODS party.

European Democrats chairman Jan Kasl said to us: “Pavel Bém is a nice face on the wrinkled old face of the ODS, which the ODS used to win voters. But the old gristly core of the Bürgermeister and Němec party will run over him anyway, and he won’t be able to push anything through.” He says that the only question is how long you can hang on. Would you like to comment?
The ODS has many new, ambitious politicians. If you look at the Prague city council, you’ll see that about 75% of its members are newcomers. You can’t run a city of a million with young faces alone, you need a mix of inexperienced young people and people who are older, more experienced. So I don’t share Jan Kasl’s concern that nothing will change. Although I have great respect for him as a man, I think that he couldn’t manage teamwork, and this led to his downfall. I have far greater faith in myself in this respect.

Michael Hvížďala of US-DEU told us that parties have their machinery in full swing inside City Hall, and that it will shred all rational proposals, with personal animosities overwhelming any will to solve problems. How will you get anything done in such an environment?
You simply must not start from the premise that everyone is an enemy, and that everyone around you is an ambitious, amoral politician. With a team you seek out strengths that you can refine. It’s also important to communicate with your team and not to air your grievances in the media, as Kasl did. But I’m aware that I’m only one part of an eleven-member council, and that I must make concessions, because not all of my party colleagues are allies.

What are your immediate priorities?
As we speak (9 December 2002), I have been Prague’s lord mayor for one week. I see three main priorities right now. First we must create and stabilize a high quality team and compile a policy statement. Then I want to simplify an administrative apparatus that currently has over 2,000 employees, and open it to the public. Thirdly, we want to concentrate on the accelerated repair of roads following the floods, the construction of the beltway, and further Prague metro construction.

What can you do to make City Hall more transparent? For example, will citizens be able to follow the voting on the city’s public orders?
According to the law, local government meetings are public. But city council meetings are not public, because sometimes negotiations involve matters subject to trade secrecy. On the other hand, I think the way council members vote and speak should be public knowledge, because that’s the only way we can defend ourselves against accusations of conflict of interest or preferential treatment. By making City Hall decision-making more transparent, not only the resolutions but also the way individual councilors vote will be accessible. I would like council meetings to be carried on the internet, and we’re even thinking about satellite television transmissions.

Your council members need not disclose their incomes. This plays right into speculation about corruption. Will you require your councilors to report their holdings, as prime minister Špidla recently required of his cabinet ministers?
I have no plans to implement a tool that was despised under the communist regime. Property declarations evoke a false sense of egalitarianism, and they foster envy. Although I personally made my holdings public before the elections, I won’t force anyone else to follow suit.

However, in the past there has been much talk of corruption at City Hall. Do you think that setting up the anti-corruption committee that you announced will solve the problem?
Corruption is a problem with every authority in the Czech Republic. The best weapons against it are not committees, they are lean state administration staffs. It would be naive to think a committee could solve the problem.

But you said you wanted to set up a committee…
(cuts in) …No, no, no, that’s woefully naive. Corruption can be scaled back only by a leaner state administration, transparent decision-making, and proper care of officials – their appropriate, individual, and differentiated financial remuneration. It’s true that we undertook to set up the committee under the coalition agreement, but that will be the last thing on our agenda. The committee will comprise both coalition and opposition party members, as well as international experts that deal with the corruption issue.

A life in numbers
1963 born in Prague, on 18 July
1987 graduated from the Charles University School of General Medicine, subsequently working as a psychiatrist at a psychiatric hospital
1992-94 executive director of the Filia Foundation, which assists the psychologically ill and persons dependent on drugs. Founder and director of the Contact Center for the Drug Dependent.
1994 named general secretary of the Czech Government’s Interdepartmental Anti-Drug Committee. Also coordinated many EU, WHO, and EC international projects.
1998 elected mayor of Prague 6
2002 28 November – elected lord mayor of Capital City Prague

You claim that Prague suffers from excessive regulation in the housing market, and from an alleged apartment shortage. Do you think that when rents are deregulated the market will begin to move, thus initiating the process of specifying better and worse addresses?
There are enough apartments in Prague. The problem is the black market in municipal rental apartments, and unless the excessive regulatory measures are lifted there will be no solution. It is necessary to adopt a law on the regulation and gradual deregulation of rents. Then there will certainly be categorization of housing, into the lucrative and the less lucrative.

You have been described as a hard worker who lacks enthusiasm for the finer details required for putting a problem to rest. How would you describe yourself?
I recognize several virtues – responsibility, hard work, and fortitude. I think I solve problems; I’d even say that sometimes I have to resist becoming entangled in details, but to see the issue as a whole.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?
I’ll probably be a grandfather and an active athlete, and I’ll have a dog. I’ll do work I enjoy that benefits the community.

Back to top