The faces of municipal power

Unlike parliamentary deputies, senators, and ministers, Czech mayors come face to face with their voters every day. There are 6,245 mayors in this country, and we spoke with seven of them about what motivates them and what obstacles they face.

Tomáš Chalupa (31): Patriot from Prague 6

Tomáš Chalupa

Praha 6
Prague 6 District: population 120,000
Tomáš Chalupa, whose family has lived in Prague 6 since time immemorial, hardly ever crosses the river. It doesn’t bother him because, as he says, he has a great job where he is.

He runs a district that boasts many superlative statistics: most attractive for living, safest, largest area (42 km2) and largest gardens. It’s a district of diplomats, artists, and college students. Further-more, it’s completely self-sufficient, so Chalupa can focus on three main priorities: transport, the environment, and reforms in the city hall’s internal and external functioning.
“As for transport, we’d like to prepare conditions for the future extension of the Metro to the airport and the beltway construction. We’re also constantly repairing roads,” he says, continuing to point 2, and his favorite subject – the environment. “Every day I take a different route to work to check to see that cleaning is up to date,” he laughs. Demonstrating his devotion to his job with another example, he adds, “the grass shouldn’t be over eight centimeters tall. I carry a ruler and measure it. If it’s 12, I immediately call those responsible, Saturday or not.” Incidentally, Prague 6 could serve as a model for the other districts in this respect, and if the pedantic mayor’s declaration, “When I leave city hall you’ll be able to eat off the ground,” comes true, it is the citizenry that will benefit from it.
Through his verbal presentation and managerial approach to his office Chalupa reveals his schooling under Václav Klaus, for whom he served as spokesman for a year. Then he left for Prague 6’s city hall with Pavel Bém, where he was vice mayor (1998-2002). He claims that the mayor must be able to clearly explain what he wants from his team. He started his term with the basics – a personnel audit. He wanted to find out how his 350 officials communicated with the citizenry, because his goal is an “honest, efficient, and prompt office.” He’s clearly taken to his job as mayor like a duck to water, even though he admits he sometimes gets tired and disgusted. “I don’t like slander, envy, and the awful red tape the government expects of us. But that’s the price I’ve paid to get here. You have to be able to deal with everything,” explains this young man who likes to recharge his batteries by playing tennis and squash.

Monika Mudranincová

What’s the difference between the mayor of a little village and the mayor of a larger town? The mayor of any village comes in from the field, takes off his work boots, and on the way to his office he’s stopped by four residents who either curse him or want something from him. He usually has a secretary and accountant in one, and he has to know both law and psychology, since he deals with his constituency directly. He generally only dreams of subsidies from the EU and other funds, and then there’s the never-ending stress that results from his responsibilities. “I still wonder if I’m doing a good job,” confides Josef Zoser of Jiřetín pod Jedlovou. But his doubts are unfounded, as the people he serves respect and praise him. Pavel Novotný, the mayor of Skuteč, adds that his stress is also due to decisions involving many millions of crowns.
On the other hand, mayors of larger towns enjoy the luxury of larger teams of experts with whom they share competencies. Although he’s ultimately responsible, the risk of committing a major financial gaff is minimal, thanks to his team. Nevertheless, whether in Prague or Pec pod Sněžkou, he’s the mayor 24 hours a day. Everyone knows him, so he can never just kick back. “I’m careful not to provide cause for slander. If someone sees me drinking my third beer, the next day you can read in the newspaper that the mayor’s an alcoholic,” says Prague 6’s mayor, Tomáš Chalupa, with a laugh.
Mayors who took office after the 2002 municipal elections haven’t had much time to find their footing – at the end of 2002 the reform cancelled district offices and introduced new administrative units concentrated in 14 regions. In reaction to the government’s increasing demands, Petr Pávek, the mayor of the Northern Bohemia village of Jindřichovice pod Smrkem, issued an “anti-bureaucrat edict” whereby he tried to prevent government officials from entering the village limits. The Constitutional Court struck down this edict, but Pavel Rychetský, the court’s chief, admitted that “excessive bureaucratic demands on municipalities aren’t good for a democratic culture.”
Another thorn in the side of mayors is that the regions are territorial administrative units. Děčín’s mayor, Vladislav Raška, thinks that local autonomy should focus on solving problems from the viewpoint of towns and municipalities, not regions. “The regional offices still haven’t had time to build relationships with smaller municipalities, so communication between them is more difficult. Hopefully this will improve with time,” says Jaroslav Maršík, the director of the interior ministry’s department of territorial public administration development. He understands mayors’ complaints, adding that although the interior ministry prepared several reform variants, it was the parliament that pushed through the cancellation of the district offices.
According to the law, “the mayor is the highest representative of a municipality and is responsible not only for the municipality’s internal operation but also for the municipality’s relationship with the state, and is elected on the basis of the results of local elections by the members of the municipal council.” Another often criticized matter is that mayors can be recalled by municipal councils at any time. “You can’t get into disagreements with council members, it will make things harder for you,” says Novotný of Skuteč, who is in favor of direct mayoral elections. He thinks that would limit politicking, personal clashes, and power struggles within the council.
Unfortunately, some mayors deviate from public service and mainly act to their own benefit. This is borne out by dozens of cases of suspected legal transgressions registered in recent years by the Supreme Public Prose-cutor’s Office. “It seems to me that there have been some witch hunts recently,” complains Alan Tomášek, Pec pod Sněžkou’s mayor. “The media make mayors out as knaves who want to get rich to the citizenry’s detriment.” Mayor Novotný, who has ensured that Skuteč enjoys above-standard revenues, a resolved housing issue, and a rich cultural life, claims that sometimes he’s denounced without knowing by whom. Alexandra Merunková of Mníšek pod Brdy complains that people don’t go to the town hall to say thank you and talk, but to hurl insults.
Why are these mayors still on the job, despite its thanklessness? Because they want the recognition and prestige that comes with helping to improve life in their communities. “A mayor is by definition a caretaker. And that’s how I feel,” insists Vladislav Raška of Děčín, expressing a sentiment that all seven mayors agreed upon.

Vladislav Raška (44): The Mayor, 24 hours a day

Vladislav Raška

population 52,000, Ústí nad Labem region

During this mayor’s tenure, the Northern Bohemian city of Děčín has gone through revolutionary changes.

Several factories were closed, and others were bought by foreign investors. The water transport nearly went out of existence due to the river’s poor navigability. This city on the Elbe now suffers from an unemployment rate of 14.6%, so the priorities of Vladislav Raška are clear. “We want to rescue functioning industries and support regional entrepreneurs. We’d like to return to water transport, which requires two dam and locks projects on the Elbe, but ecological activists are boycotting them,” Raška complains. He’s very optimistic about selling the shipyard to a Chinese investor, who plans to build the most modern shipyard in Europe in Děčín, creating nearly a thousand jobs.
City hall is also trying to improve connections to the highway network, and to appeal to the town’s younger population. “If we want to keep them here we must offer them good educational opportunities,” the mayor says. This economist, who from 1994 to 2002 was vice-chairman of the Czech Republic National Property Fund’s executive committee, understands that unless he runs the city as a free market it won’t prosper. So at the beginning of his term in 2002 he sought extra funds in mandatory expenditures and set priorities to bring in profits. He gradually let over 150 city hall employees go, but he doesn’t scrimp on investments in maintenance and development – for this year alone he’s planning on projects worth CZK 100 million.
Before being elected mayor, Raška helped run the city as an opposition ODS representative. “Being in the opposition is simpler. The mayor has huge responsibilities; people contact me anytime, anywhere. It’s impossible not to notice me because of my height,” chuckles this two-meter-tall basketball player. What’s the hardest part of his job? “Dealing with people who come to my office to pick a bone without hearing my side. It makes me feel like they’re wasting my time.”

Monika Mudranincová

Pavel Novotný (41): Nothing’s impossible

Pavel Novotný

population 5,400, Pardubice region
Would it ever occur to move a disassembled hockey arena from České Budějovice 200 kilometers to Skuteč and reassemble it there?

Crazy? Not to mayor Pavel Novotný, who saved the town millions of crowns through this audacious move. “A new arena would have cost about 60 million, but this way we paid only 13.5 million,” says Novotný, clarifying one of the bold acts that he’s famous for. “I don’t like it when people look for excuses for why something’s impossible,” he declares. During his eleven years as mayor he has initiated and pushed through many projects – a religious gymnazium, a pensioners’ home, a pension, a swimming pool, and 210 apartments. His long-term vision is to support culture, sports, and business.
As mayor he has negotiated subsidies totalling an unbelievable CZK 350 million for the town. How did he do it? “We always try to be first, we don’t wait around for anything, we act quickly, and when I start something I want to see it through,” says the mayor. He goes on to acknowledge that he’s had to literally force through many projects even over the objections of “his” people. “After the revolution the tendency was to sell off all the municipal property. When I opposed it people called me a nasty communist. Now it turns out that the buildings we kept, repaired and now rent bring a lot of revenue into our budget,” explains Novotný, a member of the Christian Democrats.
He works ten to twelve hours a day but thinks about his job at home, too. “It’s constant stress. I’m always coming up with something, and then I’m worried about plunging the town into debt. In the meantime, someone’s always taking me to court for enriching myself through some deal,” he laments. “In the end I’m exonerated by the criminal police, that in fact I’ve saved the town money, but the public’s always maligning me,” he adds with a shrug. So why is he doing a job where everyone can slander him? “It’s a matter of prestige. I like to come up with new projects, and I’m always very pleased when one is realized despite obstacles,” Novotný says. When he needs mental relaxation, he sings in a choir or plays the organ in the local church.

Monika Mudranincová

Alan Tomášek (37): Mayor from the mountains

Alan Tomášek

Pec pod Sněžkou
population 600, Hradec Králové region
Alan Tomášek became a mayor even though he wasn’t particularly keen on the job. He just wanted to change what he didn’t like.

“It bothered me that Pec wasn’t developing as quickly as it could. The leadership was acting without any guiding concept and took up only short-term matters,” he says. In the elections he won easily, and in 2002 he became the mayor of the village above which the tallest Czech mountain, Sněžka, towers.
The resort’s most pressing problem was that while in the winter 20,000 people passed through every day, in the off-season it was dead. Tomášek already began to take measures to attract more visitors all year round for outings to Sněžka, for instance. He is battling with the Krkonoše National Park administration for Pec to get permission to build a new system to replace the 55 years old cable lift. He fought to get the price of land raised to the market level, and plans to improve travel industry services and the transport infrastructure.
Although the young mayor acts very decisively, he confides that leading the village means a head full of worries. “The responsibility is extreme. When I’m doing business on my own behalf and mess something up it’s my loss, but if I made a wrong decision as the mayor I could hurt the village over the long term. It would be hard for me to live here with that feeling,” he says, adding that a mayor can never please everyone. “Two people come to me with the same plan. I support the one whose idea is more beneficial to the village, but then the other one feels wronged. People like you when you accomodate them, but those whom you don’t judge you and even slander you,” he notes sadly.

Monika Mudranincová

Josef Zoser (56): Not resting on his laurels

Josef Zoser

Jiřetín pod Jedlovou
population 585, Ústí nad Labem region
This little village in the northernmost part of the Czech Republic, in the Šluknov bulge, was once a God-forsaken locale. Until the arrival of its energetic mayor 15 years ago.

The town hall set clear priorities – improving the conditions for about 600 local residents and developing the travel industry. Under Zoser’s management the town has been able to build infrastructure, a new sewage system, public lighting, and water mains, as well as an extravagant sports complex and a community service building. In 1998 Jiřetín was named “Village of the Year” in the Rural Renewal Program.
The township, located in the Lužice mountains nature preserve, is a paradise for both cottage owners and tourists. It also has many landmarks, such as the medieval ruins of the Tolštejn castle and look-out tower on Jedlová Mountain. But the repair and maintenance of these sites have already cost many millions of crowns. Finance is the whole story. “The state assumed the role of the sole just authority that knows how to distribute financial assets,” the mayor complains, adding that simply running the office has gotten more expensive. The double-entry accounting and many other things require people who must be paid. Then there isn’t enough money left for example, to build apartments for young people. “And then we wonder why [they] don’t want to stay,” Zoser adds emotionally.
Despite all the obstacles, he’s still trying to make good living conditions for locals, so he often spends his weekends in the office. “The most important thing is not to rest on your laurels, to move forward, to be creative,” insists this mayor who derives satisfaction from working for others. So what does he think is the hardest thing about being mayor? “Convincing the representatives of the correctness of our priorities and some people that the mayor isn’t a god who can resolve everything.”

Monika Mudranincová

Alexandra Merunková (52): Bringing the people back to the square

Alexandra Meruňková

Mníšek pod Brdy
population 4,193, Central Bohemian region

When the editor-in-chief of the monthly Zdraví (Health) left the bustle of the capital city in 1997 for the idyllic countryside, little did she suspect that she wouldn’t enjoy much peace.

In municipal elections in November 2002 she was elected mayor of a picturesque town in the middle of the Brdy Hills, which has become the home of many Czech celebrities. The wife of well-known television announcer Zbyněk Merunka still remembers well the hesitancy and mistrust of the local residents, who somewhat pejoratively refer to Praguers as “flotsam”.
“But it was this very ‘flotsam’ that yearned to change the maladies that long-time residents hadn’t noticed for years,” explains Merunková. In order to improve the town, new arrivals founded the Association for a Better Mníšek and joined the local government. “Now the ‘flotsam’ runs the town – and it isn’t an easy job,” she says. After fifteen years of a government of cousins she assembled a team of representatives with the desire and will to do something for the town. It had to be done. Just recently Mníšek faced catastrophic situations with its waste water treatment plant, sewage system, and water mains. The buildings of the cultural center, the library, and the movie theater were dilapidated, and the locals who’d lost their jobs because of cut-backs at Kovohutě were frustrated. After a few years, the mayor can say that they’ve managed to build bus stops, a children’s playground, and an outskirts parking lot, and to establish a town police force. In addition, the representatives prepared conditions for the construction of a shopping center and the renovation of the movie theater as a multi-functional house of culture. Repairs of the cloister and chapel are ongoing, and the future’s greatest challenge is the refurbishing of the waste water purification plant, which will require an estimated CZK 50 million.
“I still have lots of plans, but I’m already very satisfied that we’ve bought the people back ‘to the square’, thanks to regular outdoor social and cultural events,” notes this woman with pleasure, while admitting that it isn’t easy to be the town’s first lady. “I have to have a broad range of knowledge. I have to be able to organize Christmas celebrations, understand the composition of road surfaces, know the technologies at the water purification plant, and, worst of all, understand the town’s laws and their amendments,” she laughs. “We have to create the facilities for developing tourism, because the Brdy Hills are an ideal destination!” Besides her mayoral duties, Merunková is the mother of two college students and owns a confection shop, Meruňka.

Monika Mudranincová

Stanislav Malík (56): Entangled by politics

Stanislav Malík
Photo: Michal Duda

population nearly 3,000, South Bohemia region

The South Bohemian town of Borovany, not far from České Budějovice, has had the same mayor for 15 years. “After November ’89, I got entangled with politics and there was no way out,” says Stanislav Malík, who in 1990 stopped taking care of landmarks to fully devote himself to his town.

Today you can see he made the right choice from Borovany itself. Under his leadership the town has built 120 new apartments, laid down the infrastructure for 100 family houses, and connected the entire town with gas. Water mains were laid to neighboring settlements, and the castle park and the soccer stadium were refurbished. “Building the new elementary school complex was undoubtedly our largest and most successful project,” Malík says of the CZK 170 million school. “We have rather good revenues, from renting property and running our own dump,” Malík explains, adding that the above-standard elementary school was completed without indebting the town. When the school left the baroque castle, however, the problem of finding another use for the castle arose. But there are other problems the mayor would like to solve. “Paying high-quality people under the tariff classifications is also a problem,” Malík complains. Nevertheless, he decided to run again in the next election. “I still have the new swimming pool, a house for seniors, and sprucing up the square on my agenda,” Malík says. He admits that his job is sometimes rather thankless. “If something goes well, it’s taken for granted. That’s what we pay the mayor for,” he says. “But when something doesn’t go right – for example, if someone’s dog gets lost – it’s the mayor’s fault.”

Milan Duda






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *