Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Day at Thessaloniki City Hall

Meeting Hall in Thessaloniki City Hall.
Around 2 pm, they said, was when the meeting would begin. At 2:40, a screen dropped with the day's agenda. At 3, the TV crews turned on their cameras. A female journalist beside me opened her sandwich. The smell of ham filled the theatre. Around 3:30, they trickled in -- PASOK, New Democracy, the Communist Party. Half of the representative's seats were empty.

It was the week before national elections at the monthly City Hall meeting in Thessaloniki -- "eh," a security guard had commented as I walked in, as if to say: what did you expect?

I quickly understand the absence of heads -- they were pacing themselves. The first few hours consisted of speeches. Interest groups, politicians, and last year's newly elected Mayor, Yiannis Boutaris . At one point, a man with a gnarled cane who had been sitting behind me stood up as a member of PASOK began to speak. "Sit down, dog!" He shouted. "The Communists will own this land one day again!"

He was only mollified when a member of the Green Party took the stand to protest the lack of trash collection. There was a strike happening; trash was collecting in the city's dumpsters. "Shameful!" The representative said, shuffling through a PowerPoint presentation. "What is this government doing to fix the situation?"

Around hour three, I slid down to the row of seats occupied by the deputy mayors of the city and leaned into the one farthest to the right.
"So basically...people talk for a while," I began.
"Right," he said.
"And then someone argues. And then they talk again."
"Right," he said.
"And then?"
 He opened an agenda book and showed me pages of laws and motions. "We vote on these." 
"When the speeches finish."
"When is that?"
"Depends. Sometimes 10. Sometimes 1 or 2 am."

I went out for a coffee.

The Mayor holds up a German "dog fine" poster
When I came back, Mayor Giannis Boutaris was at the podium. In his hand was a German poster depicting a small dog and a fine -- a new campaign launched to curb animal waste in the city. "We need measures like this to clean up our streets," he insisted. Guffaws and scoffs resounded throughout the room.

One of the journalists leaned into me. "We're going through a crisis and he wants to tax dogs? Mother Mary." She made the sign of the cross and shook her head.

It went on like this for a while -- more speeches, more motions to consider. At several points, Boutari went outside to smoke a cigarette; a break from the circus within.

The proceedings confirm thoughts I'd been reluctant to accept: that 21st-century governance still has little place in post-Soviet quarters. Architecturally, Thessaloniki's city hall is a modern marvel of recessed lighting, PowerPoint screens and electronics. As an institution, its representatives still have a long way to go.

Boutari takes notes.
Much buzz surrounded Boutari last year. Operationally, he's regarded as one of the country's foremost reformers. Since being elected into office last year, he's hired an auditor (unfathomable) to oversee expenditure, introduced a system of performance review (unthinkable) in the civil service, and has vowed to act not as a politician, but as a businessman trying to run the city of Thessaloniki.

Despite these moves, he has met considerable resistance from a system and a body politic entrenched in traditions of patronage, subsidies, and paychecks that are not based on how well one's work is performed. 

"You cannot understand how incredibly difficult it is to get someone to do something here," one of the deputy mayors confessed to me. "The phrase around the office is: 'It can't happen'. But it has to happen. So how do we make it work?"

Since elections have come and gone, proceedings have remained much the same. There's little surprise in this -- Europe's Troika and its Greek officials are concerned more with imminent default than the time-consuming process of lower-level reform. However, picking up the trash, fining animal waste, and seeing to the daily operations that make a system run are the very things that must be addressed if Greece is to rise up out of its dysfunction.

Alec Baldwin has a great one-liner in 30 Rock on the Greek crisis. "Since inventing democracy, those guys have been...coasting," he says. Correction, Jack Donaghy. They've been talking. And that's about it.

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