Towards Local Democracy

It’s been more than a year since we’ve started our initiative in Sopot, Poland. It has the same aim as the Transition initiatives, however we have decided to focus on local democracy first. Democracy helps to eliminate the struggles of political parties and it weakens vested interests. What we have also quickly realized is that even if you come up with a great plan for improving public transport or installing a biogas digester in your city, there’s this little, tiny issue: how can you make it all happen? Where will the money come from? Who will give all permits and change the city plans? The city council may be supportive and help you with that, but what if your city council is not interested in preparing for peak oil and doesn’t care about climate change? Certainly, citizens can exchange the city council in the next elections, nevertheless, at least in Poland, members of the council don’t have to keep their promises. Their commitments are not guaranteed by law. With participatory democracy citizens are involved in decision making directly. Citizens don’t need to worry about political campaigns, they can think long-term. If most of the citizens share the vision of a sustainable city, and if they have a direct influence on budget spending, than realizing this vision becomes possible. And, what’s also important, all projects are not imposed on people by the mayor, but they are agreed upon by the majority of the population.

Throughout the last year we have been discovering the commons – parks, streets, a city hall and the city budget. Lots of our common real estate has been sold and privatized, however, there is still some of it left. It seems that most of our fellow citizens don’t realize it yet that the money on the account of the city hall is our common money. The land in the park is their land. They think that the city funds belong to the city council and that the mayor is like a mighty king that governs people. While, in fact, it’s the other way around. Citizens own the city hall, it’s our money on the bank account and we hire the mayor and the whole city council to work for our common good.


Pedestrian mall in Sopot

What is also vital for us is also a sense of community. What we’ve experienced is that it comes by itself, as a side-effect, so there’s no need to organize a special workshop for it. We don’t have strong social ties in Polish cities like in indigenous societies. It seems to me that even if you know a lot of people in your neighborhood, that’s not a community yet. Community means that people share something, that there is a common cause. That there is a life together. What can you do then to restore social ties? How can you empower citizens and create this sense of community? Some sort of action together is necessary. Well, what kind of action?

What we campaign for in Sopot is participatory budgeting, which means that citizens are able to decide directly on what our common funds are spent on. That’s the action that we suggest for a start. Besides strengthening social ties and getting to know your fellow-citizens, it is also an opportunity to propose solutions for generating renewable energy, to promote local food and to discuss other ideas for an eco-city. We have lots of funds in our budget, it’s just that they are now used for other purposes than lowering our carbon footprint. Actually, they are mostly spent on attracting more tourists. Even though we could insist that the city council installs a biogas digester now (that’s called lobbying), it is also important to ask other citizens if they would support this project. Since we would like to use funds from the common budget, then all citizens should have the right to express their opinion, and even reject the project if they don’t like it. After all, common is common. Lobbying is not bad by itself, it can be effective in putting forward green projects, however, it’s not the same as democracy where citizens are empowered and fully engaged in decision-making process. Thanks to direct participation a sense of responsibility and ownership are also created. Right now our local democracy still needs some refurbishments, as you can see in case of the Grodowy Park.

Saving public space

One might expect that when the mayor asks citizens what would they like to have in a certain area of the city, and citizens fill the questionnaire writing that most of them would like to see a green area there, open to public, then that’s what they get. Well, that’s not the case with our mayor. Even though he declared that the will of Sopot citizens expressed in the questionnaire is binding for him, the new plan for this area was somewhat surprising (1). Instead of a park, the whole are was to be divided into parcels and sold for small hotels, offices and other services. Hmm… We were pretty sure that’s not what the citizens meant. The issue of Grodowy Park has mobilized many citizens. It wasn’t just about a park. It was also about democracy, about respecting the will of people.


Tunnel of lime trees in Grodowy Park


Grodowy creek. In this area there are 133 plant species
and 149 animal species – including 17 kinds of birds

We have arranged a guided tour around the park for the members of the council and citizens of Sopot that attracted around 100 people. Some of the members of the councils visited this area for the first time in their life, even though we live in a rather small city of 37,000 people and Grodowy Park is near the center. If we didn’t organize the tour they would have voted to sell out the area without even visiting it, based only upon recommendations of the mayor. Old trees would be left standing, but the area would no longer be a park. Public space would be turned into private properties.


Beginning of the tour. The park covers a large area of around 16 hectares.
This house still belongs to the pool of our commons.

Next, with the help of other people, the first public consultations with the mayor were organized to discuss the future of the park. The room was packed. The mayor and city architects presented their plan which was aimed to allow construction of new buildings, parking lots and fencing off most of the public area. The reaction of the citizens was strong, and eventually the mayor gave ground. The conclusion of the meeting was that a there will be an open contest for arranging the park and the rules of the contest will be presented to citizens for their acceptance. Several months later we’ve met with the mayor and still there were few buildings left in the proposal. Much less than previously, but still these were new buildings. Citizens said no, we don’t want any new buildings, we want a park, and the rules of the contest are being rewritten once again.

The case of the Grodowy Park has become well known, and it has become an opportunity for us to meet with other people that live in Sopot. It has become a common cause for those involved in saving this park. However, other issues like climate change or organic food don’t attract so many people, so far. I’m always impressed when I read about the meetings organized by the Transition initiatives that attract hundreds of people. How do you guys do it? It seems to me that many people in Poland are also not accustomed to being able to influence the matters of their city. It’s easy to understand when you see how the mayor dealt with the answers to his own questionnaire. But it doesn’t have to be like that. It’s in the hands of ordinary citizens to change it.


The Valley of Wetlands – a protected area inside the park

Citizens’ charters

If we wish to improve public participation in city life, then citizens need appropriate tools for it. One of these tools is a citizens’ charter that we suggested in Sopot. When a city council in Poland wants to change the name of a street or to introduce a school gardening programme they vote upon a charter. Who can propose the charter? It can be written by e.g. five members of the council or by the mayor. There’s just a handful of cities in Poland where citizens can present a charter to the city council, and now Sopot is one of them. According to a new city statute, when a group of 200 citizens sign the draft charter it is submitted before the committees and then for voting by the city council.

The members of our city council were supportive of the idea. Only one voted against it arguing that it is the job of the members of the council to do that. That’s true, nevertheless, in practice, it’s not easy for the citizens to convince a member of the city council to get involved even in a simple issue. A vast majority of the charters are prepared on behalf of the mayor by the employees of the city hall. The job of the city council, as they see it, is to discuss them, perhaps suggest some minor amendments, and then vote for it. As you’ve probably guessed now, the majority of the members of the council are from the same political club as the mayor. With new rules, however, we can now write draft charters ourselves. That’s a huge step forward, but please keep in mind that this tool is not actually democratic. It only gives the citizens an opportunity to present ideas before the city council. It is the city council, not the citizens, who eventually decide whether the idea goes ahead or not. But that’s not the only tool that is useful.


Hawthorns and the red horse chestnut in bloom

Improving public consultations

Do you remember the Pirates of the Caribbean? When Elizabeth Swan is caught by the pirates she says to captain Barbossa “Parle!” which means, according to the pirate’s code, that now they have to talk and come up with an agreement. Making use of the citizens’ charter we would like to give citizens a right to announce official public consultations. The results of these consultations, if they are carried out according to the rules, should be considered binding for the city council or the mayor (2).

What would one need the right of parle for? Imagine that you learn that a new supermarket is planned right next to your home. You want to talk to the mayor about, but he doesn’t want to meet you. You talk to the members of the city council, but they say “Oh, but what can we do about it, it’s all up to the mayor”. Then you say “Aha, the mayor doesn’t want to meet me? Parle! I’ll ask 200 citizens to sign the petition to arrange an official consultation to decide whether the supermarket can be built there or not. You can come to this meeting Mr. Mayor or not, but even if you don’t show up, we will expect that you’ll respect our decision”.

There are several criteria that must be met for the decision to be considered binding. First of all, the citizens must be well informed about the meeting – we would like to design a standard procedure for posting information on the website, printing posters etc, for all consultations. Then, all voices must be heard during the meeting. Different types of consultations are possible, including Open Space, but the general idea is to allow all interested parties to express their opinions. And finally, when all attendees deeply understand the issue, they are aware of the pros and cons, of other possible solutions (if any), and then a decision is taken. Consensus is best, however, if it cannot be reached, than voting is necessary. It is vital that the voting is not done openly, e.g. by raising a hand, but anonymously on sheets of paper. In this way people are free to vote as they feel is right.

Preparing a budget together

According to Polish law it is the mayor, not the city council, who prepares the budget of the city. So, how can we introduce participatory budgeting in Sopot? Luckily for us, there are elections coming this fall. Our plan is to encourage all candidates for mayor to include participatory budgeting in their programmes and we’ll ask our fellow citizens to vote only for those who did. In this way, hopefully, all candidates will have participatory budgeting in their programmes, and no matter who wins the elections we will end up with the same result.

Creating a budget means: we have around 60 million US dollars to spend each year with a large portion for new projects. What can we do with it? Oh, let’s buy a couple of buses that run on biogas. Or, maybe we could build a wind turbine. No, wait, I’ve got an idea, let’s extend the bicycle lanes. No, no, we need a new gym at the school, let’s fund this project. The process of creating a budget can be lively and fun, and Open Space can be used for it. The general meeting of citizens is needed just for final voting once a year, so it doesn’t have to be very time consuming. And by the way, if you can build a local economy, you can design it in a way that people have more free time.

Notes:

  1. Most probably the mayor did not expect that anyone will check whether the results of the poll are put into practice. According to the rules of public consultations that we propose these results can’t been considered binding, because anyone could have filled the questionnaire (even a person from another city), one person could have submitted more than one questionnaire thus distorting the results, and the issues were not clearly explained and discussed over.
  2. From a current legal perspective, decisions taken during public consultations cannot be legally binding. We hope to make them binding on the grounds of an informal agreement between the citizens and the city council and a mayor. Yes, it means that still they will be able to trick the citizens, but even if it was a law they still could try. We hope they won’t, because they will be aware that it will cause a public outcry. What we would like to do is to develop a trust between citizens and the members of the council and to make these rules a cultural norm rather than a law. What is currently legally binding is a local referendum, but its procedure is so difficult that it’s not practical for small issues – more than 3 thousands signatures are needed to hold a referendum in Sopot. However, if the mayor or the city council are very naughty, citizens can hold a recall referendum to throw them out of the office. That’s our stick.

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