By Tania Georgiopoulou
Standing at the municipal council’s podium late last month, Athens Mayor Giorgos Kaminis seemed visibly annoyed as he talked about a series of violent incidents that recently took place at municipal council meetings.
The former ombudsman had kindly agreed to let Kathimerini follow him around observing him on a number of occasions as he tended to his various duties as the Greek capital’s chief executive.
“These thugs are terrorizing elected representatives,” he told the council. “They are using threats to dictate what decisions will be taken.”
The incidents Kaminis was referring to occurred when two different groups of people interrupted two municipal meetings -- one representing the district of Kypseli, Patissia, Aghios Panteleimonas and Attiki and Omonia squares, and the second the district of Ambelokipi, Erythros Stavros, Gyzi and Polygono -- verbally abusing and threatening municipal council members because they did not agree with some of the decisions being taken.
A few days later, after presiding over two departmental meetings and checking in for a morning coffee with his close aides, Kaminis attended a press conference on the subject of urban transportation at the Melina Cultural Center in Thiseio, where the mood was positively more cool-headed and civilized than the aforementioned council meeting. At the end of the press event, some seized the opportunity to express their point of view.
“You should change the lamps on the street lights, Mr Mayor,” one reporter commented.
After the council meeting, I had joined the mayor on the rooftop of the landmark City Hall building on Athinas Street, from where Athens appeared peaceful under the winter sun, and asked him about his earlier outburst.
“They burst into meetings, terrorizing people who have been elected and force them to take decisions. Exactly what would you call that?” he shot back.
Borrowing a term I had overheard at the meeting, I replied that they wished to express their opinion.
“There are many ways to express one’s opinion. Verbal abuse, intimidation and threats are ways of expressing one’s opinion. These are also acts punished by law,” he remarked.
I then conveyed to him the impression of what is sadly a vast portion of Athens residents, which in this case came from a taxi owner who had said to me: “I’m not voting for Kaminis again. The city is full of drug addicts and thieves and he’s not doing anything about it.” Before the mayor responded, I was quick to add that City Hall was not the only responsible party.
“Essentially the City of Athens is not responsible for this kind of situation,” Kaminis said. “As far as the city’s major problems are concerned, I feel like I’m in a vise, as I cannot play a leading role. Take the Indignants movement issue, for instance. A few days before our intervention, I received a call from a high-ranking Citizens’ Protection Ministry official, who said to me, ‘Let me know when you’re ready,’ to which I immediately replied: ‘The City of Athens has been ready since yesterday to remove the tents and pick up the banners. You tell us when this can take place without any blood on the streets.’ That was the last I heard from them, so I decided to take action.”
”Are you saying that there is a lack of cooperation between City Hall and the Citizens’ Protection Ministry?” I asked.
“I’m talking about everyday reality. I have asked for round-the-clock riot police units to be stationed outside the Athens Law School and the Athens University of Economics and Business because municipal police patrols have been repeatedly attacked during operations targeting black market racketeering. They cannot defend themselves properly because they have not been trained for that sort of thing,” he said, adding that the city doesn’t receive the support that the state should be providing it with.
He seemed ready to take things into his own hands.
“Athens ought to be a truly metropolitan municipality, whose mayor is responsible for taking and implementing certain decisions,” he said. “An example of this would be for municipal police to have jurisdiction to fight crime within city limits,” in reference to the fact that currently the officers that serve on the municipal force are not permitted to carry firearms.
'Sufficient' though not necessarilly efficient
At 2 p.m., following the meeting at the Melina Cultural Center in Thiseio, Kaminis’s agenda pointed to a meeting with municipal staff, followed by an executive commission on the subject of the City of Athens budget for 2012. As we left the Poulopoulou Street building and headed to a municipal building situated on Liosion Street, he stopped the car in Omonia Square so we could get out and take a look at the season’s festive decorations. Along the way, the conversation turned to Exarchia.
“Saturday mornings sitting at the cafes on Kallidromiou Street. Perhaps the city’s best fruit and vegetable market. It’s a lovely street,” he said with a trace of nostalgia. Since his election as Athens mayor, the idea of taking a quiet stroll around town has no longer been an option for Kaminis. This became evident in Omonia, where his presence did not go unnoticed. A passer-by approached him in a rather aggressive manner, but quickly moved away. He was then approached by Giorgos Stamatopoulos, the owner of one of the few remaining stores operating on the central Athens square.
“I would like to thank you, Mr Mayor. You are the only one who dealt with the square,” Stamatopoulos said, adding: “Motorcycles go on sidewalks and frighten people. Is there anything you can do?”
Kaminis responded that he couldn’t, due to the fact that the City of Athens is only in charge of parked vehicles. “When a vehicle is in motion, the City of Athens does not have the authority to issue a ticket,” he explained.
Nevertheless, the mayor considers the 2011 Christmas decorations and holiday season program an achievement on many levels: on the financial level because up until two years ago the annual festivities had a budget of over 2 million euros to work with, while this year they had a limit of 200,000 euros, and, more importantly, in terms of changing mentalities.
“The festivities were organized by City of Athens employees who made the project their own because they had an incentive,” said Kaminis, a keen believer in individual responsibility. “It would be nice for the citizens of Athens to take part in the various events and reclaim their city. You can’t expect the state or City Hall to take care of everything and do all the work.”
As the sparkling Christmas lights turned off at the end of the holiday season, however, a certain number of municipal staff would not having their contracts renewed.
“Contract workers,” he sighed. “This whole story points to an incredible regime of depravity. I never hired a single contract worker, yet now I’m obliged to deal with the problem.”
Will this lead to staff shortages?
“We might come across problems in kindergartens. We might have to make some cuts, without lowering the quality of the services,” he noted. “The luxurious days of some people sitting around while others got the work done, of hiring contract workers to cover for the gaps created by permanent staff are over. The difficulty in this case lies in the fact that mentalities have to change in a short period of time.”
Are the permanent municipal staff enough to cover the operational needs of the City of Athens?
“They are more than sufficient,” said Kaminis.
In search of money-saving ideas
A short while after 3 p.m. the mayor’s car, a regular-looking hybrid vehicle, pulled into the entrance of the municipal building on Liosion Street. Hanging around outside were mostly drug users, odd-looking faces who displayed a keen interest in the new arrivals.
“Are you afraid of walking around at night?” I asked the mayor as we entered from a side door, given that the main entrance was barred with metal. “No, it’s not in my nature to be scared, but people are right to be afraid. There are people getting attacked outside City Hall,” was his answer.
Kaminis insists on continuing to work from his office in the Liosion building, because that is where the City of Athens’s core departments are based. Waiting outside his office provided me with an opportunity to contemplate my impressions. As a resident of the city center, I feel that I have a lot to be angry with the local authorities about. But I also have to admit that Kaminis is obliged to cook up the best possible result quickly, with limited funds and, in some cases, what could be referred to as low-quality ingredients. He has a good sense of humor, innate good manners and knows how to listen. He truly is a “pleasantly serious man,” as one of his close associates put it, though the same person did express some objections in relation to the “mayor’s excessively good manners toward ill-mannered people and circumstances.”
The 2012 budget meeting was nearly on schedule. In his introduction, Kaminis talked about the current conditions of deep recession and invited all those participating to do their best. He also pointed out that there had been a 30 percent cut in spending.
“If this was the case around Greece, we would not be on the brink of bankruptcy,” he said.
Yet the City of Athens has been excluded from the Ministry of Environment, Energy and Climate Change’s energy-saving “Exikonomo” program, because a file submitted during the tenure of former Athens Mayor Nikitas Kaklamanis was deemed incomplete, Kaminis added.
Eva Kontostathakou, deputy mayor in charge of transparency, presented the budget’s figures. I wasn’t allowed to record the budget meeting, but I did retain a few details: The new City of Athens website was developed free of charge with the aid of the municipal 9.84 radio station -- in 2007, the same project cost 700,000 euros; the relocation of the registry office to a City of Athens building will save up to 400,000 euros annually in rent; there will be an increase in the budget of the City of Athens Homeless Shelter (KYADA) because it might have to provide free meals at schools due to the economic crisis.
I left the meeting at 6 p.m., before it had ended. Popular Greek music filled the City Hall building’s corridors, a sign that the guard was at his post. When I walked outside, however, I felt as if all of the city’s marginalized figures had gathered in front of the building. I steeled myself and quickly walked away.