Costas Bakoyannis: Giving the capital back to its residents

Costas Bakoyannis: Giving the capital back to its residents

Costas Bakoyannis wants a “livable” city and believes that a mayor should act for everyone, not just his own people. He tells Kathimerini he has a plan whose cost has been calculated down to the last euro and will certainly prove controversial, as he speaks of cooperation with the private sector and the return of public space to the city’s residents. The 41-year-old incoming mayor of Athens, elected on Sunday with more than 65 percent of the vote, insists that local government cannot function without consensus, while assuring that he is not constrained by partisan allegiances and is prepared to work with any democratic force.

You have said that the priorities of the municipal authority are the same as those of the Athenians. What do you plan to do with regard to issues such as lighting, safety, sanitation and other such basic City Hall functions? Will you employ the private sector and, if so, in what capacity?

We are ready to roll out a plan on September 1 that can bring visible results in all these areas that are so vital to a safe city. I can say this with confidence because our plan is well studied and the cost has been calculated down to the last euro, but also because after 10 years in local government we have learned how to deliver by avoiding red tape or getting trapped by our ideology. We have a duty to our constituents, who are fed up of the city’s decline. But there is something more that is needed, and that’s a change of mentality. We can’t be afraid of rocking the boat. And we have to do this without ideological blinkers and political compulsions, in one direction or the other. This is where cooperation with the private sector fits in. It is a supplementary tool that can make the public more aware of the work municipal employees do and also help them do it – as is the case in most cities abroad and in many municipalities in Greece.

How do you plan to improve accessibility? And what about the uncontrolled use of public sidewalks and squares by bars, cafes and restaurants?

Throughout my pre-election campaign, one of the messages that really hit home was how neglected this city has become. Neglected and resigned. Two things happen when a city is in a state like this – one positive and one negative. On the one hand you see impressive growth and investment initiatives that are exclusively – and forgive me for the expression – the product of patriotism. On the other, you see people acting with absolute impunity, as the law falls by the wayside. The municipal authority needs to be prepared to issue new regulations depending on the needs and demands of each area or neighborhood. Horizontal solutions are not the answer, and this is more or less our guiding principle. We need to understand that just because something is public doesn’t mean it belongs to the state. Public space, for example, belongs to the citizens of this city and we want to treat it as such. But for us to be able to ask Athenians for their help, the municipal authority needs to grasp this concept first. It also needs to make sure that it is meeting all of its obligations before it asks anything more from the city’s residents. In short, this means clean streets, clear wheelchair ramps, maintenance, bigger and better sidewalks, and the removal of impediments to free circulations. It also means coming to an agreement with the business community, which, I assure you, is eager for such clarity.

Will you side with downtown residents on the issue of controlled parking, or with citizens at large, who want to reserve the right to travel to the city center by car?

Athens is one of those cities where pedestrians are always mad at motorists and motorists are always mad at pedestrians. This is the result of a complete absence of rudimentary rules for social coexistence. And this, in turn, is the result of several generations of city governors trying to make everyone happy and ending up making everyone unhappy. But enough with the observations. Allow me to mention to some of our proposals.

We plan to expand the controlled parking scheme by 3,000 more spaces and by including parking garages owned by the City of Athens. At the same time, we have also made it a priority to designate special parking spots for motorcycles so they don’t end up on the sidewalks. The idea is for the municipality’s interventions to be of a regulatory nature and not intended only to boost revenues. This is why we insist that the system just needs to be rationalized and for hourly parking rates to be introduced, which would reduce the cost by more than 30 percent. However, the conversation cannot only be about cars.

We want a city that’s livable, and for a city to be livable, you first have to be able to walk in it. Our intention is to ban traffic from the historical and commercial triangle right in the city center, providing local municipal transportation and a plan for commercial deliveries. And we will also develop more bicycle routes so we can enjoy the city that way too.

Ruling SYRIZA officials have accused you of adopting a far-right agenda with regard to security. How do you respond?

Let’s get one thing straight: Security is not an ideological issue. It is the cornerstone of a democratic society and the freedom of its citizens. Saying that prioritizing security is playing to far-right rhetoric is simply playing into the hands of the fascists. I have often spoken of the need for a coordination center, among other initiatives, between the national and municipal police forces, joint patrols and/or cooperation with private security firms. The key, though, is cooperation, and this is something that is missing from the public administration more generally. Coordination means, for example, that the municipal authority is informed when the police plans to evacuate a building that has been turned into a squat so that the city can intervene the next day, close it up and possibly make use of it. It’s as simple as that.

You talk a lot about cooperation and consensus at a time of intense political polarization. Where do you belong ideologically? Have you given up your party affiliations?

The nature of local governance requires, demands, cooperation and consensus in order to be able to function. A mayor represents everyone, not just his people or party. The municipal council is a decision-making body, not a debating society, and the larger the majority supporting any decision, the better the odds that it will be embraced by the people, accepted and implemented. The fact that central government tends to treat local administration like the party’s errand boy has done enormous damage to the institution. As far as my party colors are concerned, I have never shown a preference and I’m not about to start now. To be honest, I find the question about my ideological beliefs somewhat dated. Young people who were born in this millennium voted in these elections for the first time, so I refuse to talk to them in a language that belongs to the 19th or 20th century. I prefer to keep an open mind.

Do you have any “red lines” concerning who you’re willing or not willing to work with now that you have been elected?

My only red line is faith in democracy, in its principles and values. The crisis has left Athens with shackles we need to break out of and wounds we need to heal. The toxic climate is spurred by an obsession with the past and leads to divisions and dead ends. That is why now, more than ever in the past few years, we need to have a positive outlook and to mobilize all the things that unite us in the service of a new political culture – through cooperation with any democratic force.

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