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An interview with Vojko Obersnel, Mayor of Rijeka
Vojko Obersnel is Mayor of Rijeka, Croatia. He was born in 1957 in Rijeka. He holds a master’s degree in natural sciences and medicinal genetics. Until 1997 he worked at The Medical faculty in Rijeka. He has been a member of Social Democratic Party of Croatia since 1990. From 1997 to 2000 he served as the Head of City Department of Health and Social Welfare. Since 2000 he has been the mayor of the City of Rijeka and is presently serving his sixth mandate.
Mr. Obersnel, please describe the city of Rijeka in a few sentences.
Rijeka is an open, modern city that cultivates the values of tolerance, inclusivity, and solidarity. The citizens of Rijeka are free-thinking and active, often more critical and ambitions in their demands related to the city’s development than the citizens of other Croatian cities and towns. However, at the same time, people of Rijeka are ready at all times to defend their views and to react to any form of injustice, oppression or abolishment of human rights. This is a city that is proud of its rich diversity.
Besides, after many decades of being a large industrial centre, Rijeka is now changing into a city with a modern university, small and medium-sized enterprises, and knowledge-based industry. Rijeka is also increasingly recognized as an attractive tourist destination and in 2020 it will become The European Capital of Culture.
You are currently serving your sixth mandate. During this period, you have transformed Rijeka into the most transparent city in Croatia. What are the biggest challenges in your everyday work?
Throughout all these years and all my mandates, I was confronted with a big challenge in regard to building and preserving the citizens' trust in the politics I represent. However, since these actual politics rest upon the conviction that the mutual collaboration between the citizens and administrative bodies can yield a lot in regard to building a better society, I presume that my fellow-citizens trusted me with their votes through this entire period, from 2001 up to the present time, because they felt I have been doing what I truly believe in. Still, the challenge I have been facing in practically all my mandates was and remained to make citizens understand that the local level of political deciding is not almighty and that it cannot directly influence absolutely all the issues and problems which people encounter in their lives.
Let me elaborate this a little bit. Croatia is a young democracy and it is still undergoing a process of learning as to what it means to live in a civil and orderly society, where various governmental and administrative levels tackle different responsibilities. In a certain sense, as a country, we are still at the beginning. Unfortunately, researches show that the citizens’ trust in government, administration, and institutions is weak. An additionally aggravating circumstance is presented in a fact that during the 30 years of Croatian democracy, not a single national government, whose jurisdiction encompasses the entire educational system, has adequately introduced the education on organized civic society, on the authorities of particular governmental levels and responsibilities that can or cannot be assumed in regard to the former.
Therefore, the implementation of the high-level transparency of the public services is operated with the aim of fighting corruption, of conveying a model of citizens' inclusion in reaching public decisions that concern them or with the goal of conceiving the politics that strongly rely on citizens’ real needsThese are issues that, in the whole of Croatia still haven’t been standardized in regard to implementation. For that reason, they largely depend on the respective individuals leading the municipality, city, country or ministry, that is – on the readiness and preparedness of those individuals to perform their governing and administrative duties in the above-described manner.
Personally, I represent the politics of openness and inclusion. I believe in cooperating and communicating with citizens and I understand the importance of developing the transparency of public services. Such values are also cultivated by my closest collaborators, which makes Rijeka the most transparent city in Croatia. Rijeka was also the first to introduce civic education into its elementary schools, as we were – to put it bluntly – fed up with waiting for the national government levels to accomplish this task by introducing civic education nationwide, across all the elementary schools in Croatia. In connection to this, Rijeka also created textbooks, teaching materials and began implementing this educational program for those pupils that wish to attend it. The response is excellent, and our model is being taken over by some other Croatian cities as well. I deeply believe that this education strongly influences the future development of Croatia, exactly in the context of challenges which I’ve mentioned beforehand, which are the understanding of jurisdictions in governing and the issue of more active citizens’ inclusion in creating politics which are being planned and implemented by public services.
All your mandates are marked by a strong municipal social care program that protects numerous citizens. Could you tell us more about this type of projects?
The City of Rijeka has the most comprehensive local social care program in the whole of Croatia. We provide a wide spectrum of diverse forms of social care. We also allow a far wider circle of potential users of social care, by setting the higher income threshold, wherein the minimal income that allows one to become a user of social care programme is significantly higher than the one proscribed on the national level. In this manner, we encompass and protect a significantly larger number of our citizens that the state does.
We have developed numerous forms of aid and adopted those to the actual needs of certain population groups whose existential conditions are aggravated. We cover their overhead expenses (rent, electricity, heating, gas, water, waste management, municipal fee), alimentation (infants with medical conditions, elementary school pupils, adults’ use of public kitchen, the costs of children care in kindergarten and nurseries, the procurement of textbooks for elementary school children, the costs of using public transport, healthcare and coroner's services. We provide monthly financial aid to the retirees and seniors without income. We also provide gift-vouchers to the socially disadvantaged citizens – enabling them to satisfy various needs, like procuring infant equipment or kitchen appliances. We also give the gift-vouchers to the socially disadvantaged elderly citizens during the Christmas holidays. By offering such a wide range of aid, the Social Programme of the City of Rijeka presents the example of quality social support to citizens. Caring about its citizens has been a constitutional part of the administrative policy of Rijeka for many years now.
Croatia has been a member of the EU for only a few years but your municipality has already managed to implement numerous very successful EU funded projects. In what ways have they improved the quality of life in Rijeka?
Thanks to the good preparation of city projects, Rijeka was ready to apply for EU funds very soon after Croatia became a full member state of EU. This gave us a possibility to realize projects into which we have already invested much good work and effort, but which we could not realize and finalize so quickly in the absence of our own funds.
The said projects are primarily those connected to the industrial heritage buildings which have been allocated to become cultural infrastructure. As you probably know, in 2020 Rijeka will become a European Capital of Culture, and some of the cultural buildings are part of this project. In this context, we shall transform a former industrial complex at the very centre of the city into a so-called culture district. More precisely, we shall renovate three abandoned buildings in order to make them into new homes for city's cultural institutions – City Library, Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, City Museum of Rijeka. Besides, one of the buildings will become Children’s House where our youngest fellow citizens will spend their leisure time engaged in creative and educational activities, as well as quality entertainment. Besides the just mentioned buildings, we use EU funds to renovate M/S Galeb, so-called Tito's ship which boasts the interesting history and large historical significance, by transforming it into an attractive ship-museum.
Apart from those significant investments into culture, European funds are used in Rijeka to a substantial degree to finance the energy renovation of buildings. This is true in the case of public buildings where we - as the city administration - apply for funds, but also in the case of private buildings whose energy renovation is co-financed by European funds thanks to entrepreneurial initiatives.
Further on, by using EU funds we procure new buses for public city transportation. We also realize a whole range of smaller projects which, each in its own way, raise the quality of life in the city.
Speaking on the wider municipal system e.g. public utility companies and institutions we have found, they too are active in applying for EU funds. For instance, our public waterworks and sewage company “Vodovod i kanalizacija“ is presently engaged in a project that will provide Rijeka and its surroundings with an extended and safe sewage network, extending the existent waterworks network along with constructing a new wastewater treatment facility. Since the city is located on karst terrain, this entire project will additionally protect the sources of drinkable water and the sea against pollution. At the moment, this project is one of the biggest investments in the whole of Croatia, as it is worth 227 million Euro, with 71% of this sum financed through European funds.
Rijeka is the most successful local government unit in Croatia in regard to using EU funds, which help us to advance the quality of life in the city.
What is Rijeka doing to attract investors and strategic projects?
First of all, Rijeka has a great geostrategic position, since it is situated in the North Adriatic. The whole of The Adriatic Sea functions as a large bay of the Mediterranean Sea and is most deeply indented to the European mainland in comparison to other parts of the Mediterranean. Such position conditioned both historical and present orientation towards maritime businesses and modern port, including – by all means – a good traffic and transport infrastructure and connections with the mainland.
Due to the centralized tax politics in Croatia, Rijeka – being a city – cannot influence the reduction of taxes which would be an incentive for investors. However, we offer well organized public utility infrastructure (water, electricity, natural gas, a system of telecom ducts, etc.)
Investments related to the production and further development of tourism are subject to minimal municipal fees (utility rates and utility fee).
The specific feature of Rijeka’s policy and activity in the domain of investments concerns collaboration with investors in all the phases of project development. This primarily means that city administration, besides promoting strategic city projects that are suitable for investors, also assumes the role of mentor. A one-stop shop, as a place where investors can obtain all the information linked to their projects, is simply inexistent in Croatia. To amend this, The City of Rijeka gives the investors access to all its expert capacities and data that contribute to the development of investment projects. Further on, in a phase when investors require various permits and licenses, the City of Rijeka helps them to quickly go through all the legal procedures, as well as to effectively communicate with other respective authorities.
In the case of more complex investment projects, we establish multidisciplinary teams that regularly meet with investors and provide support regarding procedures, in compliance with legal obligations. We also help by counselling in regard to the possibilities of using European funds when private investors are partners in city projects.
In the City of Rijeka, we deem that each investment project is specific. Therefore, one cannot simply and automatically apply some general rules. What is needed is regular communication, especially during the phase of intense preparation of investment projects.
Mr. Obersnel, you have served as the president of The Association of the Cities and Communes of the Republic of Croatia, currently, you are one of the vice-presidents of the European Committee of the Regions and member of several Commissions. You perfectly understand the importance of exchanging good practices between the cities and regions in Europe. How TheMayor.eu can be useful to you as a mayor and to the citizens of Rijeka?
Your website can assist many cities, mayors and the public sector by transmitting the stories that represent the examples of good practices regarding governing, development of those projects that have benefited the community in which they arose in the first place. Each form of connecting and learning from those who have developed something good – deserves attention.
The exchange of ideas that happens between cities, which I am personally witnessing in my work within the European Committee of Regions, is a useful supporting method in governing. It is crucial to learn from those better than oneself, just as it is important to selflessly share one's achievements, successes, and knowledge with others. This is the only way for us to progress together, as states, as the continent and – if you wish – as humanity.
What are the main goals and good examples you plan on developing in the near future?
Our biggest and most important task in the foreseeable future is to finalize the quality preparation and then realize the project Rijeka 2020 – European Capital of Culture. This title undoubtedly launches us among the centres of European culture, offering us the potential for growth in domains other than culture and yet complementary to culture – such as tourism, economy or university and academic community. However, I believe that the most important thing here is actually cultural heritage, as something that will be bequeathed by this complex project to both Rijeka and entire European culture. This includes buildings we are presently constructing and which, after 2020, will be hosting various cultural events and will attract visitors. Another thing is the project’s heritage which will remain within the people themselves. The project of European Capital of Culture enables many of our fellow-citizens, many citizens of Croatia and many visitors of Rijeka to get education, to network and exchange ideas. The value of all of the above is priceless. Furthermore, the result of such intertwining and of building togetherness will extend far beyond the year 2020.
Find out more about Rijeka here