Firmly convinced that the government should first and foremost serve the residents, he tries to turn this idea into reality. How does he do it in practice? We invite you to an interview with Krzysztof Pietruszewski, a member of the Citizens Network Watchdog Poland.
Agnieszka Zdanowicz: Tell me, Krzysztof, how did your adventure with civil oversight begin?
Krzysztof Pietruszewski: Konin is an interesting city on the map of Poland, because I am at least the third local watchdog here. It all started in 2013, when, in collaboration with the Association 61, the first local platform, I Have the Right to Know, was established in our area by Akcja Konin (Action Konin). Running it was primarily about monitoring the work of the councillors. At that time I did not really think about any social activity. In 2018, there was a threat that the Action Konin’s platform would not continue to be run by the same people as before, or worse, that it would stop operating. In order for that not to happen, we had to find someone willing to take over, and since I had already been included in running it before, I figured I could try my hand at the full thing. The entire platform came down primarily to vote analysis. As the councillors did not show much activity outside the council sessions, I decided to broaden my scope of activity a bit and, outside the platform, I also inspected the activities of the city president, city companies and other institutions. A fanpage on Facebook and a blog where I post all the information have also been created. I didn’t know then that such actions were called civil oversight. It wasn’t until I attended the Watchdog School that I learned it had a name.
Did you make your first request for information when you were running Konin’s I Have the Right to Know or earlier?
I sent my first request in January 2019. There was a discussion on social media surrounding a local competition and I decided to submit a request to verify which side of the conflict was right.
And were you able to get the information without a problem?
The response came after two weeks. I have no special problems with getting information in Konin. There are refusals, but very rarely.
And what do you usually ask about?
The topic of most interest to the wider public is finance. For example, the salaries of municipal companies CEOs were a milestone for getting information out to residents. The salaries were not hidden, they were published in the Public Information Bulletin, but few people read it. I finally decided to compile this data, compare it to the previous year and put it on a chart. We were able to reach about half of the city’s population with this information. Thanks to this, many people heard about Konin’s I Have the Right to Know and the website gained dozens of new supporters. While still on the subject, I also like to analyse city company reports. Although all this data is available, even some councillors did not know about it. Interestingly, the Konin municipal companies in general evoke a surprisingly high level of emotions among the inhabitants. The companies, of course, are not the only topic I cover. I try to monitor different areas of the city’s operations, but the companies occupy one of the top posts.
Is it sometimes the case that residents approach you with a request to deal with some issue?
Of course. And the only problem here is that there’s not enough time to take care of every issue, even more so when you’re acting alone. Assisting in such matters involves, among other things, learning very detailed regulations from scratch. This takes time, and the reported issues must be dealt with as quickly as possible. But these kinds of things are most rewarding when you manage to make a difference. Shortly after the publication of the CEO pay study, the agreements with some of the CEOs were terminated and, as I later learned, their contracts were reviewed. In one of the cases I got great satisfaction from managing to add my three cents and contributing at least a little to improving working conditions for a company’s employees. At the moment I am dealing with the issue of renovation and thermal modernisation of one of the tenement houses in Konin, which is, to put it mildly, in poor condition, e.g. the floors have holes and the humidity level reaches 80%. I requested various documents from the city hall and from the municipal company, and the results of the audits told me, for example, that the building was habitable, while in practice the floor had already collapsed under one person. I also asked MPs to submit an interpellation on whether there will be any subsidies for thermal modernisation of the tenement houses in the next year. I forwarded the response to the authorities, hoping they would take an interest in next year’s programmes. At the same time, I hope that the city will manage to obtain funds for the renovation of at least one of the other tenement houses, if not the one I am dealing with.
I was also approached many times by people from outside of Konin. I’m also already sending request outside the city borders myself. In 2019, I read in the media from Turek that the mayor of this city does not want to provide the letter of intent signed with an investor to the councillors and journalists of the editorial board for review. I filed a request and was also denied an answer. In the meantime, a request for access to an already signed contract suffered the same fate. Both cases went back to the Local Government Appeal Council in Konin several times. This was the first and only time so far that I have been attacked by some local media and city councillors sympathetic to the mayor who did not like my interest in the whole affair. However, persistence paid off. After more than a year, it was possible to obtain both a letter of intent and the contract with the investor.
I hear that from time to time you cooperate with MPs and councillors?
Yes, I try to use these contacts as well, because they provide, thanks to the powers of MPs and councillors, other channels to reach the necessary information. It is also important to cooperate with the media in order to publicise the issues that we, as watchdogs, deal with. Whenever possible, I try to avoid referring cases to the courts, as this greatly prolongs the process of getting answers. The most important thing for me is to get the information into the public space, not necessarily to go to court for it.
Sometimes, though, it seems that you have to turn to the courts. And if I understand it correctly, it hasn’t been necessary very often with local issues, but it turned out to be unavoidable in nationwide topics?
Unfortunately, political parties forced me to go to court. Politics is creeping into our daily lives and it’s hard not to pay attention. With the recent presidential election, my friend and I began to wonder how much the parties spend on research and analyses and how much the results are incorporated into their programs. From this was born the idea of a request for information to the five largest election committees regarding contracts and expenditures for research and expertise. I received information from two committees. Two other committees refused to respond, one of which did not even forward my complaint to the court and was fined for it as a result. The last of the five not only failed to respond, but didn’t even picked up the complaint. Then I decided to dig even deeper into the topic and asked the parties themselves about the expenses from the expert fund (and, additionally, about the minutes and resolutions from the audit committee and resolutions of the Management Board). Many parties claim to be transparent, but unfortunately, as I later discovered, it looks quite different in reality. The proposal eventually went to thirteen parties that are represented in the Sejm by more than one Member of Parliament. Only two parties responded in full. Nearly half did not respond to the requests in any way, and some did not even forward the complaints of inaction to court. It was shown once again that when it comes to transparency, parties can rise above the divide and unanimously withhold information. For me, the issue of party transparency begs the question: how much can such a party be trusted when it treats the citizen this way? It is generally a good idea to submit similar or identical requests to several entities at the same time, as this gives you the opportunity to compare the responses, but also the behaviour of these institutions, and sometimes, unfortunately, the judgements that are made in these cases.
Recently I also had to go to court with a local issue and after several months of waiting for a verdict, which turned out to be favourable to transparency, I received a contract signed by a city company with a councillor. Unfortunately, the contract did not contain a very detailed description of the tasks to be performed, so I had to ask about them. And these should be there because what interested the residents was the amount on the contract: 34 thousand PLN gross. The circumstances of the contract’s signing are also interesting, as the councillor in question belonged to the opposition. In spite of this fact, at some point he decided to vote in line with the mayor’s party, and 6 days after the session in which he “changed sides”, he signed that very contract with the company.
I’m guessing not everyone likes your fight for a transparent city?
I guess that the authorities themselves are not thrilled about having someone looking over their shoulders. Once I even received a phone call with “good advice” to stop being interested in a topic I was analysing. Nevertheless, I think that with my involvement, the authorities will be more careful about procedures and compliance with the law. Unfortunately, there are relatively few civically active residents in Konin. Therefore, I try to encourage people to take action and make them aware of their rights.
And despite the fact that some people don’t like what you do and you don’t always meet with understanding from the authorities, have you had any successes in your fight for a more transparent city?
Most municipal companies try to publish their financial statements. Some have done it before, others have only recently started doing it. As I have already mentioned, I had my modest share in bringing about changes in the positions of city companies’ CEOs. Because of the publicity of this case, this topic has stuck in the minds of the residents. Later, the salaries were also verified, as they sometimes exceeded those that the CEOs of companies in Warsaw, Gdańsk or Wrocław have. And these cities are many times richer and larger than Konin. A few years later, it came to light that the contracts from 2014 included provisions guaranteeing extra pay in exchange for a promise that the CEOs wouldn’t move on to the city’s competitors – competitors that, in practice, do not exist. Information from a chart showing CEO pay levels appeared in all local media. Someone who keeps up to date with the city’s news couldn’t help but notice it.
The case for a new city logo was also successful. The city decided to promote itself during the pandemic by featuring various slogans on billboards and bus stops. To put it mildly, the residents were not particularly thrilled with the results. The logos have become the subject of jokes, some of which were quite creative. There has even been a slogan generator. At one point, the slogans invented by locals were indistinguishable from the original ones. This led to threats against the creators of the generator and an official ban on the use of logo colours and slogan graphics. After reviewing the case, I noticed that the logo was illegally introduced. This was confirmed by a court ruling that symbols such as logos must be introduced under the Badges and Uniforms Act. At my request, the Voivode of Greater Poland annulled the ordinance introducing the logo and ordered the council to adopt it. Although the case was not about transparency, it also forced the authorities to stick to the rule of law when enacting new regulations. It also cut off any threats against the creators of the generator, which was still running for a few months.
I also dealt with the issue of subsidies to studies and courses for the employees of the City Hall in Konin. In response to a request, I learned that in 2019, there were four grants for postgraduate studies – three for rank-and-file staff, but also for the president, his deputy and his office manager. The last 3 took up MBA studies in Poznań as a result. I didn’t pursue the subject further, but as time went by I had to return to it. After the new composition of the supervisory boards of municipal companies was published in the Public Information Bulletin, I noticed that some of them include the mayors of Świebodzin, Kępno and Buk municipality. A friend of mine suggested that I should check if, in turn, the authorities of Konin sit on supervisory boards of their local companies, which turned out to be the case. Thanks to publicly available data (by way of open-source intelligence) it was possible to discover that the gentlemen knew each other from their studies in Poznań. The text I wrote reached most of Konin’s inhabitants, after a week it appeared in Świebodzin, local media spoke about it, even Radio Poznań and Gazeta Wyborcza. The latter, moreover, continued the subject. After a while there was information on other councillors and mayors who were swapping board positions. Unfortunately this has not caused any reflection on the part of those involved in this exchange. The legality of these actions was cited as an argument. Since it’s not prohibited, there’s no reason to quit. However, the authorities were forced to at least address the situation. What is more, their image in the eyes of many residents has been tarnished.
In conclusion, I am glad that I have been able to sometimes start loud discussions on topics that may have been known behind the scenes but not talked about and now have become a permanent part of the public debate. This is also the case of a hotel run by a municipal company in Konin that brings continuous losses. Their total amount is already higher than the value of the entire company. Ten years ago, the Supreme Audit Office stated that running a hotel is not a task that can be carried out by a municipal company. The councillors are also raising questions about the future of the hotel. All the time it remains in the orbit of interest of the media and residents. Success means reaching more and more people with information, making them aware that they have the right to ask, but also showing the authorities that someone is breathing down their necks. Perhaps such consistent actions and stimulation of the residents’ interest in the matters of their city will eventually lead to increased activity and we, as residents, will have an impact on the authorities’ actions more often than once every four years during the elections. Especially since it’s not easy to inquire about every issue yourself. The more watchdogs there are, the better for the city.
Did you come across the Watchdog Poland’s activities while searching for other people who did similar things as you?
Not really. My first channel of contact with the Watchdog Poland was the legal advice centre, where I found myself because I needed help with drafting a complaint about public information problems. And then I saw an announcement posted by a friend that Watchdog Poland was recruiting for the Watchdog School and I decided to apply. Basically just out of curiosity. On my birthday I received a phone call asking if I was in a political party and running for election, which came as a shock to me – my answer was more or less along the lines of “when hell freezes over!”. Later the same day I got the information that I managed to get to the School, and then I received an offer to become a member of the Association.
Would you like to wish the Watchdog Poland something for its 18th birthday?
That it wouldn’t give up! Transparency is very much needed, and in the circles of our Polish authorities, both local and central, it is not a value held particularly high in practice. The Watchdog Poland’s activities are thus all the more necessary. It is important that there is an organisation that supports and connects people who are active in their cities and communities, where they are not always understood. But also to teach more people about their rights.
This interview was prepared within a series presenting activities of the members of Citizens Network Watchdog Poland on its 18th anniversary.