#Watchdogs: We asked for the minutes of the Traffic Safety Committee each week – and they have started publishing them on the Public Information Bulletin (BIP)

Interview with Marcin Nieroda, member of the Citizens Network Watchdog Poland.

Paula Kłucińska: In one of your first messages, you wrote that you are a member of the local movement that works to improve traffic safety. Tell us about your activity.

Marcin Nieroda: It started with the association Akcja Miasto [the “City” campaign], one of the largest local movements in Wrocław. I joined because I wanted to make a change. I had my topics, like traffic safety and pedestrian traffic, but overall, I wanted to make the city a better place to live in.

Operating in the urban space, one inevitably comes into contact with officials. You can try to arrange certain things behind the scenes, but there comes a moment when you have to send a formal application. This is how I started to change my neighbourhood in Wroclaw. I sent out various public information applications and Administrative Procedure Code applications.

Some cases ended successfully. For example, I managed to repair a degraded piece of pavement, to which everyone is already used to, with one e-mail. But there came a moment when, in another case, I received a nicely packaged “no, because no” answer. It was about planting trees at the bus stop. I started digging into the subject, asking about the motives behind this decision. However, I was able to determine that there really is no justification. In the end, we managed to win the permission.

That’s how I started scrutinising the authorities. We often accept the expression that the authorities know better, have some secret knowledge and research that gives them the only right to make decisions. As it turns out, not necessarily.

You’re not acting alone. As a City Campaign member, do you have support?

I operate alone in some areas, but our strength is that we sometimes share tasks. Being in an organisation is helpful because it gives you a certain social mandate and a better bargaining chip in contacts with the city.

Do the city authorities treat you as a partner in talks?

It depends. If the authorities want to dismiss us, they formally answer our letters, but they do not try to talk. But here in Wrocław we’ve managed to create a situation where we’re not always liked very much, but we still matter and we’re not so easily dismissed. It is the success of the strength of the organisation, not a single action.

What is the right to information for you?

The right to information is fundamental to activity in public and city spaces. It allows to gain knowledge that officials have but don’t necessarily want to share. The information we receive is often highly processed, aggregated, or partial, and access to information provides the opportunity to ask and find out how specific decisions were made based on certain data. But if you’re asking if I always get the information I want, then I would have to say no. In practice, I often receive information only on the last, fourteenth day, and often I have to request trivial information or wait two months for it.

I know you ask questions to the municipal police. Is that the only entity you send requests to?

I largely ask the municipal police and the Wrocław authorities because of the topics I work on most often. However, I also ask other offices and entities, including my home town. There are problems with scrutinising the authorities in smaller towns. Everyone knows each other and no one asks uncomfortable questions there. Let me give you an example. The Mayor said that once the bypass is built, all transit traffic will be directed there. I ask right away: “Are there any models of traffic?”. If you go deeper into the analysis of traffic or transport in the city, you will find that there are a number of paradoxes invisible to the naked eye. The famous street widening doesn’t really produce any capacity improvements, it just causes that even more cars appear on the streets.

Will you share examples of successful cases?

One of the topics that was part of the City Campaign was road safety, which has been neglected in Poland for years. We started to request minutes from the Road Safety Committee in Wrocław, which gave an overview of what was happening with road investments and what could be improved. Of course, at the beginning these documents were not published, but with great pain they began to make them available to us on request, which we submitted every week after the committee meeting. Our success is that the minutes have finally started to appear in the Public Information Bulletin. 

As far as road safety is concerned, although it is not necessarily a topic strictly connected with Wrocław anymore, one of our successes is the change in the law regarding pedestrian priority. As a coalition of local movements #chodziożycie [it’s about life] we managed to convince the central authorities to change the law and today pedestrians have the right of way on crossings. This is a fundamental change and, as recent statistics show, pedestrian crossing accidents have decreased by 30%.

The information about tram derailments is also interesting. The highest number is in Wrocław, for marketing purposes they even started to use the expression “deflections” for some events, not to exceed the number of 100 derailments per year. We ask MPK (Municipal Transport Company) about derailment statistics quite regularly. We asked other cities about this as well and it turned out that no one was counting it, although some offices did it specifically for us. It also turned out that Wrocław registered four times more derailments than Poznań. A significant number of derailments in Poznań took place at the tram depot. On the same topic, I requested to MPK to make the company publish derailment statistics on its social media sites. Often unhelpful information about holidays is published there, and information about the number of derailments, for example, is missing. There have been no responses so far, even though the deadline has passed.

As for positive examples of using access to public information, I also had a situation where a playground opened in my home town and in its area the contractor left behind an installed advertising board. Advertisements in public space cost money, so I asked a question about those costs, which caused that the installation disappeared within 14 days.

And do you remember any particular case of obstruction of access to information?

The topic that has been bothering me is the car travel of officials. This year, despite the pandemic and complaints about lower tax revenue, the city bought two cars, one for PLN 200 000 (4×4 280 KM) and the other one for PLN 150 000. The question is where do the officials need to drive cars. I asked other offices about such information, for example in Gdańsk, and it turned out that the officials were bought small cars for PLN 50 000. In Wrocław, unfortunately, I have not yet been able to obtain any information, because judicial ruling treats transit cards as an internal document. Perhaps I can persuade councillors to use their power of control to check where these cars are being used. If someone buys such powerful cars for driving in the city, where the speed limit is usually 50 km/h, it is a waste of money. At the same time, it is said that there is no money for a tram loop, which the contractor valued at PLN 100 000.

Where does the information provided by the authorities go?

First and foremost, Facebook. We have an influencer president, so it is the perfect tool to attract media. We publish longer texts on our own websites, where we show the answers to letters and the absurdities that result from them. I will give you one example – in response to a request for public information on how the city office works to improve road safety, we received the answer that such and such an amount has been spent, behind which stands the purchase of reflective vests for PLN 30 000 a year.

I already know a little bit about your activity, including with the City Campaign. And what about the slogan “Przyjaciele Kota Wrocka” [Friends of the Wrocław Cat]?

This was kind of spontaneous. A lot of the material we’re preparing isn’t published or discussed publicly because we don’t have such access to the media as we’d like to have. Sometimes journalists can’t take a story further, and sometimes they are paid, albeit not directly, from the City Council. For example, the internet TV channel Echo24 gets PLN 50 000 a year from the City Council for its operation (under a nice marketing slogan, of course), so it is hard to find questions there that are inconvenient for the authorities. Gazeta Wyborcza in Wrocław prints the office’s bulletin, so it can’t stand up either.

We didn’t have a platform where we could talk about Wrocław in a relaxed and calm way. We wanted to talk and laugh sometimes about the absurdities that happen in the city. We decided that we would do a podcast. The name comes from the fact that our president took in a cat at the beginning of his term, which became a symbol of the current authority.

Do you invite officials?

We didn’t specially ask for it, but we try to reach those groups that are blocked for asking uncomfortable questions, often on the president’s private Facebook profile. It’s about specific problems silenced by the office that no one is addressing, so we try to publicise them.

Even when, after the interview with Alina Czyżewska, the topic of blocking the inhabitants in social media resurfaced and Radio Wrocław and Echo24 tried to ask the president about it, he maintained that it was his private profile, not related to his function. In the meantime, I sent to the office an Administrative Procedure Code application asking them to remove the president’s private profile from the office’s pages. Since the president claims that all posted information is available alongside on city profiles, there is no need to link his private account.

How did you join the Citizens Network Watchdog Poland?

I ended up at Watchdog’s legal clinic, which turned out to be helpful, and on a prosaic matter. This was about the Traffic Safety Committee and an application for information regarding the number of overspeeding detentions. The office responded that it was an internal document, and the counseling center suggested me to inquire with the police, who actually released the information without blinking an eye.

Next came the Watchdog School. I signed up because I had issues with the city office and wanted to be more aware. That’s how I came into contact with Watchdog and stayed.

The membership proposal came from the Board, but it was just a formal push, because for my part I felt connected to the idea that Watchdog presents, so joining the association was natural.

What do you wish the Watchdog Poland for its 18th birthday?

A new act on access to public information, which will be created above political divisions and will truly reflect the needs of citizens, not the needs of various offices.

In that case, I have to ask. What do you think is the biggest problem in practice when using the current provisions of the act?

First of all, the case law, the internal document mentioned and the lack of a quick response in disputes between the citizen and officials. Even when you get an off-topic response, the case has to be sent to the court, which takes six months, and the topic eventually is forgotten. Sometimes you need information immediately, and now you have to wait 14 days and possibly the duration of proceedings before the court.

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