#Watchdogs: We Care about Local Issues

Krzysztof JakubowskiKrzysztof Jakubowski, member of the Citizens’ Network Watchdog Poland, Founder and President of the Freedom Foundation (Fundacja Wolności), Man of the Year 2017 according to the Jury of the competition organised by “Dziennik Wschodni” is interviewed by Joanna Gucman-Muż.

Joanna Gucman-Muż: As you know, Watchdog is celebrating its eighteenth anniversary this year. How many years have you been involved with the organisation and how did you get into it?

Krzysztof Jakubowski: I first got involved with the Watchdog Poland in 2012. I volunteered for the Your Vote, Your Choice campaign to monitor the so-called cork fund [local government fund for alcohol prevention – translator’s note]. At the training meeting in Miedzeszyn, I met members of the Watchdog Poland including Krzysiek Izdebski, Szymon Osowski, and other people taking part in the monitoring of this fund, such as Kamil Nowak from Kędzierzyn [who later also became a member of Watchdog – editor’s note]. And that’s how I got acquainted with the Watchdog Poland, glued myself to it, and after two years became a member. I was very interested in what the Watchdog was doing, and from that time on, at a very rapid pace, I dedicated more and more activities to the topics of access to public information and civic control.

And how did become interested in the “cork fund”? Did this topic interest you on its own, or did you just want to learn from this example of how to control different things in the city?

I had already filed public information requests on issues that interested me without much knowledge or expert support, and I wanted to explore the “cork fund” because I didn’t really know at the time how it worked, what that money could be used for. Among the ones suggested in the Your Vote, Your Choice action, this topic was the only one I was unfamiliar with and wanted to explore.

Does that mean you acted before? Were you doing something for social good in Lublin?

Yes, a lot. I was active in the Association Project: Poland (Stowarzyszenie Projekt: Polska), where, already when I was a student, I coordinated locally various projects such as university primaries or a euro knowledge contest. I also served on the student government and chaired the Academic Estate Council of the Maria Curie-Skłodowska University. I was involved in various community activities.

Where did this drive to get involved come from?

The desire to act, to get involved was in me for a long time, I think since I was a kid, and that’s thanks to my parents. My mum was a village administrator [sołtyska – WP’s note] for 20 years and I always wanted to do something more. I was interested in the power of residents. Actually, I ran for the city council in Lublin in 2010. This was a very important lesson for me and I’m glad I wasn’t elected. It showed me what local politics looks like from the inside and how vulnerable ordinary people, ordinary residents are.

What goes on in local politics is maybe not theatre, like city council meetings, but games, where nobody thinks about the residents. I realised that all, or almost all, of the people interested in what was happening in the city from a civic or political point of view, wanted to be these local politicians, councillors, etc., while there were no people who would explain to the residents what was happening in the city, show them, inform. I noticed a gap. Maybe it wasn’t so clear yet, but I had this idea then.

And from that point on you stand on that “other side”? You monitor what’s going on in the city?

Actually, I have never been on the “first” one. It was just an episode, and in 2018, before the local elections, a friend told me that now it wouldn’t even make sense for me to run for city council, because the Freedom Foundation and I had built a brand over the years and had a greater impact than a single councillor.

Then please tell me what you were doing over the years, what you are doing now. What are the most pressing issues in your area?

I’ve come a long way, considering the Foundation is now 9 years old, and I started it because while my studies or work in other organisations allowed me to implement various projects, I had no influence on what they would be like. I was a cog without the ability to create, and I really wanted to come up with ideas and do what I wanted to do, not fit into what someone else had created. Hence the idea to start the organisation.

It started with monitoring the “cork fund” and then pretty quickly we had more and more citizen monitoring activities. I was getting increasingly involved. At the time, I was using the right to information mailing list that Watchdog had set up, and that’s how I met another person from Lublin whom I found interesting. He had a lot of experience and knowledge, so I decided to get him involved and invited him to join the Foundation. This was a big development for the organisation, because Krzysiek [Kowalik – later also a Watchdog member – editor’s note] and I could support each other. There are many instances, even among the Watchdog Poland’s members, of people acting alone, and we were able to support each other, which helped to cement our activities.

We have been doing a lot from the very beginning. I spent a lot of energy, for example, on a pilot civic budget project with one of the district councils in Lublin, which aimed at convincing the city authorities to introduce a civic budget throughout Lublin. That was in 2013.

There were more and more ways to access information and exercise civic control. We also started working with district councils a little bit, seeing them as allies. It was a rough friendship at first, a lot of mistrust, but now, with seven years of cooperation, we have gained considerable trust, we provide support and are an ally that the district councils can turn to.

And how are you treated by officials, city councillors and the mayor?

I once heard a story from a councillor that when he was in the city council office, he joked that I would come there for an inspection and check their computers. Apparently, these officials believed him and were very scared of what was to come, so I think the officials often feel a kind of respect for us and are even afraid of us.

Does it mean, for example, that they are more likely to respond to requests that you make for access to public information?

Yes, I think it does. We even get approached by other people asking us to request something from them because they won’t say no to us. I am aware of this and I am convinced that if the officials receive a request for information from the Freedom Foundation, they treat it maybe not as a priority, but seriously, because they know that if they do not answer or they answer not as they should, the matter will not end here, that we will have the courage to file a complaint to the court, and ordinary residents are less likely to give them such tough time.

What I am very happy about and what I have noticed myself is that we have also been able to work on the councillors and change their attitude a little bit. At first, they ignored us and our activities, but now they respect and pay attention to what we, as the Freedom Foundation, are doing. For example, we do a survey of councillor activity and you can see that it works on them because they try to improve their score in our survey. They also know that our actions get media coverage and reach people, which further motivates them. We also manage to work with councillors on specific resident issues and engage them in solving local problems. They certainly don’t ignore us anymore, and in fact they follow what we do, so we’re pretty well established in our cooperation with the councillors.

Speaking of successes, can you think of anything else that you’ve been able to change as a watchdog organisation on a more systemic level?

Yes. One of those big things is the participatory budget I’ve mentioned. Usually, our proposals are not accepted right away, but after some time the Lublin mayor announces them as his own ideas. For example, I once proposed creating a separate unit in the city, which would deal with matters of citizen participation. Officials were quite critical of this, but a few months later the mayor announced the creation of an Office of Civic Participation at a press conference.

One of the successes is certainly the publication of the city’s register of contracts. Initially, the city hall was reluctant, but at the same time we proposed it to the marshal of the voivodeship, who saw nothing wrong in the publication, while the mayor of Lublin had some objections. Thanks to the media covering of the issue, which started to find out what the office wanted to hide, and a lot of online interest from residents, the mayor agreed.

How do the media and the residents react to your activities?

We have a very good relationship with the media. They are eager to write about what we do. Basically, all of them, except the city hall “newspaper”. The media helps us reach out to residents and we also join forces to get and share various types of information.

As far as the residents are concerned, I keep getting the impression that the local government issues we deal with are difficult for the average resident to understand and they are not interested in them. It would probably be a lot easier if we were dealing with national politics that people follow and get emotional about. There are few people who are interested in local affairs, but when they are, they are rather sympathetic towards us.

Can you say a little more about these local issues then? What do you ask most often now, and what institutions?

We ask a lot. Last year we submitted over 200 requests. Most often we ask the city mayor, but there are also many questions to city companies, the voivodeship marshal and the voivodeship governor.

An important issue from the point of view of the city and the residents that we are dealing with is the matter of passing a study of land use conditions and directions in the city. It is a huge directional document that defines how the city is to be planned, developed. The adoption of this study 2–3 years ago stirred up a lot of emotions. During the consultations there were over 1,500 critical comments on the development of the so-called Czechowskie Hills, where residential development was allowed, while the residents wanted these areas to remain green. The backstory of the adoption of this study was also murky. It was during a city council session, when the state of the municipality report was first debated. At the very beginning of the session, the residents’ speaking time was limited, because it was obvious that a lot of votes would be related to the study and the development of the hills. They wanted to silence the residents. The meeting went on for a very long time. In the end, the study was not voted on until 4 a.m. The councillors were in favour of its adoption, but the voivodeship governor challenged their resolution. The court in Lublin agreed with him, but the mayor appealed to the Supreme Administrative Court, which ordered the case to be reconsidered by the voivodeship administrative court. The case is still pending. The Freedom Foundation has requested environmental documents related to the Czechowskie Hills. We also wanted to join the voivodeship governor’s case in court, but we were denied. We have appealed and are awaiting a final decision.

I also know that you deal with city companies. Can you tell me something about it?

Much of our concern is directed toward municipal companies. We ask them about their contracts, e.g., for legal services or commission agreements for councillors.

We want them to respond to requests for public information and to act transparently, but sometimes they give us a hard time, hiding behind various arguments. We then try to make the media talk about it, which can bring the desired effect. In early 2018, we petitioned the mayor to change the rules of corporate governance to require the companies to publish certain documents. The mayor granted our petition, but nothing has changed since then.

And what happens now? Do you continue fighting?

We have recently inquired as to the status of the petition and are awaiting a response. We will also be applying to the city council to get the audit committee interested in the topic. And even though we know that the arithmetic in the city council is such that the mayor has a majority, sometimes it is still worthwhile to speak up on certain issues and try to persuade people, even if we are sure that something will not be adopted.

As the Freedom Foundation, do you often attend and speak at council meetings?

Yes, quite often, and we have also recently filed another petition with the city council related to the problem of voting on city budget changes in so-called blocks, meaning all or nothing. The mayor also frequently presents budget amendment proposals to councillors at the last minute before the session. There is no time for review, discussion, etc. We have proposed some changes in this respect and are waiting for the councillors to consider our proposals.

You have also mentioned sports clubs. And that you aren’t necessarily well-liked by the fans.

Lublin is one of the cities that allocates the most funds to sports clubs. We consider it abominable that the mayor is spending more and more money on the activities of these clubs while there is not enough money in the city coffers for other important issues.

We frequently comment on the actions of the city hall connected with financing sport in Lublin, which makes us unpopular among fans.

What are your plans and what challenges do you face?

The big challenge we are preparing for is to examine the relationships and investments between the city hall and developers. We see all sorts of strange things happening and we want to take a closer look at it. Many such issues are reported to us by residents. 

It is indeed quite a challenge and I wish you success. And finally, I would like to ask you what does the right to information mean to you?

The right to information is a little bit, for me, like something that gives you air, oxygen. Without it, I wouldn’t have the knowledge I have. If it weren’t for the right to information, I wouldn’t know about a lot of things and wouldn’t be able to take concrete action. I would not informed enough to form an opinion. It is one of the few tools that gives me a sense of influence, a sense that I can do something.

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

Eighteen thousand members, because I think it is crucial that we as citizens and residents realise the importance of this right and surround it with care so that any changes to this right do not go in the wrong direction, so that its importance is emphasised and that it becomes a common and effective tool for monitoring and civic control over the authorities.

Thank you for this conversation!

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