Yiannis Boutaris, Mayor of Thessaloniki since 2010
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Mayor of the Month for October 2012
Mayor of Thessaloniki, Greece
By Brian Baker, Senior Correspondent
1 October 2012: If all Greek politicians were like the Mayor of Thessaloniki, Greece would not be in the economic and financial mess it is in today, German newspapers commented after Yiannis Boutaris visited Berlin in February 2012. Only half-joking, the mayor told reporters that his country’s economic crisis helped him to change attitudes in his city. “Since there is no money to buy votes, politicians actually have to produce results.”
Some sections of the Greek media have criticised Mayor Boutaris for wanting to learn from German cities but he remains unrepentant. On visits to Berlin and Cologne he said: “We need to learn from you how to deal with waste disposal, public relations, infringements of municipal regulations and other areas of local government.” European Commission officials based in Athens described Thessaloniki as a ‘beacon of hope’.
Yiannis Boutaris was elected as mayor of Thessaloniki in Greece in November 2010. After a successful business career Boutaris went in to politics to achieve radical change in the city. His reforms and initiatives have drawn praise from officials in the EU and other institutions involved with the intervention measures to support the economy, notably in his efforts to control staff costs and to make public services work better.
The mayor was elected in November 2010 after a very close contest. His narrow victory over the centre-right New Democracy party candidate Konstantinos Gioulekas was by only half a percentage point of the vote.
Although he was backed by centre-left PASOK in 2010, Yiannis Boutaris has never been a member of the party and secured their backing as he was seen as the only politician who could break the Conservative stranglehold on city hall. New Democracy had ruled Thessaloniki for decades and their popularity remained strong despite criminal investigations into missing funds of up to 30 million euros. The previous mayor Vassilis Papageorgopoulos is amongst those who have now been charged with offences.
The close contest despite the widespread problems in the city, which included piled up refuse, reflects the extent to which nationalistic and conservative opinions have held sway in Thessaloniki since the 1950s.
Mayor Boutaris was born in Thessaloniki in 1942. His father was winemaker Stelios Boutaris and young Yiannis went in to the family business after securing degrees in Chemistry from the University of Thessaloniki and in Oenology.
He made an unsuccessful bid for mayor in the 2006 election. He has been a member of the City Council since 2002.
Although he was 68 when he won the mayoralty he made a point of appointing deputies in their 40s with professional backgrounds and without political affiliations.
The mayor has said in interviews that his approach has been to choose deputies in their forties and then to give them a real range of responsibilities and a relatively real rein. “I do not try to control everything. I support the efforts of each individual deputy and push them towards the goals we have decided.” One of the deputies is Hasdai Kapan who is the first Jewish official to be in such a senior position in the city since the 1930s.
More difficult is changing the mentality of the managers. The mayor re-shuffled the administrative structure and insisted that rivalries between officials must cease. They are required now to work together.
The population within the boundaries of the municipality of Thessaloniki is 322,000 though nearly 800,000 live in the urban area and in much of the mayors’ strategic and international work he is, in effect, acting on behalf of all of them.
The 2012 budget was 409 million euros but there is no spare cash for initiatives and Mayor Boutaris must focus on making improvements to the economy and daily life, which do not need major investment from municipal funds.
Mayoral advisor Vassilas Kappas told interviewers in 2011 that they had 4,500 employees but only needed 3,000. He says some of the staff employed because of cronyism had never been trained how to work.
The mayor and his administration are implementing a re-structuring programme aimed at cutting out red tape and reducing costs. A key element of this is the reduction in the number of administrative departments from 30 to 21 or 22.
After 25 years of New Democracy rule which left the city in a parlous state, Boutaris brought in an auditor as his first major action after taking office. He wanted everyone to know clearly how bad things were. The city had debts of around 100 million euros when he took office.
He was cautious about how quickly the culture can change in a January 2012 interview with the Greek magazine Ekathimerini. “I doubt whether the complete restructuring of the municipality can be achieved within my four year term. I sometimes wonder if l am too romantic hoping that something like this can be achieved in Greece but then l tell myself that if l succeed l will have done something very important. It seems to be working so far. It is not enough to get me re-elected of course because it is the sort of thing that doesn’t really show even though services should get significantly better.”
The legal situation in Greece does not help him. Mayor Boutaris has been slowed in his reform efforts by rules, which make it very difficult to dismiss employees. Such decisions must be made by central government. But, despite strikes and protests, he has made progress. In 2011 the budget deficit, which has doubled every year, was reduced by over 30 per cent. Local taxes were cut by 7.5 per cent. Expenditure was down by 30 per cent. The mayor intends to reduce local taxes further in 2013. The target date for completion of the re-structuring reforms, including employee training, is June 2014.
Mayor Boutaris has a particular problem with the refuse collection scheme in the city. Rubbish is regularly piled up in the streets and the vehicles are so badly maintained that the majority are off the road at any one time. The Mayor is looking at private contractor solutions and has been to learn lessons from other European cities including Cologne, Nice and Vienna. His approach is to see how their systems work and then try to implement them in Thessaloniki. Initially, the plan was to let a small part of the city to a private contractor for a six months experimental period. He admits he failed to keep his election promise to get the streets clean in his first year.
During a February 2012 visit to Berlin to study their approach he told a Der Spiegel reporter “We need your help. Your city is clean while Thessaloniki is dirty. What works in your city does not work in ours. We need to change. Our system, be it port management or refuse collection, is broken. It has to be discarded and replaced by something else.”
The mayors’ interest in learning from Germany in this difficult period for relations between the two Euro-zone members has brought him condemnation from some parts of the Greek media and public but Boutaris is unrepentant and has been happy to work with Hans-Joachim Fuchtel, the Minister appointed by Chancellor Merkel to oversee the distribution of EU bail-out funds in the country.
“Fuchtel was appointed by Merkel to coordinate such collaborations between cities. When we went to Cologne to see how they deal with waste disposal we also examined how they work in areas such as public relations, infringements of municipal regulations and the other areas of public administration in which Cologne is highly evolved.”
During the long economic crisis in Greece Mayor Boutaris has become a magnet for international journalists covering the euro-zone story and has been cited by EU officials as an example of the kind of leader the country desperately needs. In the period of tension in Greece before the first of the two elections in the spring of 2012 Athens based European Commission officials spoke of Thessaloniki as a “beacon of hope.”
City Council meetings are now televised. The most startling reform implemented in the first year, at least to those used to Northern European methods, has been to produce a job description for every employee.
Yiannis Boutaris considers Barcelona to be a model for the re-invention and management of port cities in the modern era. He wants the port facilities to be better used by cruise ships and has met with operators from several countries. In mid 2012 he visited Hamburg, a major success story in bringing in huge boats.
In his election campaign in autumn 2010 he praised the potential of public private partnerships as a mechanism for getting things done citing it as a model which could help solve the city’s transport congestion by getting a metro system built and help the city move more quickly towards renewable energy.
Despite some financial problems line one of the metro is going forward and the details of a second line have been announced. His campaigning emphasised his very successful business career and attacked red tape. He rails against what he calls the demonization of business by both the state and the general population.
Mayor Boutaris plans to convert Eleytherias Square, currently used for car parking, back in to an important public space within, which will be a memorial to the Thessaloniki Jews murdered by the Nazis in the holocaust. He has also begun a refurbishment of the street which contains the Attaturk Museum. More improvements will highlight the Byzantine monuments of the city.
Following the success of the neo-nazi party Golden Dawn in two general elections elections in the summer of 2012, Yiannis Boutaris has not held back in public criticism of them. In a television interview in July 2012 he said at least half of the Golden Dawn leaders should be in prison.
No stranger to controversy in 2007 he travelled to Bulgaria to have his wife cremated instead of a burial in Greece. During the election campaign the Archbishop of Thessaloniki refused to allow him to kiss the cross which backfired on the religious leader as citizens thought he had interfered too far.
Yiannis Boutaris was the owner of a controlling stake in the family wine makers Boutaris for over 30 years. It is the leading wine brand in the country. In 1997 after a family disagreement the Boutaris wine making company was broken up.
Yiannis took two of their sites in the north of the country near Thessaloniki at Naoussa and Amandeon and pursued his idea of establishing a super premium wine estate in Greece. He named his new venture Kiri-Yiannis and it has been very successful. Managed since 2003 by his son Stellios it has won plaudits from viniculture experts and trade media from across the world and is widely seen as a key element in the country joining the world wine league.
Stellios credits his father with re-inventing Greek wine. He says that after starting the Kir-Yianni estates in 1997 Yiannis brought French concepts of oenology in to use in large scale production in the country for the first time. They have concentrated on the Xinomavro grape. Their vineyards in Naoussa are on slopes 300 metres above sea level. The estate uses traditional grapes and modern techniques says Stellios.
Father and son see parallels between their efforts to lift the quality of the country’s viniculture with the wider issues addressed in city leadership.
“The new Greece is growing in the villages near Kir-yianni and in the streets of Thessaloniki and it is being nurtured by those Greeks who no longer expect anything from the state,” says Stellios.
“Greeks should focus on the things they know well and produce them at excellent quality,” says the mayor.”We don’t sell ourselves and our products well enough. In this situation in which we have to do things which do not cost a lot of money tourism is one area we can promote,” he says.
He has sought to make the city more attractive to visitors from countries, which are a part of Thessaloniki’s controversial past. For years, the New Democracy Conservatives encouraged Hellenization and Yiannis Boutaris is trying to reverse that thinking and re-establish the city as a centre for the whole of the multi-cultural region.
At one time the city had a majority Jewish population. By the beginning of World War II this had fallen as a proportion but was over 50,000. By the end of the Nazi occupation only four per cent of those people were alive. The mayor is trying to re-connect with the successful past and made Israel his first cross-border visit as mayor in early 2011.
During that visit he said “We cannot look into the future without knowing the past. Not for nothing was Thessaloniki known as the Jerusalem of the Balkans and it could be that again.”
Yiannis Boutaris told the press in Tel Aviv that his first lover was a Jewish girl who went to school with him and he had many other Jewish friends.
Turkish Airlines have re-introduced scheduled services to the city following meetings with him and Israeli cruise operators have begun to call at the port city more often. He is reaching out for both trade and tourism reasons to neighbouring Balkan countries including Bulgaria, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Albania. He has also met with the powerful Moscow based tour operators.
The two nations, which include territory in traditional Macedonia, have not always enjoyed good relations but Mayor Boutaris has been pro-active in overwhelming this. In May 2012 he signed a declaration of co-operation and joint promotion with Vladimir Taleski, mayor of Bitola in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. At the initial meeting, held in Thessaloniki, new technologies, culture, education and tourism were the main themes.
Boutaris told the FYR Macedonia media that “despite the fact that the two countries have some political differences we share a lot of ties that need to be developed.” Both mayors described the border issues as absurd and that their cultural industries project would go on to be an introduction into a wider and bigger cooperation.
Yiannis Boutaris thinks that Thessaloniki is well placed to become a regional centre of education especially for English speaking courses and is working for that in his initiatives with other cities and countries.
He is aware that as the birthplace of Mustafa Kemel, the father of modern Turkey, the city has the opportunity to attract a large number of tourists from the largest country in the region.
Like many of the best mayors, Mayor Boutaris always travels with local business leaders when he visits other countries to drum up interest. He says the objective is to bring money to the city.
Mayor Boutaris also has a track record in conservation. He founded and led Arcturos which is an NGO which provides a sanctuary for wild bears within an area of protected forest and he was instrumental in preventing demolition of landmark buildings in the city in the years before his election as mayor.
The mayor is a kind of anti-politician, a business owner who believes in quality not quantity, a custodian of the best of the past and an internationalist and anti-racist.
Mayor Boutaris also brings refreshing honesty and accessibility to city leadership. He regularly meets and chats as an equal with voters in the squares and cafes, rides his bicycle around the city, rejects the pomp of entourage and big cars and makes no secret of his own life.
He stopped drinking and faced up to his alcoholism several years ago. He and his wife parted then came back together. He has tattoos including one of a unicorn in remembrance of his wife’s spirit and one of a lizard to remind him that change is in the nature of things.
He is cautious about his prospects of a second term aware of how nationalist and conservative his city had become and how the political class and institutions are seen as failures and corrupt in Greece. But at 70 he remains optimistic and energetic.
“Small is beautiful,” he says. “Greeks should focus on the little things that they know well and then produce these at excellent quality. We don’t sell ourselves and our products well enough.” He says they can learn much from Italians in that regard.
He just might point Thessaloniki along a better sustainable path with improved relations with its neighbours and set an example, which the country should follow.