At Play in the Glass Hall of the Lord of Cluj

Well it actually happened. I met the mayor of Cluj-Napoca yesterday. Obviously nobody in the administration has discovered my “secret identity” yet LOL.

This is a part two of a story which began here but I need to rewind to the very beginning.

At some point in the past, someone in the mayor’s office in Cluj decided that it would be a good idea to set up a government website in order to attract foreign businesses to invest in the city. I note that the mayor’s office has also set up (separate) offices in a similar vein, one for managing and soliciting funds from the European Union, one called a “Mass Media” information office, and a specific website dedicated to promoting tourism to the city. In other words, this business development website is part of a larger campaign to set up various departments and a presence online to promote the city in various ways.

What makes the business development website unique is that the mayor’s office decided to reach out to the foreign business community that’s already here and open a dialogue with them. The meeting I went to last week was sparsely attended and conducted entirely in Romanian while what happened last night was the “full plenum”, was photographed, included the presence of the mayor and was conducted in English.

What follows is highly specific to the city of Cluj-Napoca but I found it incredibly illustrative in terms of how local governance works. I took extensive notes during the meeting and was absolutely the only one doing so. While there was a brief video filmed at the beginning of the meeting and some photographs taken, the rest was “off the record” except for what I’m about to tell you. Indeed there’s no mention of the meeting whatsoever on the mayor’s pompous Facebook page (seriously, check out the job title he’s awarded himself, and you thought I was grandiose!)

Yesterday’s meeting took place in a room I’ve been calling the “Hall of Glass” but the Romanian name for it is Sala de Sticla. They were translating it as “Glass Room” but that’s not quite right either. It is, in essence, a large conference room with a horseshoe-shaped table and it’s used for meetings and press conferences. The “glass” part comes from the fact that there are several skylights in the (very high) ceiling of the room but otherwise it’s a pretty normal space.

I had received several invitations from different parties to attend this meeting but I didn’t realize it was a fairly formal affair so I was horrendously underdressed. Everybody else was wearing suits and ties and formal business wear.

Although I had no idea who would be attending, it was quite interesting to me to see that I already knew at least a third of the people there. Before the meeting started there were lots of people standing around chatting and I got to reconnect with some people I hadn’t seen in a while. I also got to shake a few new hands and ended up receiving a pile of business cards.

After the informal “meet and greet”, everyone sat around the horseshoe table and there were so many attendees that every seat was taken. Partly due to this and partly due to my informal dress (nothing scandalous, but still…) I and one other person sat on the periphery against the wall, which later provoked an interesting exchange.

The mayor’s liaison on this business website was a woman I had met last week but I never quite caught her full name. She opened with some general remarks about the upcoming Zilele Clujului which she consistently translated as “Days of Cluj” even though in modern English the right way to say this would be “Cluj Days”. Basically it’s a week-long festival that’s coming up soon.

Sorin Apostu (the mayor) then walked in and the meeting began. As I mentioned, the entire meeting was conducted in English and it’s clear the man doesn’t speak English that well. In fact it almost seemed like he had a slight German accent but as far as I’m aware he doesn’t speak German at all. Therefore the liaison lady did most of the speaking, which is fine. But in the short introduction the mayor did give himself, he mentioned his goal of increasing tourism, which obviously dovetails with everything I am involved with.

Amongst the attendees last night was a large contingent of the Dutch business community. As I’ve mentioned before, the first foreign businessman I ever met in Cluj was from Holland and the Dutch have been doing business here in the city a long time. They have their own social club and are clearly the “heavyweights” in terms of foreign business operators in this city.

Beyond the clique of Dutch businessmen, there hasn’t been any other organization of foreigners in Cluj until very recently. There’s now a “Cluj International Club” (CIC – a kind of networking association for foreign business people) that apparently only came into being about a year ago. This meeting yesterday was the first time they’ve ever met en masse as a cohesive unit with the mayor’s office and so a good half hour was spent with everyone just introducing themselves to the other people present.

I was very pleased to see there were representatives from almost every European country present, including from the governments of Spain, Holland, France and (surprisingly to me) Hungary. There were also members present from Austria, Italy, Germany and Britain, plus one guy from Uganda, South Korea and an American who works at a local NGO. Over half the people present were involved in either charity work or else members of NGOs working in Cluj while the rest were a scattering of business people, including Romanians working for multinational firms as well as a couple of Romanians who own their own small companies but do business with foreign countries.

As I said, I know a lot of these people already and, from hearing the people speak whom I didn’t know, I’d say these were a really good group of people. A lot of them are doing a tremendous amount of good in this city, helping children with cancer, improving medical care, creating jobs and the like.

It was during these introductions that no fewer than two of the mayor’s flunkies came over to me and asked me who I was and what I was doing. One even asked (in Romanian) if I was with the press, presumably because I was furiously scribbling notes. They both were quite fixated with making me introduce myself so after all people sitting at the horseshoe table were finished, I stood up and said a few words about who I am. I certainly alluded to the mayor’s remark about tourism and magnanimously thanked him for his future cooperation with me in promoting this field of endeavor.

Note: the city’s tourism office hasn’t done one damn thing to work with me despite multiple efforts on my part, hence the phrasing of my remark. When the mayor himself talks about increasing tourism and yet they don’t want to work with a person writing guide books you have to wonder how it is exactly they plan on accomplishing their goal.

Between the informal meet and greet, the chitchat about the upcoming “Cluj Days” festival and the introductions, an entire hour had already elapsed. The purpose of the meeting was to interact with the mayor however so the floor was opened to questions. And here is where it got really interesting.

I will say this: the mayor’s liaison is no fool. She might not know the first thing about developing a useful website (which looks to be a steaming pile of Web 1.0 crap coded by students working as unpaid labor) but she proudly let us all know she’s been working in City Hall for ten years under three mayors, meaning she was hired during the days of Cluj’s psycho tyrant. She also was smiling continuously throughout the entire meeting, which was quite sinister and intimidating. And because she fielded most of the questions, I really got to see her attitude in its fullest radiance.

The mayor on the other hand sat there imperiously, leaned back in his chair and at times examining and cleaning his fingernails, clearly bored with almost everything. The only thing that interested him was when someone would thank him for his generosity (as several people did) and for inviting them to the meeting, etc. But when anyone asked a question that even remotely challenged one of his decisions, he was hostile and dismissive.

The organizer of the CIC (and thus responsible for bringing most of the people present at the meeting) is a Romanian and he was the first person to ask a question, which was from a member of the CIC who wasn’t present. Before he could even finish asking the question, the mayor cut him off and made a snide remark that the absent member should have attended if he truly wanted an answer to his question. Nice! Later in the meeting the guy from the CIC asked several other questions and it was obvious that there’s some bad blood between the two of them as the mayor remained extremely aggressive every time the man spoke.

A few other people asked some rather bland general questions and the eternally grinning liaison lady handled most of these. It was absolutely crystal clear that she and the mayor are in complete agreement on their attitude towards the members present, which is that Cluj is awesome, businesses will come here just because of that, and everybody needs the mayor’s office but the mayor’s office doesn’t necessarily need them. Absolutely no criticism or questioning of how they handle things will be tolerated.

Just like his deputy mayor, Sorin Apostu said, “We are different” when extolling the mystical, magical qualities inherent to this city that exist despite all exterior signs of excessive taxation, empty commercial spaces in the downtown area or other problems. Hey, I live here in this city because I like it too, so you don’t need to sell me on how great Cluj is. But dismissing all criticism as being irrelevant to the eternal wonderfulness that is Cluj is bordering on a cult-like devotion to this city, which struck me as quite odd.

Another statement that the mayor said was that Cluj is the only city in Romania with a traffic management system in place. Is that true? I have no idea but I hope that at least Bucharest also has something similar in place. Also, not to dismiss the importance of this country, but there are only a few cities in Romania that are even big enough to need some kind of traffic management system.

Apparently Sorin Apostu believes Cluj can win a competition to become the European Capital of Culture in 2020. It can’t be any earlier than 2020 because all of the other years have already been awarded. One slot for 2020 will definitely go to a Romanian city (it’s been predetermined) but will it be Cluj? I have no idea. But that’s apparently the big goal around these parts and the recent renovation of a movie theater is part of that effort. You could see the dollar (or euro, I guess) signs flashing in their eyes as they contemplated winning this competition.

The other big push that the administration seems interested in is developing business ties with South Korea. One of Cluj-Napoca’s sister cities (“brother cities” in Romanian) is Suwon, South Korea and there will be a Korean day during the Cluj Days festival. The administration seems to think that the Koreans are a good group to target for future investments in the city.

But by far the most disturbing thing was the liaison lady’s spontaneous declaration three separate times (yes I counted) that everything the mayor’s office would do would be “completely legal”. Not one person at the meeting intimated otherwise yet she kept smiling and making those commitments to being legal. Clearly they’ve felt the criticism from some parts and were firing off these broadsides to deflect any potential judgment from the people present. Very telling.

One guy did ask a question about taxes and business fees in Cluj and the liaison lady actually had the brazenness to proudly declare (while smiling, of course) that “it’s local law that we can charge different taxes and fees to every business”. Really? I mean I’m assuming it’s true or else she wouldn’t have said it. But why in the world would that be a good thing?

Other than that, it was a case of a member present bringing up a minor point or asking a fairly softball question and the grinning liaison lady swatting it down with endless repetitions of how Cluj is built on magical unicorn dust and businesses will come here and apply to the mayor’s office for their special tax rates and you’ll eat your peas and porridge and like it, damnit.

The mayor and the liaison also kept talking about how beneficial the Nokia manufacturing plant has been to Cluj, which made one member present ask (correctly), “Hey isn’t that in Jucu, which is quite a distance away and not really doing anything for the city?” and of course they received a smiling dismissal from the liaison lady for their trouble.

Although I said absolutely nothing beyond introducing myself, the liaison lady felt it necessary to twig me about tourism, saying “people” had to understand that tourism was a complicated business and that there are various kinds of tourism, including medical tourism, etc. Really? Well thanks for schooling me on the subject! I had absolutely no idea that people travel for various reasons and that’s why I didn’t write a separate guidebook for them. So nice!

The mayor also touted how great and awesome the airport is with no mention of Wizz Air cutting flights, despite the fact that no less than three people in that room told me personally that they had to now travel to Targu-Mures for their already-scheduled flights. Nor was there any mention about the recent closure of the ING office, with the loss of hundreds of jobs. That’s a Dutch company, by the way.

The mayor did congratulate himself on signing a memorandum on possibly opening an IBM research center here in town but made no mention of the fact that Targu-Mures has a dedicated organization to bringing more IT companies to their city and are well on their way to kicking Cluj’s ass in this endeavor.

And then, after only about 30 minutes of questions, the meeting was broken up and the participants told to move upstairs to another room for some coffee and snacks. I declined to attend that little party but I did spend a few minutes talking to some people and it was clear that I wasn’t the only one who had noted the above, including what wasn’t mentioned (Wizz Air, ING, etc) and the arrogance of the administration with their attitude of “you’ll come to us and pay the fees we say and we don’t care if you like it or not”. Apparently some of the people were prepared to ask a few more pointed questions but the meeting was conveniently adjourned before they could get their chance.

So there you go, that’s how I spent some 100 minutes of my life yesterday. Everywhere I look in Romania, from Oradea to Tirgu-Mures to Sibiu to Sighisoara, cities are organizing and improving their finances, business relationships and quality of life for their citizens (and animals). Sorin Apostu and his minions are stuck in an imperious mindset that the local peasants will take the largesse they are given and be grateful for it rather than reach out to the people who can do something to bring jobs to this town and improve the quality of life for people via their network of charities and NGOs.

Although most of the people present at the meeting are not citizens and thus cannot vote in the upcoming mayoral elections, they nonetheless should be respected for the contributions they have already made and could make to this city. Yet all they received for their valuable time was a sneering dismissal of their concerns, a few empty platitudes, outright hostility to any criticism and free bottles of mineral water.