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Siedlisko, the Mayor’s Little Duchy

Two elderly ladies took matters into their own hands: “Others have asked us to speak out on their behalf at the municipality council session about what pains them. They won’t speak themselves. That’s because they have this old belief that those in power can do anything.”

This was not a protest that would be covered by national newspapers, radio, or TV. It did not take place at the parliament building or on the streets of Warsaw, but in a small municipality, which even its mayor used to describe as “an agricultural, poor, out-of-the-way commune”. Perhaps this is why the protest of women from Siedlisko in the Lubuskie Voivodeship was not noticed by the rest of Poland?

In May 2021, pensioners Danuta Wojciechowska and Jolanta Mokwińska paid their usual visit to the session of the commune council to ask uncomfortable questions about problems troubling the residents. But this time they did not ask. “We will not be silenced!” they shouted. And they stormed towards the mayor’s desk. There, they fought a battle for democracy and freedom of speech in their “agricultural, poor commune”, because Małgorzata Chilicka, the chairwoman of the council elected from the same campaign committee as the mayor and privately a teacher of physical education in the local elementary school, announced that the residents would no longer be heard during the proceedings.

There is no law that would guarantee citizens the right to speak during the session, although this should by definition be a space for public debate. Whether the people are heard depends on the goodwill of the person in charge and on the statute of the municipality. This important document rests in the hands of the secretary – the right hand of the mayor or commune head. In Siedlisko, the post is held by Maria Miśkiewicz, who has earned the uncomplimentary moniker “Sekretarzyca”. She has not updated the statute for years.

Opposition councillors worked for several weeks on a document that would regulate, among other things, the issue of residents addressing the council meeting. The draft of the new statute was filed away for four months. After that, Miśkiewicz announced that in her opinion it was not suitable.

The mayor enjoys the support of the parish priest

During the session, Wojciechowska records the statements of Sekretarzyca, as well as of the chairwoman and the mayor. She publishes them on Facebook. “She ought to be punished for that!” threatened the mayor. He announced that he could take Wojciechowska to court, when in reality anyone has the right to record the proceedings. A handful of opposition councillors defended the resident. Ryszard Kieczur, a councillor from the mayor’s camp, announced that he felt intimidated and harassed because his photo was put up on a billboard. Kieczur accused two pensioners, Mokwińska and Wojciechowska, of the alleged harassment. When they tried to explain that the billboards were not their doing, chairwoman Chilicka scolded them and forbade them to speak.

Kieczur, a forester by profession, has been a councillor for about a dozen years. In private, he is friends with the mayor. On the feast of the Epiphany, dressed in royal robes and crowns, the two gentlemen marched at the head of the procession, shoulder to shoulder with the parish priest. When the opposition criticized the mayor before the election, the priest said from the altar that they were black sheep. Later, he received three grants from the municipal office for the renovation of the church, approved by council vote, amounting to a total of PLN 80,000. The council has not yet requested these subsidies to undergo clearance. Meanwhile, the priest recently submitted a request for a fourth, this time worth over PLN 70,000.

The mayor can count on the favour of the priest, who during the Sunday mass condemned “Cepeeniarz”, an opponent of the mayor. He told the faithful that Cepeeniarz was trying to divide them, so they must not believe him.

The mayor is fond of doughnuts

The billboard stands in a field by a provincial road. The pictures there are posted by Cepeeniarz. That is his Internet nickname, referring to him owning the one and only petrol station in Siedlisko municipality. He does not want to reveal his name. “I don’t need that kind of fame,” he says. “I don’t want my name to be associated with this mayor.”

He is a watchdog to the powers that be. He put up the photo of Kieczur because a meadow had been burned on the councilman’s property, although burning is prohibited by the Nature Conservation Act, among others, and sewage from his home treatment plant had been dumped into the Odra river. This is a crime, which is why after receiving a notification and photographs from a resident, the police launched an investigation. Kieczur testified that he was sleeping in sick when his brother-in-law set fire to the meadow. Later, he changed the story and said that a stranger had started the fire and that his brother-in-law was just putting it out. The sewage dump he blamed on a malfunction. The case was dropped in June.

The whole upheaval might not have happened, had Paweł P. not written that the mayor is “a terrible administrator, a poor manager, an ordinary clerical slacker, the kind of whom are dime-a-dozen”.

When Wojciechowska said during the meeting that Kieczur was lying, Chilicka again took away her right to speak. She had not used to silence the residents before. They had not been coming to the sessions. Everything changed in 2018. In the local elections, there was a runoff (the first in the history of the municipality). Agnieszka Adamów-Czaykowska, a local community activist, president of the Karolat Foundation organizing the Lilac Festival in Siedlisko, challenged the mayor for his seat, and lost. That is when something snapped in the pensioners. And Cepeeniarz published a column by one Paweł P., distributed also as a leaflet since, in the “small, poor commune”, in the 21st century, many homes still have no Internet.

Today, Cepeeniarz compares those events in Siedlisko to a scratch on a leg, which got infected and finally swelled into a nasty boil. “I wanted to lance this boil to let residents walk more easily,” he says. He calls it a transition from tribalism to a self-conscious democratic society, in which freedom of speech and criticism of power are prerequisites for development and self-improvement of individuals. For residents, at least some, this was no less than an earthquake, an insurgency, a revolution.

The whole upheaval might not have happened, had Paweł P. not written that the mayor “is an ordinary man of flesh and blood”, that “his only exceptional quality is perhaps a greater fondness for doughnuts”, that he is “a terrible administrator, a poor manager, an ordinary clerical slacker, the kind of whom are dime-a-dozen”, that “the Polish countryside is teeming with such inept mayors.” “We mustn’t be afraid to speak loudly about what we don’t like in the municipality,” he urged. “There are plenty of reasons to be unhappy.”

The mayor has many diplomas

To find out why the mayor became the mayor, we need to go back to the 1990s. Mirosława Maciejewska, a retired principal of the public preschool, was a councillor at the time. “In those times, the mayor was elected by the councillors from among themselves,” she recalls. “I was supposed to be the mayor, but at the last minute some of the councillors betrayed me.”

“Witold Rytwiński [then a councillor, before that a football coach, back when the mayor as a child played in the local youth team, AN] and a local entrepreneur, baker Jan Fijoł [also then a councillor, AN], decided to groom themselves a mayor,” wrote Paweł P. in his column. “Their pick was, of course, the youngest councilman, a political fledgling who, due to his inexperience, would be the most susceptible to their suggestions – a man barely in his thirties, named Darek Straus. The old guard knew that the young Straus, without experience, without much ambition, would be the ideal candidate to be easily puppeted.”

Before Straus became mayor, he studied at the Agricultural University of Szczecin for a year. He completed an intensive English course at the Jagiellonian University to study in the USA on a scholarship from ECESP [European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform, Ed.] There, he reportedly obtained diplomas in management, computer science, and English – or so he claims. At that time, young people from villages attached to dissolved state farms (PGRs) were sent on such scholarships to teach locals Western farming upon their return. Straus speaks Russian. He claims that he graduated from the Warsaw School of Social and Economic Studies with a diploma in economics and speciality in regional and local economy, and completed the Study of European Law at the Academy of International Studies in Łódź. These are only some of the diplomas he wrote down on a piece of paper and read out to the residents gathered in the village common room for a pre-election debate in 2018, when he was running for his sixth term. The diplomas themselves he did not show.

Paweł P. wrote, and Cepeeniarz published, that in the US the mayor had been learning how to push water uphill with a rake. That he was “a village boy with fuzz on his lip who has no qualifications nor intellectual predispositions”, that he was “an American doughnut eater” who “hangs out with his podgy pals.” Paweł P. ridiculed Siedlisko’s political reality with the aim to – as Cepeeniarz claims – make people stop fearing the mayor and start laughing at him. Same as children who are afraid of the Wicked Witch until they start laughing at the wart on her nose.

The mayor will take you to court with public money

If the mayor had filed a case of defamation and public insult in a civil court, the defendant would be liable at most to a fine paid to a noble cause indicated by the mayor. “He went to criminal court, so we can assume he wants to put my client in prison for up to a year,” lawyer Mariusz Ratajczak commented in the courthouse corridor.

Over the course of two years, the municipality of Siedlisko paid nearly PLN 200,000 for legal services, which is twice what it used to spend over such a period.

Although the mayor filed the case as a private individual, he was represented by lawyers paid from the municipal budget. Thus, the residents footed the bill for his legal retaliation (the matter is being examined by the Commissioner for Public Finance Discipline). The law firm was Kondracki and Jedyński, who had been working for the commune for years, at nearly three thousand zlotys gross per month. The mayor filed thirteen charges against Cepeeniarz. In the course of the trial, he ended the contract with the old lawyers to sign on the Czapczyński law firm from Wrocław, for almost seven and a half thousand zlotys gross per month (none of the municipalities in the area pay so much for legal services). As a result, over the course of two years, the municipality of Siedlisko paid nearly PLN 200,000 for legal services, which is twice what it used to spend over such a period. The number of charges has increased to more than 200.

“This mastermind of governance and champion of nepotism, who filled the posts in the commune with aunts, cousins, uncles, and other relatives to protect him and do everything to keep him on the throne for life” – wrote Paweł P. “A stage hog fattened on donuts”, “a fat cat of the rural variety”, “the mayor of all mayors”, “an oligarch”, “the local titan of intellect”, “the smartest mayor in the world”, “the brilliant politico”, “the great tsar”, “the sun king”, “the vengeful and petty mayor” – these are just a handful of phrases used in the columns for which the mayor wanted to put Cepeeniarz in prison.

“The wording shown above is unlawful because it is offensive, contrary to the truth, defamatory, and in no way justified” – wrote Anna Kałużna, a municipal lawyer for the mayor, who in the lawsuit demanded corrections and apologies from Cepeeniarz, as well as payment of ten thousand zlotys to the account of Czapczyński law firm, twenty thousand zlotys to the Municipal Sports Club in Siedlisko, and discontinuation of further publications.

The mayor goes after the school principal

The mayor accused Paweł Pazdrowski, a local entrepreneur and his rival in the 2006 elections (which the mayor won by one hundred and seventeen votes, 837 to 720), of writing the disparaging columns. Pazdrowski has repeatedly asserted that he is not the Paweł P. “Why does this pathetic mayor want to take down a prominent representative of the municipal community and throw him in a dungeon?” inquired Paweł P. in a column. “Is his sin that he married Jola Pazdrowska – one of the people thanks to whom a modern school was built in Siedlisko?”

When the mayor became the mayor, Pazdrowska, then the principal of the local elementary school, took leave to give birth and raise a son. Then the school, her life’s work, fell into debt. The mayor blamed her. That is why she came back. “I won the competition for the position of principal again,” she recounts years later. “I got the school out of debt. The mayor must have liked the policy of austerity in education, since he ordered further cuts. I objected. Then, without giving any reason, he removed me from my post.”

The Labour Court sided with Pazdrowska. The mayor had to pay her compensation from the municipal budget. He set up a new competition. Pazdrowska submitted the documents in a sealed envelope. When the committee opened the candidates’ envelopes, hers lacked a medical certificate. As a result, her candidacy was rejected on formal grounds. She notified the prosecutor’s office. Investigators came to Siedlisko. They took samples of genetic material and found that someone had opened the envelope while it was sitting in a cabinet at the office ahead of the competition. “There is no doubt that the medical certificate was removed while in custody of the Municipal Office,” concluded the prosecutor. “The envelope evidently bore traces of peeling off the narrower tab,” reads the prosecutor’s report.

Pazdrowska was diagnosed with PTSD. Did her fate chill the residents who, fearing similar consequences, did not protest against irregularities in the commune for years?

Investigators did not determine who had opened the envelope, because although the detected traces did allow “to isolate DNA and establish its profile”, it had “properties of a mixture, coming from at least three individuals”. One of those was, understandably, Pazdrowska herself. Who were the others? The statement of reasons issued by the prosecutor’s office reads as follows: “According to the testimony of witnesses, the documents after their submission to the secretariat were stored in a locked cabinet, and then handed over to the Head of the Commune for assignment and to the secretary of the Municipal Office in Siedlisko, Maria Miśkiewicz, who kept them in a locked cabinet.” So the envelope had been also touched by the mayor and the secretary at least. “It was not found that the removal of documents was related to a breach of official duties pertaining to document storage by persons employed in the office,” the prosecutor reasoned and discontinued the case.

Pazdrowska had to change her life. “I was the first in the commune to oppose the mayor and I was one of the first to suffer his revenge. I lost because I was alone in my fight. I paid for it with a severe depression. I didn’t get out of bed for days on end. I had suicidal thoughts,” she presents medical documentation from years ago. She was diagnosed with a delayed-onset post-traumatic stress disorder caused by work-related stress. Could Pazdrowska’s fate have chilled the residents who, fearing similar consequences, did not protest against irregularities in Siedlisko commune for years? Pazdrowska claims that it has. She never went back to teaching, which she had loved so much. Today, she makes goat cheese with her husband.

The case against Pazdrowski was dropped.

The mayor reserves the use of the coat of arms

Although Cepeeniarz does not run a newspaper, and he considers Paweł P.’s columns leaflets, the mayor accused him of violating press law. The case is in progress. He also threatened the Polish Post with a lawsuit for distributing the columns among residents for a fee.

“I call on you to immediately cease all infringement of personality rights of Siedlisko Commune, in particular consisting in the unlawful use of the logotype of the coat of arms of Siedlisko Commune, for which you have not been granted the required permits by the Head of Siedlisko Commune” – wrote the mayor to Cepeeniarz. More than a decade ago, local councillors passed a resolution that the mayor alone decides who can use the coat of arms and who cannot. The mayor had not objected when one of his supporters put up a photo on the Internet of himself wearing a shirt with the coat of arms of the municipality, holding a beer, and flipping the middle finger. The mayor had not filed a lawsuit then, but he did against Cepeeniarz for placing the coat of arms next to the columns. The case is in progress.

The mayor hounds a poet

Cepeeniarz publishes not only columns, but also poems by a certain Janina, a mysterious poet from Bielawy, who, as Cepeeniarz describes it, writes politically engaged folk poetry.

“Kiss the mayor down there/ Don’t be scared by the mayor,” the poet Janina appealed to the residents in one of her works. The mayor accused Barbara Szymańska, a poet from the village of Borowiec and a friend of Pazdrowska’s, of hiding under the pseudonym Janina and creating this oeuvre. He also hired lawyers with money from the municipal budget to prosecute Szymańska.

Szymańska is fifty years old, has a husband and two children. She is a housewife and the former village mayor of Borowiec. She claims that she was not able find a common language with the commune’s mayor, although she can hear even what someone is silent about. She writes poems. That is how she expresses her thoughts. She has a tender heart. When a handful of residents came to the courthouse with support and banners on the day of the trial, she was in tears. “Basia, not Janina!” shouted letters on cardboard. “Shame!” shouted the people to the mayor.

“I do not deserve such treatment and persecution,” Szymańska protests. She weeps in her garden. Not out of fear, rather out of helplessness. “Because the commune is ruled by a man who, instead of supporting the people, uses repression.”

The communal lawyers cited a Supreme Court decision of 1979, a period when the authorities cruelly, often brutally, suppressed freedom of speech.

In the statement of reasons, the commune’s lawyers wrote on behalf of the mayor that prosecuting Szymańska is in the “public interest”. “The aspiration of some creators, or of some artistic movements, to unlimited creative freedom must not find the approval of the law.” They cited, among others, a Supreme Court decision of 1979, a period when the authorities cruelly, often brutally, suppressed freedom of speech.

“It cannot be argued that calling the mayor a eunuch who flashes his open fly, shows his pecker to the secretary and school accountant, puts ruddy maidens on his lap, a mediocrity, an ignoramus with donkey ears, a halfwit, a simpleton, a monster, a beastie with a moustache, a nuisance and a brute, a lecher, a blighter, a fornicating bastard, was not offensive, did not constitute a violation of personal rights, did not insult the mayor as a public official, did not interfere with his private life,” explained the mayor’s municipal lawyers, quoting the poet Janina.

“I have never used such epithets,” Szymańska defends herself. “Only a madman can suppose that I have ever thought about the mayor’s fly. I am innocent, and what the mayor is doing is trying to intimidate me and others like me who are keeping an eye on him.”

Szymańska’s case is in progress.

The mayor lies

In May 2021, pensioners Danuta Wojciechowska and Jolanta Mokwińska paid their usual visit to the session of the municipality council to ask uncomfortable questions about problems troubling the residents. They did not use to ask questions.

“Once in retirement, I put on warm slippers and sat down in front of the TV,” admits Wojciechowska, who in 2018 believed that the mayor was the best choice for Siedlisko.

“I had been raising my children, later I took care of my sick husband, so I had no time,” explains Mokwińska.

They were proud to live in Siedlisko, near the ruins of a castle, one of the greatest in Silesia before the war. It was ruled by the famous Schönaich-Carolath family. The castle had hosted crowned heads, including Empress Hermina Reus-Hohenzollern, wife of Wilhelm II. Siedlisko had a theatre. It put on operas. Artists would come. At the end of the 19th century, the village was visited by Philip de László, a valued Hungarian portraitist of that time, known to this day for depictions of, among others, Emperor Franz Joseph I, Pope Leo XIII, and the twenty-sixth US President Theodore Roosevelt.

Today, residents call and write to Mokwińska and Wojciechowska. They ask them to speak out on their behalf at the session about what pains them. They won’t speak themselves because they have this old belief that the mayor can do anything.

A centuries-old cemetery was discovered in the vicinity of Siedlisko. Scientists from Wroclaw came and excavated valuable jewellery. Today, apart from history buffs, no one knows about it. Tourists do not come to Siedlisko. They do not take in the Odra basin. They do not know the story of Prince Heinrich zu Carolath-Beuthen’s tragic love for the countess Adelaide, who died four weeks after the wedding. They do not hear about one of the owners buried on the hill who died trying to cure a toothache with a cigarette. They do not know that the word “Carolath” (the name of Siedlisko before the war) was written on envelopes by Selma Lagerlöf, a Swedish writer, Nobel Prize laureate, known to Polish readers today primarily as the author of the novel The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, in which a boy flies on wild geese. Lagerlöf sent letters to Princess Erika von Schönaich-Carolath, who lived in Siedlisko.

There is no agritourism, no restaurants, no hotels. No one, except a handful of enthusiasts, speaks today about the fact that before the war Siedlisko was called the lilac paradise. From the former splendour of a significant point on the cultural map of Europe, there remain only a few letters, some portraits scattered around foreign museums, and the ruins of a castle burnt down by Soviet soldiers at the end of World War II. After the war, part of the ruins surviving from destruction housed the municipal library.

In 1999, a few months after the mayor became the mayor, a strategy was created with the help of the residents for the development of the commune in the years 2000–2010. This development was to hinge primarily on the ruins of the castle as the foremost asset. The municipality paid nearly PLN 100,000 to create the strategy documentation. Yet, in 2003, with the permission of the councillors, the mayor sold the ruins to a private person at the price of a studio apartment, 257 thousand zlotys, and moved the library to the school basement.

“It’s as if we were asleep,” Mokwińska and Wojciechowska sigh today. What woke them up were uncut grass and old tyres.

“The mayor had the obligation to mow this strip of land belonging to the commune, but he didn’t and said he wouldn’t” Wojciechowska recalls. She hung notices on two power poles which read “commune property”. So that everyone knew the mayor should mow it.

“I fought for my neighbour to remove a retaining wall made from old tyres that he had erected next to my land,” Mokwińska says. “The mayor took on the role of a mediator. He sided with the neighbour from the beginning. He showed me an expert opinion that such a wall is OK, allegedly by a respected professor. And he said if I don’t like it, I can put up a concrete fence. I asked at the poviat office and the provincial environmental protection inspectorate. They replied that no one had done such a study. I caught the mayor in a lie.

Today, residents call and write to Mokwińska and Wojciechowska. “They ask us to speak out on their behalf at the session about what pains them. They won’t speak themselves. That’s because they have this old belief that the mayor can do anything.”

The mayor sells land for a pittance

“It’s a very nice thing to have. You understand it one way, I understand it another,” – this is how the mayor defined democracy during a session. And this is how he responded to Mokwińska when she took the case of the tyre wall, without the help of expensive lawyers, all the way to the Supreme Administrative Court in Warsaw, and won: “Maybe the court sees it differently, but I broke no law.”

A few years ago, a commune-owned plot of land called the “horse plot” was equipped by the mayor with infrastructure for horsemanship, including a pond, a shed, and a pasture, thus increasing its value – all for public money. Then it was sold without a new valuation to his cousin’s son for sixteen thousand zlotys with pennies, to be used by the local equestrian association, in which at the time the vice-president was the mayor’s son, and the president – the mayor’s secretary. “We recognised no offence” responded Katarzyna Wojciechowska, a spokeswoman for the District Prosecutor’s Office in Nowa Sól, when asked why no investigation was launched.

On the other hand, the matter of a plot containing a defunct gravel pit did warrant an investigation. Years ago, a resident leased the area from the municipality to extract gravel and sand. The gravel pit damaged the surrounding plots, including municipal plots, reducing their value. In 2009 and 2010, the prosecutor’s office conducted an investigation after being notified by the Supreme Audit Office (NIK). The investigation was discontinued due to “no justified suspicion of a crime.” Years later, the residents again reported this case to the prosecutor, this time accusing the mayor of negligence because he had not supervised the lease agreement. The proceedings ended with a discontinuation. The statement of reasons reads: “The prosecutor conducting the investigation concluded that any conduct of the head of the commune which could fulfil the characteristics of an act under Art. 231 of the Criminal Code is the failure to terminate the land lease agreement. However, the statute of limitations for this conduct had expired even before the crime notification was submitted.” There were other similar situations in the municipality of Siedlisko.

The mechanism of selling municipal plots in the “small and poor commune” could be observed at the turn of March and April 2022 during a council meeting, when the fate of a 10-are piece of municipal land in the centre of Siedlisko was being decided. The mayor wanted to sell this plot without a tender to a local entrepreneur for PLN 35,000, i.e. at a price of PLN 27.40 per square metre, because this was the valuation by an appraiser who had been working with the office for years. Meanwhile, plots of this size in Lubuskie Voivodeship are sold for about PLN 80,000, the average price being PLN 70 per sq. metre. The undervaluation was challenged by opposition councillors including Sławomir Pokusa, who tried to convince the councillors loyal to the mayor that the land should be leased, not sold.

The buyer did not appear at the meeting. First he sent his wife, then an employee. Both ladies argued that the entrepreneur deserved the land because “he is a patriot” and “does no harm to this municipality”. They also admitted that the entrepreneur could pay more, that he could throw in 10,000 zlotys for the preschool, which made the opposition councillors even more astonished. “If even the buyer is willing to pay more, why does the municipality insist on 35 thousand zlotys?” they inquired. Councillors from the mayor’s camp defended the low price. “This is not a building plot for someone’s villa,” said Chairwoman Chilicka. Councilman Kieczur also argued that the price is adequate. When Councillor Oryszewska from the opposition asked for a legal opinion on whether it was allowed to sell this plot without a tender, the mayor presented only a few snippets printed from the Internet, without a lawyer’s stamp, although he had previously assured that he had the appropriate opinion.

The matter of the plot has not yet been resolved.

The mayor cannot handle the sewage system

“Sing us a tune, the singing commune/This beloved commune, beautifully so groomed/ It’s so well managed, we’re over the moon…” – the residents sang from the lyrics distributed by the mayor at a music event organized by the Municipal Centre for Culture and Sport.

The commune is a partner in the intermunicipal company SubBus, which provides bus transport in the Nowa Sól poviat, each municipality paying for the connection frequency it wants. Siedlisko gets three buses on a weekday, none on weekends. “It’s bad business ferrying air,” the mayor explained during a session. Meanwhile, elderly residents complain that they must hitch a ride to make the morning doctor appointments in Nowa Sól. The cost of one daily bus run is about PLN 3,000 per month.

The president of the company is Mirosław Paszkiewicz. He visited the village of Siedlisko at the invitation of the councillors. “Two municipalities in the poviat have very poor roads,” he said. “They are Kolsko and Siedlisko. Here, we have the highest cost on tyre wear.”

In Siedlisko, there are no streetlamps by the road to the cemetery. There is no bus stop at the public preschool. There is no crosswalk either, so children and their caregivers cross the street at their own risk. Principal Lidia Pstrucha has been begging for the crosswalk, as well as warning road signs, for twenty years. She is also awaiting a renovation of the façade and a furnace replacement. In winter, when the furnace broke down, she had to ask the municipal office for electric heaters so the children would not get sick. The public preschool is not even connected to the sewage system. Meanwhile, the mayor, with the consent of the councillors, remitted several loans, amounting to almost PLN 200,000, to an entrepreneur who runs a private preschool and nursery in Siedlisko. In 2021 alone, Siedlisko municipality experienced three drinking water shut-offs because of E. coli bacteria. Their presence may indicate faecal contamination. Most residents still use backyard septic tanks. Sometimes they dump black water in meadows or the forest. An angler from a neighbouring municipality spotted a ditch which channelled sewage to the Odra river.

The water system has long had its problems. “Dangerous Bacteria in Water of Siedlisko Commune” – shouted the press headlines in 2010. In 2014, the press warned: “E. Coli in Siedlisko and Różanówka. Situation Dire” The same dire situation occurred in 2015, 2018, and 2020. The undrinkable water problem even attracted a TV crew. All in vain. The problem of municipal water contamination with faecal bacteria was not solved even by the million zlotys invested in the modernization of the pumping station. “This is the case everywhere, in many municipalities,” the mayor excused himself in a council meeting. And the councillors from the mayor’s committee nodded their heads in agreement.

Consuming water with E. coli bacteria can lead to diarrhoea in the best of cases (Siedlisko residents often call the local newspaper and complain about intestinal problems, suggesting it is because of the water). The worse cases include haemorrhagic colitis, gastrointestinal infection, and even pneumonia. In 2021, E. coli was detected in a sample of water taken from the municipal office, from a tap used, among others, by the mayor.

In 2010, the Supreme Audit Office (NIK) published a report. It dealt with the operation of the Municipal Budget Enterprise (SZB), which is primarily responsible for providing the residents with water and collecting waste. The auditors pointed to numerous shortcomings, including “non-compliance with testing frequency requirements of wastewater from the administered treatment plant”.

The report caught the eye of inspectors from the Lubuskie Provincial Inspectorate for Environmental Protection. They also conducted an inspection. In 2014, they imposed five penalties on the municipality for a total amount of PLN 125,000. The municipality did not pay the penalties because the mayor promised to comply with the regulations and the law and to modernize the sewage treatment plant.

In 2016, inspectors from NIK visited Siedlisko again and thoroughly lambasted the authorities in the published post-inspection report. “Supervision of individual wastewater management in the municipality was not effective,” they wrote. They stated that Siedlisko officials “did not carry out inspections of sewage tanks”, “did not carry out inspections of domestic sewage treatment plants”, “did not organize the emptying of sewage tanks for property owners”.

There is no store in Borowiec-PGR. There are a lot of puddles because the road is full of potholes. Whatever the municipality fills in, trucks immediately demolish. The residents, pumping yellow water from the tanker, laughed through their tears that they might as well drink from a puddle.

At the end of 2019, when an angler spotted a ditch which channelled sewage to the Odra river from the sewage treatment plant, the mayor explained to the inspectors from the Provincial Inspectorate that it was all due to ongoing repairs at the installation. Three years later, down the same ditch, dirty sewage was again flowing to the river. The environmental protection inspectors detected harmful substances, including nitrogen and phosphorus compounds, in excess of the highest permissible concentrations. At an audit committee, when asked by the opposition about this sewage, the mayor laughed and said: “Who told you such nonsense? Nothing happened. The rain washed out some stuff.”

The Provincial Inspectorate for Environmental Protection has launched administrative proceedings. The case is in progress.

The inhabitants of Osiedle Leśne, a hamlet in the Siedlisko municipality, known also as Borowiec-PGR, found out what it is like to live without running water. It was the turn of January and February 2021, as people crowded at the tanker tractor, filling buckets, bowls, bottles, because there was no water in the taps. The young helped the elderly. Without this help, some people would not have managed.

“The water from the tanker is yellow. No good for cooking, no good for washing,” people complained. To eat and drink, they had to bring water from the store. There is no store in Borowiec-PGR. There are a lot of puddles because the road is full of potholes. Whatever the municipality fills in, trucks immediately demolish. The residents, pumping yellow water from the tanker, laughed through their tears that they might as well drink from a puddle.

“I want water!” cried a woman from a window of a post-PGR block of flats. Out of helplessness. “I want to open the tap and bathe like a human being!”

Several women work in Nowa Sól, making garden gnomes. “We come from work white with dust,” they complained. “Then we have to wash in bowls, like ducks.”

The mayor did come to Borowiec-­PGR. “Take my laundry, because the bathroom is full, so I keep my clothes in the living room!” he was told. “How can clothes dry on cold heaters? We have central heating. It needs water to work!”

Overnight, the temperature outside dropped to -17 deg. centigrade. People were afraid they would freeze to death. The mayor replied that those who were cold could ask for electric heaters at the commune office. “And who will pay for this electricity?” asked the inhabitants. “It’s enough we pay for water that’s not there!”

The water problem drew the attention of Agnieszka Adamów-Czaykowska, a recent rival of the mayor in the election. She posted on Facebook: “21st century, centre of civilized Europe. The whole world has been struggling with a pandemic for over a year. From the very beginning of this difficult time, the recommendations of the Ministry of Health and doctors were to keep a distance and WASH YOUR HANDS. Water and soap should minimize the risk of infection. […] But how to wash your hands when there is no water??? Sure, you can use a pail or a bowl. But in the 21st century?”

Article 7.1.3 of the Act of 8 March 1990 on the commune self-government clearly states that meeting the collective needs of the community is in the purview of the commune. In particular, this includes water infrastructure and supply. Obligations of the municipality towards the residents also result from Article 166 of the Constitution.

“Well…” wrote Adamów-Czaykowska. “It has long been known that laws, ministerial decrees, and court decisions do not matter much in this commune.” She helped residents prepare a petition calling on the municipal office and the Municipal Budget Enterprise (SZB) to immediately restore water supply. Then, finally, a repair team came to Borowiec. Alan Drozdowski, head of SZB, announced that the reason for the water shortage was a complex failure at the intake. The inhabitants of Borowiec-PGR lived without water for three weeks.

The mayor is not alone

In March 2022, after notifications from Mokwińska and Wojciechowska, among others, the municipality of Siedlisko again came under the scrutiny of the NIK. The inspectors arrived and did not leave the office until June. Although the post-inspection report will be published in mid-July at the earliest, Andrzej Aleksandrowicz, acting director of the Zielona Góra NIK branch, has already announced that it will be an interesting read. “Hopefully, the audit will not end like the one carried out in Bytom Odrzański by the RIO (Regional Audit Chamber),” the two pensioners remain cautious.

The municipality of Bytom Odrzański is located on the other side of the Odra. For nearly thirty years, Mayor Jacek Sauter has ruled there, and like Straus and many other officials in the region, has had a majority of councillors on his side. That mayor’s committee included, among others, Andrzej Chmielewski. For twenty-four years he was the chairman of the Bytom council, and for eight he overdrew his allowance. The councillors awarded the chairman 1806 zlotys per month, although at that time, in a commune of up to 15 thousand inhabitants, the allowance was capped at 1324 zlotys. Over 50 thousand zlotys of excess pay went straight into Chmielewski’s account.

The error was noticed by Aneta Dudziak-Michalska, one of the few opposition councillors. She referred the case to the Administrative Court in Gorzów Wielkopolski. In the judgment, it was stated that the chairman’s allowance was indeed illegal. Now the question was whether the surplus which he had unjustly collected for eight years should be returned. The Lubuskie Voivode did not dispel these doubts. He said he had no competence. “We have no competence,” was also the reply from the court.

“From a moral point of view, I feel guiltless,” maintained Chmielewski. “I received a high allowance, but I gave some of it to various public benefits, such as charities,” he explained.

Did the money return to the budget? To this question, the mayor replied: “I would like to inform you that the answer to your question is: No. Regards, Jacek Sauter. “

Mayor Sauter publicly defended Chmielewski in the local media. He took the blame upon himself. “The mistake was mine. I am responsible for such resolutions,” he waxed contrite in front of the cameras. The RIO conducted a routine audit in the office. They confirmed the irregularities. A charge was made in the audit report. The mayor was obliged to enforce a reimbursement. Four years later, another audit report did not even mention the missing money. Have they returned to the budget? To this question, the mayor replied: “I would like to inform you that the answer to your question is: No. Regards, Jacek Sauter. “

What does RIO say to that? “We are only here to prove a violation of the law, not to enforce a reimbursement,” Roman Rudnicki, head of the Department of Audit, explained. He added that it is the councillors who should demand the repayment.

“We tried,” Dudziak-Michalska says today on behalf of herself and a handful of opposition councillors from the previous term. “We demanded, but to no avail. I wrote several letters, including to the Law and Justice deputies from Lubuskie, including Marek Ast.

Ast is a lawyer. He is also the chairman of the parliamentary Committee on Justice and Human Rights and an advisor to the Prime Minister. “Yes, I got an answer,” Dudziak-Michalska admits. “An answer that Polish law is ill-constructed, that there is no way for us, as councillors, to enforce this reimbursement. Unless someone sues the commune in a civil trial.” At this point the councilwoman explains that she did not feel strong enough to stand alone against the great machine of the commune office with the mayor at the head.

The mayor insults opposition councillors

When Mokwińska and Wojciechowska report irregularities from Siedlisko to various authorities, including the prosecutor’s office, they often hear in response that, after all, the persons competent to supervise the activities of the mayor are the councillors. They do not know whether to laugh or cry, because councillors who pay any attention to the mayor’s doings are precious few. “It is absurd that the heads of municipalities, mayors, and city presidents put their partisans on the councils,” deplore the two women. “Why on earth would they defend the interests of the people, why would they rein in the administrator that they owe their seats to?”

Siedlisko councillors who dissent during the session, namely the opposition councillors, the whole four of them (out of fifteen), earn a specific mode of address from the mayor. “Ania, I don’t understand what you can’t understand,” he said to Councilwoman Gajewska in the diminutive when she asked about the seniors’ club. The mayor had promised that there would be one, but there wasn’t. Gajewska pointed out that after all, the municipality did receive nearly 300 thousand zlotys in funding for the club, that it did not use the subsidy, so it had to be returned, that it was a waste and a missed opportunity… “You know what, I don’t think you can count,” the mayor answered Gajewska, who as a teacher had taught maths to several generations of residents.

“Staszek, you probably won’t understand anyway,” he similarly addressed Councilman Sawicz, who once again demanded a pedestrian crossing at the preschool.

“You probably don’t know the first thing about this,” he said to the councilwoman who asked when the municipality would build cat houses. “Those cats are starting to be a menace,” fulminated the mayor. “I don’t know if you heard what went on in Jodłowo. Forty cats at a time were prowling, making people afraid. Something will have to be done with these cats, I don’t know what,” he concluded. “Use a rifle?” prompted Paweł Pabisz, a councillor from the mayor’s camp.

The people are afraid

“Sing us a tune, the singing commune/This beloved commune, beautifully so groomed,” – the residents sang from the lyrics distributed by the mayor at a music event organized by the Municipal Centre for Culture and Sport. “We received the text two hours before going on stage,” recalls Stanisław Serek, who had been leading the band Nary-Doro in Siedlisko with his wife Zofia since 2005, playing feast and folk songs. The text was a pastiche of an original written by the late Andrzej Gradziuk, a local poet. “The mayor and the secretary reworked the words so the song would praise the mayor’s rule,” says Serek. “We felt very bad about it,” he sighs. “We sang it because we had no choice. The mayor was sitting front and centre. We were afraid that he would stop subsidizing our band.”

In a journalistic street survey conducted two years ago, the residents of Siedlisko talked about the fear of the local authority. The survey was about water problems.

One local woman showed some water filters. “I change these at least twice a month,” she railed. “They should be off-white, but they’re brownish black!”

Anna and Paulina have bathed their children in store-bought water many times. “Tap water is often tomato-coloured and it reeks, and recently they’ve detected coli again.” They declined to reveal their last names. “Because when we need something from the commune office, they’ll say ‘But you criticized us.’”

“I’ll go to the store and get an earful: ‘What was that you said in the newspaper?’” explained the woman with the dirty filters.

Agnieszka, who lives in a block of flats, also withheld her last name because she was afraid of possible repercussions. “The water is disgusting,” she complained. “Mom, you remember when I got out of the bath and I was covered in like a milk skin?” asked Agnieszka’s daughter.

The mayor no longer wastes money

Yes, Mokwińska and Wojciechowska do face repression. Occasionally, the mayor’s supporters point fingers at them in the street. Wojciechowska goes out to walk her dog. “Don’t you bring this dog around!” shouts one of the residents. When she feeds the free-living cats, she often leaves the food in the rubbish shed to keep it dry. “You’re bringing your filth!” another resident chastises her. When she brought straw to the cat houses in the winter, she heard: “Stop traipsing around here!” As every year, the municipality organized a ball for seniors. Wojciechowska was not invited. “Sometimes I get fed up,” she admits. There are moments of doubt. She has a conversation with herself then. “Why am I doing this?” she asks, as does Mokwińska. After a while, she answers: so lawlessness doesn’t win. “If we all turn the blind eye, we’ll quickly go broke,” she says. “Mom, why do you run yourself ragged?” ask Mokwińska’s children. “To prove to the mayor that the law is the law and it applies to him,” she answers. She picks up Wojciechowska in her fifteen-year-old Renault Clio and they rush to the session.

On Facebook they run a forum “Siedlisko uncensored”. The efforts of Mokwińska and Wojciechowska and the columns published by Cepeeniarz have forced the mayor to install a bell by the crumbling stairs leading to the municipal office. There is no lift at the stairs, so people with disabilities have no way to get inside on their own. After a wave of criticism, the mayor declared that he would install a lift as well. Maybe while he is at it, he will have the pot-holed square in front of the office repaved, so that people with disabilities have a way to reach this lift? Maybe he will fix the stairs?

Mokwińska: “We’ve carried out a revolution. We taught the mayor and his people that they cannot ignore the citizens.”

Wojciechowska: “The mayor no longer wastes so much money, because he worries we might check these expenses.” Blatant handouts, for example remissions of taxes to the local rich, have ceased. So did the non-refundable loans for the entrepreneur running the private preschool.

Mokwińska: “Often after the session I feel like I hit a hard, concrete wall. But we’ve been cracking this wall since we’ve started to hit it.”

Mokwińska: “For months, I’d been spelling out to the councillors that we, as a municipality, are not allowed to invest in a road belonging to the State Forests just because the mayor insisted. I explained it would violate the discipline of public finance. And they listened. They refused to finance the restoration of the road. It only pains me that the mayor had spent municipal money on plans which he commissioned without the knowledge of the councillors.”

Wojciechowska: “Initially, they would not respond to our public information requests. They thought that they didn’t have to answer unless they felt like it. Through persistence, we got to the point where now they answer us every time. Because they have to, that’s the law.”

Despite their successes, Mokwińska and Wojciechowska are getting sick of looking at the mayor’s face. Mokwińska: “I hate that dopey smile of his when we point out irregularities at the meetings. It drains away my satisfaction from anything I do. Often after the session I feel like I hit a hard, concrete wall. But we’ve been cracking this wall since we’ve started to hit it.”

In order to better scrutinise the authorities, Mokwińska has completed a six-month online course run by lawyers from the Watchdog Poland Civic Network, an organization that fights for transparency of public life in our country. “We have a main nationwide forum,” she relates. “People there write about the arrogance of mayors, who intimidate their communities. Many people are from larger municipalities, even with 20,000 inhabitants. I was embarrassed to admit that the village of Siedlisko has barely three and a half thousand people, and even so we can’t unite. Maybe that’s the reason Siedlisko is like it is?”

The mayor receives a medal

The mayor built a pyramid in Siedlisko and sat at it’s top. The mayor’s official spouse got a job as a nurse in the municipal health centre. The mayor’s cousin’s daughter – a position in the commune office, in the Environmental Protection Department. She got a desk right next to a cousin of the mayor’s official wife. The mayor’s cousin’s husband worked for many years as a driver for the municipality, and the mayor’s aunt was a cleaner. An aunt’s husband’s brother became a maintenance worker at the Municipal Budget Enterprise. Another cousin of the mayor’s got a managerial position there.

When it was time to raise the mayor’s salary (guidelines to raise it for all public officials in the country, without exception, came from Warsaw in 2021), Secretary Miśkiewicz, the mayor’s old flame (they have known each other since the agro vocational), took the floor. She moved for a maximum increase, almost PLN 10,000 gross. “Because the mayor has to look right,” she said in session. “I think that the salary should also reflect achievements. We calculated how much money we raise in a year. The mayor made a tally and should now proudly present it,” she prompted.

“Construction of the village hall in Piękne Kąty – half a million zlotys [the mayor had been promising the construction for years, it finally started only to quickly stall, Ed.], pavement in Borowiec [the first ever in that village, Ed.] – 86 thousand zlotys, playground in Siedlisko – 38 thousand zlotys, water supply – 300 thousand zlotys, sewage – 900 thousand zlotys, heat pumps – 3 million and 591 thousand zlotys, roads and pavements – 3 million and 900 thousand zlotys, nine-seater car for the transport of the disabled 105 thousand zlotys…” the mayor read from a slip of paper. He did not mention that he makes most investments in election years, and that a large portion of the multi-million amount is granted by the central government as part of the Polski Ład programme subsidizing local governments. He also forgot to mention that the commune is in debt.

After the raise, the mayor of a “small, poor commune” earns over PLN 17,500 gross per month. If the raise had been lower by less than 3 thousand zlotys, the municipality would be able to pay for an additional bus to Nowa Sól, for example.

In order to implement the investments mentioned by the mayor, the commune took out a loan in 2021 for over 3 million zlotys. “For the mayor, such a loan is convenient,” pointed out Małgorzata Oryszewska, an opposition councillor, an accountant by profession. “Repayment will begin only in 2029, and the mayor will no longer be the mayor then. The burden will fall on his successor. Importantly, the cost of servicing the loan, until its repayment begins, will reach at least PLN 750,000! And you are saying that you can manage the budget even if we give you a raise?” Oryszewska wondered. “Mister mayor! Didn’t we just discuss how hard it is for us to raise 70 thousand zlotys to connect sewage to a group of newly built houses?!” she pointed out.

Councilman Sawicz warned that the commune was on the road to ruin. “Total debt at the end of 2019 amounted to PLN 5 million, at the end of 2020 – over PLN 6 million, at the end of 2022 it is estimated at over PLN 8.5 million. I am convinced that at the end of this term it will be more than 10 million!” calculated Sawicz. In May 2022, the debt with interest reached over PLN 9 million.

Although the opposition councillors proposed to increase the salary of the mayor by more than 5 thousand zlotys (the minimum amount, according to the guidelines from Warsaw), the mayor’s camp finally awarded him 7 thousand. Thus, the mayor of a “small, poor commune” earns over PLN 17,500 gross per month. If the raise had been lower by less than 3 thousand zlotys, the municipality would be able to pay for an additional bus to Nowa Sól, for example.

In April 2022, a meeting of mayors from the Association of Municipalities of the Lubuskie Voivodeship (ZGWL) took place in Karpacz. Nearly sixty officials applauded as the mayor of Siedlisko received a medal for being the mayor for so long. “There was no other criterion,” says Agnieszka Opalińska, head of the ZGWL office. “We thought this would be simplest and least controversial.”

The mayor weeps

The criminal case for defamation which the mayor brought against Cepeeniarz for municipal money, lasted almost two years. It was not open to the public. “The court did not find any offences,” lawyer Mariusz Ratajczak, defending Cepeeniarz, commented in the courthouse corridor after the judgment was announced. “The mayor, as a public office holder, must be prepared to receive criticism for his conduct,” Ratajczak paraphrased the judgment given by judge Katarzyna Gajgiel. She acquitted Cepeeniarz of the charges. She considered his behaviour to be criticism, which does not meet the definition of the alleged crime. We have the right to criticize the government’s actions. And the authorities should use this criticism to look at things from a different perspective.

Listening to Judge Gajgiel, the mayor wept. He plaintively reminded that the people democratically elected him. Before the verdict was announced, he had been hoping for great success. He wanted to publicly punish Cepeeniarz so that no one would dare rebuke the mayor again. “To call the mayor a loser, a layabout, a doughnut-eater? Inconceivable!” he raged during a council session.

Cepeeniarz, sitting in the dock, looked at the mayor and thought about the commune’s people. He recalled The Blind Leading the Blind from Bruegel’s painting, heading towards the abyss. He wanted to open eyes with the columns he published. To teach the locals that the mayor should not be lording over them, because his function is to serve. Just like it is a servant’s job to open the door to the salon, so a mayor’s is to open the door to the world. The fact that the doors of Siedlisko remain closed can be blamed not only on the mayor, but also on the residents, who for twenty-five years refused to see.

The mayor does not respond to e-mails

I have been writing about the commune of Siedlisko as a local journalist since 2016. Many times, I tried to ask the mayor about the irregularities that occur there, including in person, in the municipal corridor after the sessions. Once, I stopped the mayor as he rode his bike through the village. He always said that he would not talk to me. He accused me of manipulation and writing untruths. He threatened to take me to court.

“Mister Mayor, can you comment on the matter of the former gravel pit plot?” I asked in an email. “Recently, there have been more complaints against you, filed with the prosecutor’s office. Would you like to comment on that?” “What is the reason for this?” “Is it slander, character assassination?” “Do you have a statement?” The mayor declined to comment. During a session, he said: “By taking this to the prosecutor, you hinder the development of the commune. I didn’t steal anything, I didn’t do any fraud, and it would be best if I could work in peace.”

“Let’s focus on the positive things,” he appealed during later sessions. “The more we think positively, the more things we can do together.”

“I wish everyone would smile. Don’t glare like a wolf at a wolf, or a wolf at a rabbit.”

“In this municipality, things are not the way some people write and talk about us. Those who criticize are petty people. I wish they would get to work instead of criticising me…”

This is what the mayor said during the session about the crosswalk which pre-schoolers have been denied for twenty years: “It’s hard to say when it will be painted. The Provincial Roads Authority is the one doing the investment.”

Regarding the lack of lighting on the road leading to the cemetery, which the councillors have been discussing in sessions for years, he said: “I must sit down and talk about it with the treasurer, because admittedly I haven’t yet. Arrangements with the electricity supplier and the Provincial Roads Authority have also been taking a very long time.”

On connecting the preschool to the sewage system, years delayed: “Don’t worry, the treasurer has the money set aside, we’ll make that connection. Unfortunately, the designers and all the red tape are what they are.”

On the issue of neglected pavements on provincial roads: In Siedlisko there are many provincial pavements which are damaged. The director of the Provincial Roads Authority picks the pavements to be renovated, possibly others have priority. The director said that there isn’t much money, that maybe at the end of the year he will see what he can do.”

On raising money for the revitalization of historical architecture, so the commune wouldn’t have pay the priest further subsidies from its own budget: “We haven’t applied for any. Because not all applications make sense financially.”

About the tap water, he said during a session that it was “crystal-clear”.

When asked if he had finally sent applications for the construction of a pavement in Piękne Kąty, which he had been promising for a long time, he replied: “I haven’t checked yet whether the letters have been sent or not.”

When the mayor accused Cepeeniarz, I asked for comment. He refused. More than two years later, to my e-mailed request for comment on the judgment acquitting Cepeeniarz, the mayor did not respond.

Translated by Piotr Nowak

This article appeared in the July issue of the monthly “Pismo. Magazyn Opinii” (7/2022) under the title Siedlisko.


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