BNN ASKS | VARAM will not intervene in Riga City Council’s internal conflict, minister hopes

Looking at the unending “chaos” at Riga City Council, one may get the impression that an intervention may be necessary to force city council members to speed up their choice. Latvian Minister of Environment Protection and Regional Development Māris Sprindžuks may have such an opportunity in his hands.
However, this mission seems very unattractive to him: let them deal with it on their own. The political leader of the Ministry of Environment Protection and Regional Development (VARAM) says he sees nothing tragic in what is happening at Riga City Council. Sprindžuks was previously the head of Ādaži County Council. He considers his rights to interfere in the work of local governments as illogical.
How would you, the supervisor of local government, describe the continuing strife among the half-collapsed Riga City Council’s coalition? Are you bothered, embarrassed, or maybe amused by it?
–This is a normal situation, a democratic process: the coalition has split and have exchanged accusations in the public space. Even the chairman has stepped down. Yesterday, knowing we’d be having this conversation, I phoned [Riga City Council’s acting chairman Vilnis] Ķirsis, and we both concluded that the law provides two months to the parties represented in the city council to understand: either they can or cannot elect a new chairman and thereby either preserve the existing or form a new majority.
The city council needs to find the strength to reach an agreement. This is possible theoretically. We have studied the law – city council deputies might not reach and agreement and continue living with a vice-chairman that will lead city council meetings. Deputies can gather and make decisions and continue doing that until the next elections [likely to happen in June 2025]. All of this is theoretical, but the law does provide such an option.
Does this theoretically mean that it will not work in practice? Or does this mean this option has yet to be tested in practice?
–We should address this situation from a purely psychological point of view: deputies are only human. If I understand this correctly, the general mood in the city council does not inspire confidence that deputies want to get rid of their “unloved” work in Riga City Council and start preparing for snap elections. Or will they accept a model under which VARAM appoints its own representative to lead the city council?
If I understood Ķirsis, they don’t have such plans. It is more likely that those who have split are now trying to negotiate.

If this fails, someone else will need to unite them.

Ķirsis told me: he still allows for the scenario that the same people who negotiated, who overthrew and denounced, can still recall what was negotiated and forgive each other – in an attempt to patch up the same coalition that existed until now.
I should clarify here: are you and the acting chairman similarly-minded? Does Ķirsis report to you as a minister?
–No, I have spoken with him and with Mārtiņš Staķis once – at the beginning of the year, when it was necessary to save Riga’s territorial plan. As I’ve said, I called him on the phone to be able to tell you more. No, I don’t have an army of spies in Riga City Council!
As a minister, can you somehow push the parties and politicians represented in the council towards a nationally useful solution?
–I’m trying to look at this situation apolitically. Even my party [Combined List’s co-founding Latvian Association of Regions] is represented in Riga City Council and the coalition, which is already falling apart. I’m trying to distance myself from all that.
As I’ve said this VARAM and minister’s role in municipal affairs is illogical – this needs to be corrected in legislation. A municipal affairs minister is also a political minister – he has to deal with all sorts of situations. This, I believe, is something that has already happened when Riga’s territorial plan was halted.

What seems more correct for me as I distance myself from politics is this: if deputies succeed in the city council, VARAM has no need to step in.

And the opposite – if the city council cannot organise meetings, as no quorum, and the budget approval is at risk or is unable to make other important decisions, then VARAM will need to step in. If things get really bad and the city council becomes completely unable to make any decisions, the law does provide us the rights to appoint our own candidate to lead the municipal administration. We had this situation in Ķekava, and in Riga [when in December 2019 the previous city council was dissolved]. But we have yet to reach this level of crisis in the capital.
VARAM won’t put the cart before the horse. We will not escalate the situation in the city council. We are generally concerned when looking at this situation, but we hope they will handle the situation on their own.
When taking office, you criticised the minister’s rights to intervene in municipalities’ decision-making processes as excessive. Have you done anything to limit these rights in the seven months you’ve spent as minister?
–I will respond in a wider manner. The Municipal Law prepared by the old government has come into force – it is a relatively new law. It is not the only regulation that creates certain problems and contains inconsistencies. VARAM has fixed the problems identified so far to submit to the Saeima a project with legislative amendments.
I genuinely want to clarify these rights of the minister. To narrow them to make sure the ministry is unable to cancel binding rules passed by local governments. Either the legislator does it through a political process or a court of law decides who is in the right.
Also read: Riga City Council continues coalition talks – both bilateral and four-party meetings