Tomáš Portlík

“Many problems have solutions when you are tenacious and persistent”

Tomáš Portlík, Mayor of Prague 9 (Photo: Anna Vacková)

Text: Martina Hošková, M.Zisso

“I am old school. I believe that a politician should have a long-term vision, and well-thoughtout concrete steps to implement it,” says Tomáš Portlík, Mayor of Prague 9. “My mom would tell you that I got into politics when I was six years old, complaining about what I was missing at home. But seriously. Look at the map of Prague 9 today and compare it with a map that is ten or twelve years old. Look at today’s spatial plan, and you will see where our priorities are.”

Tell us about yourself, please.

What would you like to hear? I follow traditional values, but I’m not afraid of change. I bet on individualism, but I have a great team of colleagues around me at the town hall. I consider healthy self-confidence to be important… Or is it that I was born in Prague, still live here, I got married here, and have two children?

You joined ODS at the age of 18. Who is your inspiration in this regard?

Our family has always been right-wing. My parents – and also my grandfather, who emigrated and lived in exile – taught me that one is responsible for their own life. At the age of eighteen, the politics of the ODS appealed to me. It represented a realistic view of the world for me. In addition, I knew Mr. Jaroslav Kubera, a former senator who lived with us in Prosek. His specific, healthy approach to life and his work in politics influenced me a lot. I still try to follow what he taught me. In other words, the task of a politician is to develop society so that people, if possible, make their own decisions about their lives as much as possible. They should not feel that a politician is a messenger of truth who dictates their life. I want a functioning public administration that manages a debt-free budget and brings maximum benefit to citizens. Those who claim that they know how to spend our money better than us are wrong. Although lower taxes bring less to the state treasury, the state does not have to take care of all its citizens just to please them, but it has to take care of those who have found themselves in a difficult social situation through no fault of their own.

Before entering the world of active politics, you engaged in business. What made you change your life course?

My mom would tell you that I got into politics when I was six years old, complaining about what I was missing at home. Once, she couldn’t take it anymore, and advised me to complain to the local committee. So, I started sending letters to the town hall as a small child. But seriously.

I joined ODS in 1997, and didn’t want any party positions for a long time. This changed when I felt that healthy competition and support for individuality was disappearing from ODS, and I started to get involved in the party, and in municipal politics. In 2006, I successfully ran for the City Council of Prague 9. I realized that I could influence things in my place of residence from the position of a representative or councillor. At that time, like many of my friends, I was troubled by the state of green areas in Prague 9, the slow pace of regeneration of children’s playgrounds, and the lack of funds for investments.

I was also troubled by other related issues, such as lack of places in kindergartens, the housing policy, the non-progressing “privatization”, few cultural events in the district, and, above all, the desperate state of my childhood favourite Friendship Park in Prosek. Many of those problems had solutions, you just had to be tenacious and persistent.

How did you become Mayor of Prague 9?

That was a natural progression. For three electoral terms, I was the deputy mayor responsible for the finances of Prague 9. Pretty soon, we managed to achieve a balanced budget, and started fulfilling the plans with which I entered municipal politics. During all that time, Jan Jarolím was the mayor of the ninth city district and my mentor. Then, when he quit in March 2021 at his own request, he handed over the mayor role to me to continue fulfilling the long-term concept of the development of our district. The big tasks included, for example, the construction of a brand-new Elektra Primary and Kindergarten with 33 classrooms, as well as the expansion of Friendship Park, and the preservation of the relaxing part of Prosek and Střížkov, which I personally consider a significant achievement.

What are the duties of a mayor?

All duties of the mayor are governed by the Act on the Capital City of Prague. I see the role of mayor as a responsibility for the part of the city that I manage, and for the people who live in it. It’s not a job with typical office hours, but I knew that when I decided to do it. I like Prague, and I like the ninth district, so I enjoy improving the place where we live together.

You were elected the Mayor of Prague 9 more than two years ago. How do you remember that time?

I took over the position after a difficult COVID-19 period, at a time when we still had to deal with the consequences of the pandemic, and above all ensure the safe return of children to schools. We did our best for this, and were successful in implementing rational anti-epidemic measures. We were the first in the republic to start testing various methods of testing children for COVID-19, including the so-called “pooling method” – an evaluation using collective PCR testing, or testing from wastewater at schools. We were also successful with a lawsuit in the Supreme Administrative Court, which aimed to end the government’s record for the length of school closures and return pupils to face-to-face classes.

“I like Prague, and I like the ninth district, so I enjoy improving the place where we live together.” (Photo: Archive)

What do you see as the major problems in Prague right now, in both your district and in general?

All of Prague, in my opinion, most needs stability, vision, consolidated finances, a modern approach, and an open mind. I am a supporter of the fact that it does not have to be divided by some kind of ideological war, but its representatives should find a balance between different groups of voters. Take transportation for example. I myself ride a bicycle, scooter, motorscooter, or motorcycle, but I also drive a car. And I walk too. In Prague 9, I support all modes of transport, and it works. So why wouldn’t it be possible in the whole of Prague? There are areas, such as transport and education, which have an impact on all city districts. Back in 2015, I had already initiated the creation of the “Assembly of Mayors” of the city districts. Originally consisting of Districts 1-22, and now of all 57 districts, we are negotiating together with the Capital City Townhall on topics such as the fair distribution of money between city districts, parking in the capital, ensuring a sufficient number of places in schools, and so on.

What are the main challenges you and your colleagues face?

Challenges relating to the fact that, in recent years, the ninth district has been developing in the most dynamic way, compared to the whole of Prague. Over 30% of all apartments in the capital were newly built here. At the same time, we increased the number of places in our schools, built cycle paths, expanded parks, and built playgrounds and community centers, but also saved green areas from development. However, the last generation of politicians did not say which direction Prague should develop in, what the target state of the population should be, what the level of population density should be, et cetera. Many residents believe that there is already a lot of development, and that every meter of green area needs to be protected. But compared to cities in other countries, the population density in Prague is one of the lowest. And if the city is to develop, and at the same time we are to behave ecologically, we must build a city within the city, and not expand it into the fields. And if we don’t want to take up square meters in the park, it’s only natural to build high buildings. It is more generous with public space, and cheaper in terms of construction costs and running economics. But when I recently mentioned that high-rise buildings would suit Prague 9, there was an avalanche of criticism.

Certainly, a mayor’s job always comes with lots of criticism. How do you react to that?

I try to learn from the constructive criticism. Unfortunately, the principle of how politics works has changed with the rise of the use of social networks, through which a negligible group of the population imposes their views on you with a “high” number of likes, and criticizes you. I am old school. I believe that a politician should have a long-term vision, and well-thoughtout concrete steps to implement it. That’s why, in Prague 9, we have been involving our residents in all major development projects for a long time. Of course, we cannot avoid criticism. But, I try to listen to people, convince them of our plans, look for solutions acceptable to the majority, and explain them – especially when they are not among the most popular. And then, of course, take responsibility for them.

What are your plans for the next few years then?

I have many plans, but the most important ones are related to education. Last September, we opened the new Elektra Elementary School and Kindergarten. Over the past thirty years, we were the only district in Prague that has built a school for 800 children from the ground up. We are now starting the project preparation of Elektra II, so that in two years a specific campus, including kindergarten, primary, and secondary education, will begin to grow in Vysočany. We also have a concrete plan for the reconstruction of all the schools and kindergartens we run, because children learn better in a modern environment. The changes should also affect the pedagogical work in our schools. I would like to see kids winning competitions in math, physics, and other subjects, so that they have different approaches, options, and alternatives to choose from without having to go to a private school. I would like us to support talented students, to have the best teachers in our schools, and for all children – regardless of the socio-economic status of their parents – to have the same conditions at the start of school.

After you leave the mayor’s chair, will people say you were effective?

Just ask them. Or look at the map of Prague 9 today and compare it with a map that is ten or twelve years old. There used to be factories in Vysočany, in the area of Poděbradská and Kolbenova Streets, and not even a square meter of land belonged to the town district. Today, there are thousands of apartments including civic amenities, and a cycle path that connects Prague 8 with Prague 14 across Prague 9. We built parks here – Pod Lávkou, Zahrádky, the large Třešňovka orchard underwent revitalization, and the new meanders on the Rokytka River were awarded for their contribution to the micro-climate of the area. We acquired land there for the construction of school facilities, and built the first school buildings on them.

We prevented the mass construction of housing estates in Prosek. And if you look at today’s spatial plan, you will see almost thirty hectares of new areas in it since last year, which belong to the administration of the City of Prague 9, and are treated and managed as green areas, not as building land. This is also the case with my heart’s desire – the central Friendship Park in Prosek, the area of which we expanded from 8.5 hectares to almost 13 hectares. The cultural events we organize in Prague 9 have also multiplied rapidly. At the same time, I get the greatest joy from open-air concerts in our parks, both new and revitalized.