Take care of the communes – they lay the foundation for a prosperous coexistence

Interview with Hans Peter Gantenbein, mayor of Wuppenau (TG), 29 May 2015

In a time when we are confronted with the suggestion to redesign our grown federalist structures and to whitewash them with structures of foreign origin such as metropolitan areas, agglomera
tion programs, nature parks or Interreg programs – at such times, it is recommended to pause from time to time and to consider the fundamentals of the Swiss model, so that we stay on solid ground in the loud hullaballuh of globalization. While in the federal administration there are many who have their eyes on Brussels and are eagerly striving at promoting the centralized control of the country for this purpose, while the cantonal Governments are spending a large part of their working time in ministerial conferences – pardon, directoral conferences – in the so-called “House of the Cantons” opposite the parliament building, rather than to fulfilling the tasks arising from their electoral mandate in their canton – it does good to witness that the citizens in the communes all over the country are confidently standing and holding on to their communal autonomy, and they do so amazingly successfully in spite of all attempts at undermining their determination. The long-pursued top-down plan of cleaning up the many small communes by mega-mergers to get hold of their control, has bounced off the will and the rootedness of the people in many places who want to maintain their autonomous communes.
In the regional press I recently came across a report on the work of a mayor that moved me. A phone call was enough to arrange a meeting with Hans Peter Gantenbein, the mayor of Wuppenau who has just retired after a long term of office. He welcomed me in the modest but pretty town hall, which had been built a few years ago, and showed me what the people of Wuppenau had primarily paid attention to when building the communes hall: The meeting room for the five-member council had been designed a little larger so that the 30 (!) clubs and associations can hold their club meetings here – of course free of charge – and the square in front of the building had been built for the village and club “festivities”. It is called “Hans Peter Gantenbein Square”, in honor of the mayor, who is obviously delighted.

Current Concerns: Mr Gantenbein, you have been Councilor in Wuppenau for 24 years, 16 of them as the village’s mayor. During this time, you contributed much to the inner cohesion, a condition that a commune can only wish for. What made me curious, is the finances on the one hand. In the minutes of the 2014 communal assembly I read that the gross debt had fallen to an extraordinary amount since 2002.

Hans Peter Gantenbein: In 2002 we had a debt of about 7 million Swiss francs, and now we have assets of more than 2 million Swiss francs.

How did Wuppenau manage to do that?

At that time, the Canton of Thurgau carried out a substantial change in the financial compensation.The structures of communes were revaluated and taken into account: What is the individual taxpayers fiscal capacity? Of course there are big differences. Salenstein has about four times more income per resident than we have, therefore the fiscal capacity is much larger. Next we also noticed that a compensation needs to be granted with respect to the area. Wuppenau has 1,100 inhabitants and a comparatively large communal area: about 12 square kilometers. We have a lot of hamlets, that means not juthere is not only just one village: in addition to Wuppenau and Hosenruck we still have 13 hamlets that are completely developed. With the country lanes, which are a communal affair, we have more than 50 kilometers of roads and 25 kilometers of sewage pipes, flowing partly to Wil, Uzwil, Weinfelden or Zuzwil. These are tasks that the commune must meet. Due to the valuation of these different structures Wuppenau received more compensation.

“Today we pay attention to a balanced budget in Wuppenau: What is necessary and what is desirable?”

This is a major concern of mine, also in the family and the company that I headed. Right from the start I said there was a good chance to pay off our debts with the new compensation payments by the canton; with 5 percent interest on debt in those days that was of course the biggest item of expenditure in our bill. Then at a communal meeting I was able to launch this strategy “distinction between what is really needed and what is just desirable”. Everybody consented and supported this: Super! With the compensation of the canton and with a more conscientious attitude towards spending we were able to reduce the debt slowly.
The largest item in recent years has been the new communal center, which we have already amortized by two thirds. In the meantime we could build up some capital and reserves, set up funds and then lower the tax rate about twelve times in succession. Always taking small steps – rather than reducing the tax by 6 percent all at once, we rather take two steps.

Were you able to win the people in the communal assembly over?

Yes, the citizens always supported this path. That was very, very positive. And of course, Wuppenau is still a rural village, where people concentrate a bit more on the affairs of their communes.

Where did you save, for instance, because something was “only desirable”?

For example, at the last communal assembly we had a very good result, and now we are not just transferring the gains onto the next bill. We had already done everything we really needed and were now able to do something desirable.

Building up reserves?

Yes, usually building up reserves. But last time we decided to equip our communes with an underground system for garbage disposal or to purchase a trailer or a tipper for the tractor in the communal maintenance depot a little earlier. That was something “desirable”. In general, the people vote Yes in such a case.

“Living together is even more important than finances”

This statement appealed to me particularly when I read it in a newspaper report about your long-time-work in the communal council.

Of course this is my absolute greatest concern: Everything that has to do with living together gains a special meaning in our rural communes. In that respect we are quite different from larger towns. We still have about 30 clubs.

30 clubs? That is impressive in a village with 1,100 inhabitants.

Yes, that has always been important for me. I was lucky to be allowed to lead the department “associations /living together” from the beginning. The council’s appreciation must be felt in the clubs. It is important that our active living together is also repeatedly mentioned; I tried to do so in all the meetings or events. It is important that we are all aware of what important good we have. It is necessary to encourage and support social coexistence.
Tonight we have the last council meeting that I may lead. It often involves large expenditures: water pipes and similar matters for 100,000 or 150,000 francs. Here we need to rely on specialists. Then there may be an item on the agenda, where it is about a small contribution, someone wants to commit himself to. Here, everyone has a say, everyone has an opinion. After having been a mayor for just a year, the first thing we vowed for: We do not quarrel over trifles, but support commitments and bagatelles cases.
Particularly I advocated a foundation and a fund. There was a lot of quarreling: What will we do with it? I managed to get the foundation set up. With the help of the René-Moser Foundation, we are able to further our youth. We can use some 10,000 francs – that’s a lot of money for our commune! – every year. For example, for active club deployments. Or in case you want to offer the youth a course on how to write a text or design a newspaper, we bear all costs. Then we have a ground fund, by which we support the commitment of a fellow citizen, for instance, who wants to expand a food path so that everybody can use it; we pay him all the material. Or if the inhabitants of a hamlet want to activate a well – we do not even negotiate it – it goes without saying that the commune bears the costs including the costs for the material and even a little inauguration party.
You should not waste time on such things. I suceeded in passing on this concern of mine to my successor and all local councils, so this is also very important to them, today. We live in accordance to that principle, and it is the first sentence in the guiding concept of our commune: “The active social coexistence in clubs and organizations as well as intact schools form an important part of our quality of life, which must be preserved and promoted. Encounters are supported.” In my view that is the most important thing.

“We are actually predestined for integration, even for recognizing welfare cases and going about them in a sensible way.”

In Wuppenau, there are certainly some individuals or families who are in need and require assistance. How do you handle that?

We are somewhat privileged in Wuppenau. We have a lot of owned homes, we are out in the country, we have only a small percentage of foreigners.
Yes, I saw that in the documents of Wuppenau: about 7 percent.
I would have estimated the percentage much lower, because these foreigners have more or less grown up here and they are not perceived as foreigners. So, in a way, we live in a somewhat perfect world.
I think all of our social institutions are very important, but we must do everything so that they are not exploited and put at risk that way. We’ve also had some asylum seekers in Wuppenau, but most of them want to go on to the cities, because there they have a network and their acquaintances and therefore a natural integration cannot take place. Integration would include that the children go to school here and the adults’ participation in a village club so that they get in touch with the population. By way of a personal dialog we have often tried to motivate these people, for instance those with little knowledge of German to participate, instead of just looking out for others of their kind. In doing so, we have had very pleasant experiences.
In a small town like ours you keep track of people; hence social recipients are always subject to a certain control and not simply treated as a “dossier”. But even here we have been overtaken by the “data protection” and “formisme”. We are no longer allowed as we have been before, to simply deploy the unemployed in the commune etc. We are no longer allowed to ask critical questions and most of all to take educational measures … And if we do so, they might go to the city, where they are a clean, beautiful file with a name on it but without a face behind it.
We are actually predestined for integration, even for recognizing welfare cases and going about them in a meaningful way.

Rooted in the commune

Do you have sufficient militiamen who help do voluntary work or participate in commune committees?

Yes, because here we do not have the most expensive residential area, so young families can afford a piece of land. They will tend to remain. These are often people who will support the cause of the commune sooner or a little later. This was also the case over 30 years ago when we moved here, at that time an entire district was built up and mainly used by young families. Today this district is supporting in respect of commitment, taxable capacity, the commissions, the school board, the communal council, it has grown like that. It will also be like that in the next generation, because here we do not have such a coming and going, this also constitutes our necessary stability.

People are rooted then.

Yes, indeed. We also have a village market, which has developed very well. Now it is its 5-year anniversary and it is on a wave of success, because one also shops there.
Behind the village market, we have enclosed an area to build houses with several apartments. It would also be possible to form a cooperative there. In Wuppenau there live many rooted people, partly outside in a hamlet, living alone or in pairs in the house where they used to live with their children. Perhaps some of them would be willing to move to a low-maintenance apartment with lift, etc. There is also a bus station nearby, with buses every hour to Weinfelden and Wil, and the store with the post office. And an ATM … These are things you need in everyday life. But you would not need a car in these apartments.

School is a matter of communal autonomy

You have your own school in Wuppenau. So there are enough children at school-age in your commune?

The second point of our guiding principles is the school commune. In Wuppenau we have only a primary school; the secondary school is situated at Schönholzerswilen. Temporarily the classes have been decreasing, so that the six primary classes had to be reduced to four. Fortunately, for the next ten years we will again be able to run one form per year.
Of course, having a school that works is something positive. And we have a tremendously intact school, no teacher has problems to get into contact with the parents, in case something is not going well.

The canton does not interfere? It doesn’t hold the opinion that you haven’t got enough students for running your own school?

No, no, this is a matter of communal autonomy. Determining the school is alltogether our affair. Even if we had a primary school commune with a neighboring commune, I do not think that we would have to close a school building and that the pupils would have to go to school elsewhere, when the majority of them are living in this place here.

Shared administration between the communes are more social and cheaper than control from above

A smaller commune cannot cope with everything itself. Have you got many areas of shared administration?

Yes, for example, we participate in the Regional Water Supply Mittelthurgau RVM, which delivers the water from the River Thur. Wil too gets its water from there. Then we have a collaboration with Zuzwil, which also supplies water. And we participate in the administration union for waste disposal in Bazenheid, as well as Wil.

I also noticed the fire service with Schönholzerswilen?

Yes, that’s right. Then the wastewater that flows partly to Wil, from other parts of our hamlets to Uzwil, Zuzwil, Weinfelden. We used to have our own wastewater treatment plant. In the medium term a huge plant is planned in Uzwil, for several communes, including Wil.
Furthermore there is the Spitex [household help and nursing care at home], earlier we organized that in our commune. I oppose the increasing requirements that are requested today. I contend that the numerous reports and forms have become almost more important today than the actual care for the sick. We had the Spitex at the Nollen, together with Schönholzerswilen, we had people who went to someone’s home, who hosted patients, kept the house in order and so. Suddenly the insurance company comes and requires all helpers to work through a Red Cross course and to have an identity card. Imagine: Someone has been doing that for 20 years, on call. Now he is requested to do this course. So this person rightly says: “That’s not my cup of tea!”
This is the way it is going now in Switzerland. This way everything is getting more expensive, at the end the forms have to be correctly filled in, and the patient is not in focus. A kindergarten teacher is primarily requested to have the “Matura” (general qualification for university entrance); the qualification to get along well with the children comes second … etc., etc.

I fully agree with you. Does that mean, that now you have no longer enough people from your commune in the Spitex?

No, we got together with Bürglen, because we were no longer able to fulfill the requirements. That was a grave political issue. We had to build up another organization, new accounting, new costs, and all these are requirements of the health insurances, which – in addition – never pay in a cost-covering way, even though they would actually have to pay. Because with the Spitex the patients can indeed stay at home instead of occupying expensive hospital beds.
And the deficits have to be taken over by the communes, nobody mentions that. Twelve years ago we compensated the Spitex with about 4,000 francs deficit per year, which worked well. Now we have a budget of 72,000 francs, 18 times more. We thought that over a long time: How can we explain this to the citizens? The communes must pay the Spitex about 70 francs deficit per inhabitant. Imagine that: all that would actually have to be covered by the health insurance contributions. But probably rethinking will occur only, when things are no longer affordable.

Merging with the neighboring communes? Small communes are most advantageous in every respect: humanely, socially and economically

In this case they say: well, the communes must merge when they can no longer pay their duties. When the communes become larger, when they team up, it will never be as personal, so that everyone has an eye on the whole thing.

Yes, it would be much more impersonal – and much more expensive. As a mayor I have a 30 percent position in Wuppenau, and for the different areas of responsibility there is a position of about 10 percent for each communal councilor. I’m a communal councilor like the others and I run my departments plus the job as mayor.

This is precisely what it is like in Switzerland: Nobody is supreme.

Exactly. All five of us are treated equally. We have got 1.6 administrative positions, plus a communal worker with about 60 percent and an apprentice. If we count her job with 50 percent – since she also has to attend school and is not yet able to perform fully, there are – together with my 30 percent – almost three full-time positions for the whole commune, the construction department included – each month we have a lot of building applications on our large communal area, for each commune has about the same tasks.
Thus Wil with over 20,000 inhabitants should actually have not more than 60 administration and Councilor positions – compared to Wuppenau with 1,100 inhabitants.
 A few years ago in a working group, we discussed a possible merger together with Schönholzerswilen. Schönholzerswilen is about the same size as Wuppenau. We formulated the conditions for a merger: At first there has to be the will, which means you have to see the benefits. In our rural area everything works very personally. In a merger, the mayor will probably have a full time job instead of two 30 percent positions, a large additional cost! Moreover it does not work with fewer staff. Next there is the question of constructing a building for the common communal administration. In Wuppenau we would be able to expand the local government in the existing building. But today we see no reason for a merger.
We have an active cooperation with the inhabitants of Schönholzerswilen anyway: For example, we celebrate the ceremony of the junior citizens or occasions for the communal employees together. We have the same police and the firemen do exercises together, once organized by us, next time by Schönholzerswilen. But perhaps some day communal councilors will no longer volunteer and thus a merger would have to be discussed again.

But today there are two autonomous communes.

Yes, it is still personal. Out of the 1,100 inhabitants of Wuppenau I know about 700 by their first name. This is a social network. Naturally, they come to a councilor or to me and say: I have a problem. This keeps me busy most of all (not time-wise), because I want to help, of course.

Why almost one-fifth of the electorate attend the communal assembly in Wuppenau

Actually, I meant to ask you for the reason why more than 19 percent of the electors came to the communal assembly last year – but you already answered this question by your description of village life.

Yes, this year there were as many again … Just now, when you were speaking, something struck me: In Wuppenau we had a primary school commune and one for secondary school. About 100 people out of perhaps 600 attended at a time, slightly less than at the political communal assembly. Now we have a primary school commune, including four communes with a total of 2,400 voters. At the penultimate communal assembly, when it came to the budget and the tax rate, 61 people took part, that is 1.7 percent. Not 4 or 5, but 1.7 percent! It is getting impersonal.
The communal administration of Wuppenau probably writes the least letters. I demand again and again: “Do not write letters, but seek the dialogue, talk to each other.” Often our council meeting begins at 7.30 p.m., but if something special is to be expected we start at 7 p.m. already and we invite the persons concerned. Another example, while jogging I pass the house of a fellow citizen, who wrote an angry letter to the commune and I can just have a look at the spot and possibly even ameliorate matters. In that case everything looks a lot different, all of a sudden!
There are very good people in the commune who know all their fellow citizens. No one would ever think of closing our counter, even though it is written on the door: “Open till 4 o’clock”. Our citizens are the customers, and that has to be tangibles. Perhaps this is also one reason that once again more people may attend the communal assembly.

Mr. Gantenbein, thank you very much for this interview.     •

(Interview Marianne Wüthrich)

The communal assembly, a direct democratic institution in the co-operative tradition

mw. In 80 percent of the Swiss communes, especially in German-speaking Switzerland, it is not a parliament that exercises the legislative function, but the communal assembly. The executive branch, which manages the affairs of the commune and carries out the decisions of the communal assembly, is called communal council in most German-speaking cantons, with usually 5 or 7 members who – except in major municipalities – usually perform their duties part time. In the Canton of Zurich, for example, there are only 12 municipalities with a parliament (including the cities of Zurich and Winterthur!); the other 157 communes have a communal assembly. In the municipality of Thalwil (with over 16,000 inhabitants), citizens spoke out against the introduction of a parliament in several ballots.
The institution of the communal assembly has been criticized from various sides from time to time in recent years: in communal assemblies usually only a few voters would participate, therefore its democratic legitimacy was called into question – this is the main point of criticism. There is no quorum in Switzerland to make a referendum valid, neither on federal, cantonal nor communal level, neither in secret balloting nor assembly votes. Since the participation rate is often low in the communal assemblies, one-third of those present for instance may require a subsequent secret ballot by a decision of the assembly according to the new constitution of the Canton of Zurich (operating since 1 January 2006). But this amendment option is also criticized: if there was a secret ballot afterwards anyway, the communal assembly would become a farce.
A recent study commissioned by the local authority of the Canton of Zurich revealed amazing facts and confirmed as it were the “good reputation“ of the communal assembly as a democratic institution par excellence.1
The authors note that participation in communal assemblies in the Canton of Zurich is often not very high even though in communalities with fewer inhabitants participation is usually higher than in densely populated places (cf. pp. 6–7). But they come to the conclusion that the central element of the assembly democracy is not the number of participants but the high quality of the formation of opinion: because behind the communal assembly there is “the tradition of meeting democracy which assumes that the general will is constituted and developed by mutual exchange of views and discussion and not – as in the model of referendum democracy – simply by the sum of all individual interests in the limited form of a Yes or No expression of opinion at the ballot box. Accordingly, an active, lively discussion in the assembly is a key criterion for the legitimacy of the decisions taken there (qualitative participation).“ (p. 8)
By the way, in advance of a communal assembly citizens may also submit amendment proposals and thus influence the content of submittals. After all, such proposals are submitted in almost a quarter of the analyzed assemblies in the Canton of Zurich. Therefore, the criticism concerning the lack of voting secrecy is also misplaced, because the opinion of every citizen who took the floor is clearly expressed by the amendments and in the discussion before the vote. Yes, it is practically a prerequisite for achieving good decisions that as many as possible participate in the discussion (cf. pp. 3–4).
The high quality of opinion formation in discussions is further confirmed since despite the provision of Article 86 paragraph 3 of the Cantonal Constitution, according to which one third of those present can demand a subsequent ballot, this actually happens very rarely: In 2008, with only 2 of over 1,100 decisions in the 105 examined Zurich communes.
The authors of the study close with a clear commitment to the positive significance of the communal assembly: “Overall, the present study shows that the communal assemblies produce democratically legitimized decisions in the Canton of Zurich. The deep turnout at communal assemblies need not be per se a cause for concern. Much more meaningful is the quality of the political debate at these meetings, for which in turn the diversity of expressed opinions is important. Here the authorities and the political parties have a responsibility. It is in their hands, to arouse interest in local politics in the citizens […].” (p. 17)

1    Daniel Kübler and Philippe Rochat. Sind Gemeindeversammlungen noch zeitgemäss? Überlegungen anhand einer Umfrage im Kanton Zürich (Are communal assemblies still keeping with the times? Considerations based on a survey), statistik.info 15/09, www.statistik.zh.ch