INTERVIEW WITH THE OMBUDSMANRenate Weber: "I've never made decisions on my own"

GEORGE MARINESCU (TRANSLATED BY COSMIN GHIDOVEANU)
English Section / 27 noiembrie 2020

Renate Weber: "I've never made decisions on my own"

50% of the requests sent by the central public administration, left unanswered

Employee rotation, decided for the purpose of eliminating local fiefdoms in the territorial offices

The parliament, decisive role in the appointment of the leadership of the institution

The amendment of the law on the organizing and operation of the Ombudsman - a priority for the future Parliament

The Ombudsman is in the spotlight as a result of political attacks from both the Parliament and the Government, following the actions taken by its representatives to defend the rights and freedoms of citizens.

In addition to these attacks, several voices have emerged among employees in the territory, who have accused a centralization of the decision and a discretionary way of rotating the staff, criticisms that BURSA reported on a week ago (Renate Weber on the turf of the PSD - the Ombudsman).

Coordinating advisers in the institution have also been appointed in the past through an absolutely discretionary order, Ombudsman Renate Weber said in an interview, and she added: "No one, ever, has passed a test, or anything of the kind for this position. They have been simply appointed. The moment when I came to this institution, I found that, for the health of its activity, for the relations between colleagues, it is natural that everyone gets that position".

Reporter: What can you tell us about the dissatisfaction expressed by some of the employees of the institution you run? What is the situation regarding the appointment of coordinating advisers?

Renate Weber: The people who were coordinating advisers in this institution have been appointed in the past in an absolutely discretionary order. No one has ever taken a competition, an exam, given anything for this position. They were simply named. When I came to this institution, I found that, for the health of the activity here, for the relations between coworkers in the institution, it is natural that everybody gets that role.

Reporter: Then why did these criticisms arise? Are there any benefits from holding the position of coordinating counselor of one of the 14 territorial offices of the institution?

Renate Weber: They have no benefits from this position, only the benefits that each one awards depending on how they behave locally. But I considered it normal for all colleagues to go through such an experience, because it means first and foremost an administrative relationship with the headquarters. Coordinating advisors do not have the right to control, to stop the work of their colleagues. So they have no such duties.

As always, when you have power or - let's say - you think you have power over an undetermined period of time, that's when local baronies appear. And then I thought it was appropriate for everyone to go through such experiences. By the way, I want to tell you that this is why we have introduced the annual rotation system: so that everyone has the opportunity to return to such coordinating positions or to try them for the first time. I want to tell you that, from my point of view, things really went well. Some of our colleagues even proved that they got it. We've had some problems, especially some administrative ones, which they were called to solve: with the headquarters, with the facilities in the headquarters, and they actually did very well. As far as I know, there were two, let's say three such situations, where people thought that they actually had a certain power, and who thought that it was taken from them. Honestly, I don't understand what power was taken from them, because, in fact, it is more of an administrative matter, which would mean more hassle.

Reporter: Reporter: Some of the Ombudsman employees complained that the decision making process was centralized ...

Renate Weber: This institution is a one-person institution - constitutionally speaking. The only one who has to report and is liable and can even lose their job for the management and the decisions made in the institution is the Ombudsman themselves. If you look at our law, you will see that deputies cannot be removed from office. Only the Ombudsman can. And then, of course, the decision is centralized, in the sense that the responsibility is mine, that I am at the head of this institution. But I have never made decisions on my own - we have dozens of minutes - because we have a meeting of the management of this institution every month; we always talk, I always listen to the views of my colleagues - deputies or heads of services, but I repeat, I make the decision in the end, because I am the one who is responsible. That's what happened. And those who tell you that the decision was centralized need to explain how it was decentralized, as a result of their appointment. Because it was the same, a decision - I do not know who made it, nor do I care - of a predecessor, who at one point considered appointing some coordinating advisers. A decision as subjective as they claim it was now. I would say that I have introduced a bit of an objective criterion, rotating people and giving others the opportunity to learn what this activity means.

Ombudsman deputies, appointed by Parliament on the basis of a political algorithm

Reporter: The employees in question claim that, when the recommendations come from the central office or when that is where investigations are ordered from, their relationship with the local authorities suffers because they are ignored.

Renate Weber: The investigations were always decided by the Ombudsman in this institution. That comes from the operating rules - those people probably know neither the law nor this regulation, although it is published in the Official Gazette and we sent it to all our colleagues by e-mail. The proposal for an investigation is always made by the main director, it goes through the approval of the deputy who is the head of that department - in other words someone who is materially competent - and then reaches the Ombudsman. I have introduced another person in this decision-making process, in the sense that I have requested that the deputy who coordinates the respective territorial offices always have knowledge of the case. Because we have 14 territorial offices, four of the six deputies we have coordinate territorial offices. In general, I have encouraged people to attend many investigations, and that was seen in the increase in the number of investigations conducted, but this year the pandemic came, which set us back a little back in that regard. I asked the employees to go to the investigations, to always discuss with the utmost care because they represent an institution.

Reporter: Does the Ombudsman have a say in appointing deputies, or is it just the decision of the Parliament?

Renate Weber: Furthermore, I think it matters how close an Ombudsman is to some structures in the Parliament so they can enforce something. But given that we have six deputy ombudsmen, we are more or less talking about an algorithm. Parliament is the one that votes and makes certain proposals, but it is a procedure which concerns the Parliament. Don't forget that in the end, there are some requirements for being appointed and any individual that meets those requirements can get such a position.

Renate Weber: Definitely, the decision is strictly of the Parliament. Furthermore, I think it matters how close or not an Ombudsman will be to some structures in Parliament in order to be able to impose something else. But given that we have six deputies to the Ombudsman, this is more or less an algorithm. Parliament is the one that votes and makes some proposals, but it is a procedure related to the Legislature. Remember that, after all, there are conditions for appointment and anyone who meets these conditions can access such a position.

The Ombudsman - an institution without sanctions

Reporter: From your point of view, because lately there have been lots of discussions concerning the Ombudsman and the Romanian Constitutional Court, talks which concern a legislative change, could the law for the organization and operation of the institution you lead be improved?

Renate Weber: It's not that it could be improved, our law ins unconstitutional; it has been declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court. I think that says it all.

Reporter: You mean one of the priorities of the next Parliament would be to get this law in line with the constitutional norms...

Renate Weber: They are not those that concern the rights of the institution, but also those that concern the rights and freedoms of citizens and then we no longer worked on the legislative change. But there are a few things that are absolutely aberrant.

I have found in there a modification formula which I could not agree with, and I came up with another one, but things got politicized and I preferred to give up and continue our activity based on that law. Now with the pandemic, priorities are different. It is not those priorities that concern the rights of the institution, but those that concern the rights and freedoms of the citizens, and then we did not deal with the legislative change. But there are some things that are absolutely aberrant.

Reporter: Such as?

Renate Weber: I want to give you a few examples. Yesterday (ed. note: - Monday November 16 2020) we have signed several responses to the minister, because, according to the law, we have the possibility to send recommendations. Normally, the recommendations need to be implemented or at least there should be a discussion with us concerning the speed of their implementation. People have the obligation to respond within 30 days. And we have sent several responses to several ministries, which we have received no responses from for over two months. They are recommendations which categorically concern fundamental rights and freedoms of Romanians, because we didn't send those letters on our behalf. Whether it was missing medication, medical assistance that wasn't provided, services in elder care homes. Beyond that, there is nothing we can do. If they want to answer and do something... In the end, what does rule of law mean? Does it mean someone watching over you with a whip or does it mean having rules, laws, and implementing them because it is the normal thing to do? The Ombudsman does not levy sanctions, which is good, because its role is to be a mediator between citizens and administration. Except the administration should also show that it follows the rule of law when it gets from us such recommendations or when it implements them, or at least when it enters a dialogue with us and explains how it will implement such recommendations.

The employees of the institution, prevented from conducting their investigations

Reporter: Should we agree that the two ministries that have issues are the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Health?

Renate Weber: No. There is also the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Labor. We have sent responses to the Ministry of Labor and the Ministry of Healthcare. I want you to know that generally, the Ministry of Internal Affairs has responded. We are not interested in whether the Minister answers us personally or not, but in actually having someone answer us concerning the issues in question.

For instance, we have been faced with situations where my colleagues have not been allowed to enter a building as part of the investigation. They have been physically prevented from entering an institution, even though that institution provided services and was accredited by the institutions which were subordinated to the Labor Ministry. Naturally, while we go and check whether citizens' rights are being complied with, being prevented from entering is not normal for an institution like the Ombudsman.

Reporter: How can such situations be resolved?

Renate Weber: Only by law, where it needs to be clearly stipulated that allowing access is mandatory. If people don't understand the elementary issues which concern the rule of law, then those things need to be specified by law.

Reporter: Is it accurate to say that none of the other institutions of the state have a loyal collaboration with the Ombudsman?

Renate Weber: No, I would not generalize, because, on the contrary, I would say that we, at the local level, in the vast majority of cases, have a very good working relationship with the institutions of the administration. When I say very good, I say that even though we criticize them, but they enter into a dialogue with us, they try to change some things. Many times we even helped them with our interventions. At the central level, I would not generalize and I would say that in 50% of cases we've seen natural reactions of collaboration. Of course, from the moment the institution was subjected to an attack, for the time being, by the Romanian Prime Minister - I am not talking about other representatives of the Parliament - from that moment the response at the central administration level was sometimes delayed, more than usual, and sometimes it even was missing. Because such negative signals influence the behavior of others, and people forget - although they are representatives in the Romanian government - that this is not about this institution, but about all the beneficiaries that the Ombudsman has, in the sense of those people's rights.

Reporter: Thank you.

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