“I honestly have to say that I also feel sorry for those trees. When I was a child I would gather chestnuts here on my way to school,” Kaunas mayor Visvaldas Matijošaitis says, commenting about the tree-cutting scandal in Kaunas. When asked about further political ambitions, the mayor states he does not know whether he will run for a second term. He does not dismiss the possibility of running for president either. Kaunas city affairs, key projects and career prospects were the topic of a talk with Kaunas mayor Visvaldas Matijošaitis.
In terms of the tree cutting situation that received national attention, V. Matijošaitis explains that while it was an unpleasant decision, the trees had not been suitably tended to and when they were planted in A. Smetona Alley in 1949, too little space to grow was left for them. While the situation also involved A. Mickevičius, V. Putvinskis and Veiveriai Street, the mayor stresses that the main part of the works done was in A. Smetona Alley.
“I honestly have to say that I also feel sorry for those trees. When I was a child I would gather chestnuts here on my way to school. But when we began repairing the street and pruning the trees, we found that in 5-10 years we will need to bid farewell to them anyway. We performed an inspection. The experts recommended we should plant new trees instead,” V. Matijošaitis said, noting that during pruning it was observed that the trees were rotten inside, which warranted the inspection.
While there were protests and some even directly clinging to the trees in an effort to obstruct them from being cut down, with police even having to carry away some, the mayor emphasises that the people were protesting out of concern for the city and have the full right to express their opinion. “They are equally residents of Kaunas and love the city,” he said.
With claims being made that the scandal is a consequence of the mayor’s authoritarian rule, V. Matijošaitis admits that there may have been a lack of communication, with the decision to cut the rotten trees having been made rapidly after the inspection. While he once again notes that talks and discussions can be done, the events with police having to forcibly remove some protesters do not bring the city honour.
Moving on to Kaunas Airport becoming the city’s main airport for the summer, the mayor notes that the city has ambitions in this area, with plans to begin flights to Warsaw in spring, which is to only be a beginning and that negotiations with many airlines are already ongoing. The municipality plans to invest in marketing for flights and related expenses, with grants related to individual flight providers ranging from 150 to 300 thousand euro.
The mayor notes that the city acutely felt the increase of visitors during the month where Kaunas Airport took a leading role, with not only foreigners staying in the city, but also passing Lithuanians. Mayor Matijošaitis stresses that “Furthermore, Kaunas Airport is more convenient than Vilnius because this is the centre of Lithuania.”
Regarding other projects, V. Matijošaitis was fairly reticent regarding obstructions faced with the reconstruction of the S. Darius and S. Girėnas Stadium which have since been overcome and the project is set to begin. He only stated that there were difficulties with the local community in the area, adding that “They have kings of their own there,” and that bar any further issues, work will begin in October. A contractor has yet to be found, but the mayor expects football matches to resume in the stadium in 2019.
Another major project in focus is the National Centre of Science and Innovation Mokslo Sala [Science Island]. Notably, Kaunas won over Vilnius in competition to host the project and negotiations are ongoing with three companies which came in the top three of the design competition. In this case the negotiations should conclude by the end of year, when work on the technical project is to begin.
Regarding this project, V. Matijošaitis explains that 153 architecture companies from around the world participated in the competition, with a Spanish company taking first place, however the municipality chose to enter discussions with the top three pretenders. He expressed hope that the project is to be concluded within three years.
Over the years, the Kaunas municipality has provided support for the Kaunas Žalgiris basketball club, with support gradually being shifted to originate from municipal owned companies. With the Vilnius municipal council ruling to give the Vilnius and Vilnius Lietuvos Rytas basketball club grants of a million euro each, the Competitiveness Council ruled that this could be against the existing principles of competition. Mayor Matijošaitis states that the current arrangements in Kaunas are not ideal and that cities and their residents have to decide themselves whether they wish to provide support for basketball clubs, without which they could not survive in Lithuania. He emphasises that such grants do not equal greater utility costs for residents and that Kaunas directs around 2 million euro to sports funding per year, which is partially warranted by the need to maintain the Kaunas Žalgiris Arena, which draws crowds from around the country.
The mayor states he feels that there has been a change in the municipal staff’s mind-set, with work quality and speed having increased, even if not up to the standards he is used to, coming from the business world. Nevertheless he notes that “the staff’s smiles and work quality are telling.”
When V. Matijošaitis ran for the office of mayor, he stated he is only planning to work for one term, but as of now his commitment to such a statement appears to be less clear, with the mayor emphasising his previous willingness to leave behind his business to his sons when moving into politics, but providing no clear confirmation of future plans. Unwilling to directly answer, he only stated “I can say neither yes, nor no. I would rather not lie.”
In terms of potential non-partisan candidates, V. Matijošaitis is viewed as having one of the more realistic potential bids for presidency. He was, however, unwilling to comment just yet, stating that now is neither the time, nor place to speak of it and that he will make his decision with only a few months left to the presidential elections.