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A year of M5S Virginia Raggi as Rome mayor: the change is yet to be seen as the city sinks into neglect

by Manuela Perrone

The city remains dirty. Local public transport is experiencing delays, continuous breakdowns and service failures. The city administration has had to change three councilors in seven months. Raffaele Marra, the former right hand man of Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi, has been arrested for corruption dating back to 2013.

“We will work to introduce a new alphabet and words such as merit, transparency, legality and solidarity after years of darkness and abandonment,” said Raggi on July 7 last year as the new mayor from the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement (M5S) took office. A year later the capital is flailing. And many promises have come to nothing.

The first glitch for the M5S were the nominations. Raggi changed three councilors in seven months, after fierce controversy. These included the head of the cabinet, a magistrate noted for her anti-corruption efforts, who lasted only 60 days and is yet to be replaced. The people most faithful to the mayor were massacred. In December, her right hand man, the former deputy head of cabinet Raffaele Marra, then moved to head of personnel (the council has 23,000 employees), was arrested for corruption dating back to 2013.

Her former chief secretary Salvatore Romeo is being investigated, along with her, regarding his own nomination: he was promoted with a tripling in his salary. Raggi is also investigated for the nomination of Marra’s brother at the helm of the municipal police. Soon we will know if she is facing indictment. It is long since the M5S were calling for the resignation of indicted politicians: the new ethical code foresees obligatory resignation only in the case of first level conviction. Until then, Raggi is not to be touched. She has in fact been put “under administration” by the leaders of the movement Beppe Grillo and Davide Casaleggio, who now choose councillors and managers.

It is those two who obligate choices also on big works. In September, Raggi’s council maintained one of the promises of its electoral campaign: the no to Rome’s candidacy for the Olympics in 2024, defined as the “brick Olympics”. In February, after a lot of perplexity among the M5S base, it instead reached an agreement with the AS Roma soccer team for the construction of a new stadium in the southern periphery: an investment of almost €1 billion, with €120 million of public works for the private sector.

But it is above all on services for citizens and urban decorum that the M5S administration has proven itself most disappointing. The New York Times entitled its last editorial on the Italian capital “The Filthy Metaphor of Rome”. Rome was and remains dirty. The garbage plan is betting on an increase in waste sorting from the current 43% to 70% by 2021. But the M5S’s opposition to incinerators and dumps makes it practically impossible to manage the cycle of rubbish produced: 2,600 tons of unsorted waste per day, which reaches 3,300 tons in the case of emergencies or malfunctioning of the few run-down mechanical biological treatment plants – forcing dependency on private companies and the transport of waste abroad. AMA, the council’s waste management company, has €385 million in debt and 1,900 employees unfit for work out of 8,000 employees.

The real “sick man” of the council’s companies is however ATAC, which manages local transport: 11,600 employees (one for every 122 inhabitants), plagued through the years by cronyism and crime and travellers that do not pay for their tickets (ticket dodging costs €80 million a year) and by a record debt of €1.3 billion. About 40% of the buses need scrapping and 30% need rejuvenating. The result? Constant breakdowns, delays, and poor service.
It is logical that citizens are disappointed. According to surveys, four voters out of 10 would not vote for the mayor again and 70% of Romans do not rate her work. In the rankings of the popularity of mayors drawn up every year by Ipr Marketing for Il Sole 24 Ore-ItalyEurope24, Raggi came in last.

Meanwhile her colleague from the M5S Chiara Appendino, Mayor of Turin, came in first.

The complexity and size of Rome, the legacy of the Mafia Capital scandal and the bad management in the past, used too often as excuses, are not enough to explain the gap between the two. Neither is the council budget approved for the first time within the legal time limit, when nothing was done on Rome’s monster €12 billion debt. Raggi’s closeness to the taxi lobbies and itinerant sellers has not helped her. A Rome invaded by street stalls, with roads full of holes and worsening degradation, clashes increasingly with the great beauty of its fountains and monuments.

The gust of new air that 67% of Roman citizens expected to obtain from the M5S has proved to be an extremely light draft.