From Iceland — The War Of The Bureaucrats: Some Jokes Are All About Timing And The Right Audience

The War Of The Bureaucrats: Some Jokes Are All About Timing And The Right Audience

Published August 24, 2018

Valur Grettisson

When Líf Magneudóttir, a Left Green city councilperson, stuck her tongue out during a city board meeting, she probably thought it was a harmless joke. An icebreaker in an electrified situation, overshadowed by serious matters connected to a previous court order against a high ranking official in city Hall that had become somewhat of an explosive political scandal.

And perhaps Líf’s joke would have worked out if she hadn’t directed it at conservative stalwart Marta Guðjónsdóttir, a member of the Independence Party. Marta abruptly halted the meeting, booking a complaint where she demanded that members of the city council try to at least be respectful to each other. What’s more, she demanded an official apology from Líf.

Immediately, hell broke loose in the media. Voters on social media harsly asked electors to behave like grown ups, or just learn to take a joke. It was clear that tables had turned. The joke was on Líf. But nobody was really laughing.

The beginning, the very beginning!

The city council has been relatively peaceful in the past few years compared to the circus of national politics. But when the new coalition was elected this spring, everything changed rather quickly. The ruling coalition includes the Left Greens with Líf Magnedóttir, the Pirate Party, the Reform Party, and of course, the Social Democratic Alliance, with Dagur B. Eggertsson as mayor of Reykjavík, a position he has held for the past four years.

The official opposition was formed in a joint collaboration between the People’s Party, Independence Party, Centre Party, and the notable Socialist Party. Before the elections, the Centre Party and the Independence Party criticised the ruling coalition harshly, saying that they were spending too much money on City Hall to the detriment of other areas, such as kindergartens. This rhetoric would have unexpected repercussions for them.

Animals in a circus

After the elections, newspapers in Iceland covered a story surrounding the severance pay of a staff member of the city council, where he was given 250,000 ISK in compensation for an unlawful reprimand, issued by the Chief of Staff of the city board. Additionally, the City had fronted the bill for the trial, which amounted to over one million kroner.

This trial’s condemnation of the Chief of Staff was unusually harsh. The documents stated that the Chief of Staff’s conduct was condescending and that she treated her staff member like an “animal in a circus that should stand and sit as she pleased”.

In this atmosphere, a explosive meeting was held in ity council in the end of June. There, Marta Guðjónsdóttir of the Independence Party accused the ruling coalition of hiding information surrounding their processes of electing candidates to committees within the City system. The ruling coalition dismissed the criticism. The Chief of Staff of the city council—not the city board, as was previously mentioned—did not take the oppositions attack lightly and criticised Marta harshly in the media for the accusation and subsequently, accused Marta and the opposition coalition as a whole of breaking rules of ethics by accusing them of being part of this alleged conspiracy.

This sounds complicated, but doesn’t it always with bureaucrats? To be honest, no one exactly understood what was going on, but the point was that they were trying to start a fight. The gloves were off. The war of the bureaucrats had begun.

Was someone bullied?

The Centre Party and members of the Independence Party then officially complained at the city board meeting in the end of July that they had serious concerns about the behavior described in the verdict of the district court. They then claimed that it was thus necessary to discuss the future of the Chief of Staff within City Hall. The People’s Party and the Socialist Party subsequently lodged a complaint that there were indications that there was culture of bullying allowed in the workplace. Vigdís Hauksdóttir of the Centre Party repeatedly highlighted the debate in public discussion. To summarise, they decided to raise both a battle of paperwork and public perception.

 “Líf said in an interview after the tongue incident, that Marta Guðjónsdóttir stared her down in the beginning of the city board meeting, and it became unbearable.” 

The Chief Administrative Officer of City Hall disputed these claims. The court’s verdict was not about bullying, he emphasised, but was about administrative actions and the legality of them. Though this was correct, the person that the case involved—a.k.a. the guy that the Chief of Staff had reprimanded—said repeatedly in his statements for the court that the Chief Of Staff had bullied him.

In an unprecedented move, the Chief of Staff responded to these allegations in an open letter on the City’s webpage, demanding that the presidium look into these matters and establish an investigation committee to explore whether or not she had been a bully. She also said that the misstatement of the electors were serious and hurtful.

The tongue incident

But how does this all connect to the tongue? Well, the next meeting of the City Board was held on August 16th. Only a few days before that, the minority party had refused to be present at a planning and transportation board meeting, claiming that the meeting lacked legal formalities. The majority party, of course, said this was not true, adding fuel to the fire.

Then, at that August 16th city board meeting, tongue-gate occured and all went to hell. Líf—the perpetrator—claimed that Marta Guðjónsdóttir was staring her down in the beginning of the meeting, and it became unbearable. She had decided to stick her tongue out then in a prankster kind of way to lighten the mood.

Marta refused to laugh at the joke and threatened to officially report the incident if Líf would not apologise formerly. Líf did apologise to her in private, but Marta said that was not enough. If this was not dramatic enough, Vigdís Hauksdóttir—the Centre Party member who had accused City Hall of having a bullying problem—went to the media to tell them that this tongue incident perfectly illustrated said bullying problem, which was allegedly thriving.

What next?

So here we are, in the middle of the fallout of the tongue-gate and the war of the bureaucrats. It’s safe to say that the morale in the City Hall has never been so low. It’s unclear what the next steps are in this dramatic dilemma, but there are indications that this will be a cold political winter where even a small joke can be turned into a political hand grenade.

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