Growing together in the greater district: people are distant from each other

District Administrator Heiko Karger of Mecklenburgische Seenplatte County has a mammoth task. He must ensure that the district becomes a single entity.

There are great distances to be overcome in the district. Image: imago / BildFunkMV

It’s still early on this cold, clear morning in autumn when Heiko Karger once again takes in a facet of his new district. All around, pale light falls over muddy meadows; further back, allotment gardens stand out. Heiko Karger trudges toward the entrance of the low-rise building in front of him. "So," he says, "let’s have a look."

Karger is about to compete in a competition that has existed for 15 years, always in the fall, at the shooting range of the Demminer Schutzengilde: the guest shooting of the district. Karger is taking part for the first time; Demmin was only assigned to his area of responsibility just over a year ago. Otherwise, it’s just another day for the district administrator. Being seen, speaking greetings, representing, that makes up a large part of his work, "about 30 to 40 percent," he says.

Karger, CDU, is an unobtrusive guy, 52 years old, with rimless glasses. He pushes his way gingerly through the crowd at the clubhouse, shaking hands with uniforms, riflemen, soldiers and emergency doctors in red suits along the way.

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Originally, the guest shooting was conceived so that people working in the field of emergency response could get to know each other. In the meantime, representatives from business and administration have also joined in. Establishing contacts, creating closeness. This is the kind of thing that will be important if the upheaval in which the region finds itself is to succeed. Old districts have ceased to exist, and new ones have emerged.

The Mecklenburg Lake District stretches from the north of the Uckermark almost to the Baltic Sea, and Karger is the top official in this vast realm. Since then, he has often been on the road in areas that he had previously hardly known. On the other hand, he doesn’t have the time for appointments that he usually keeps. Then people say, "But you used to come all the time." Karger frowns. "That’s what I’m a little sorry about."

Gradually the crowd spreads out at stations on the course, small bore, crossbow, pistol and assault rifle. Kaeger opens the door to a hall and settles down against a wooden beam. He stuffs yellow plugs in his ears and puts on the G36, which is jacked up in front of him. A soldier in camouflage fatigues explains to him how to load the rifle. Through the telescope, he sights the target on the back wall. "Do you see the red dot?" the recruit asks. From behind, someone yells, "Gun ready, load, fire at will!" The district administrator pulls the trigger.

What’s red on the calendar is full

Heiko Karger’s tasks now also include ensuring that the district area reform is implemented in the offices. This means that the authorities of three districts and one independent city must become one unit, a superorganism of regional administration, so to speak. "Things are already going much better," says the district administrator. "Sheer madness," says a politician from the region.

If you want to understand what an unwieldy word like "district reform" means, you can watch District Administrator Karger for a while as he tries to bridge the distances in his new district. November rain slaps against the windows of his company car; a few weeks have passed since the guest shooting. Karger rushes through a green landscape in the back of the dark sedan, past fields and pastures.

Karger, an agricultural engineer by training, grew up in the authorities. An administrative man through and through, say his colleagues. He was one of the advocates of the reorganization, "because, unfortunately, there was no way around it." Currently, 270,000 people still live in the district. In 18 years, there will be 20 percent fewer. At the same time, huge holes are opening up in the public coffers.

The new district already has a deficit of 25 million euros. The territorial reform had to happen, he says. It was just the way it went down that annoyed him. "The region was confronted with this mammoth task "with a thud. No one was prepared. "I didn’t expect so many problems in detail," he says. Before, there were all offices at all locations. Now they are being cut back: The environmental office is moving to Waren, the public order office to Demmin.

Until the end of 2011, Heiko Karger was the district administrator of Mecklenburg-Strelitz County, which has been merged into the new greater county. "The administrative burden has become much greater," he says. "It now takes me twice as long just to get the mail." He pulls out an iPad and swipes the display; a table appears. "This is what my week looks like," Karger says, "what’s red is full." Almost the entire screen glows red. In the boxes are discussions with department heads, district council meetings, working groups, and in the evening, parties or concerts.

Too long a journey

Then his chauffeur brakes. It’s nine o’clock, the first appointment of the day begins at the rescue station in Malchin, high in the north of the district. On the first floor, nearly a dozen people sit at desks arranged in a U-shape: doctors, paramedics, hospital managers.

Thomas Hanff, the medical director of the district rescue service, has invited them. He wants to make suggestions on how to better organize the rescue of premature babies. The size of the county, the long travel distances, can be fatal for babies when they are born at home. Hanff deliberately brought his guests to Malchin "so that you can feel the time."

Kaerger sits quietly in his chair, his cheek resting in his hand, taking notes. Hanff talks about baby emergency ambulances, in which infants can receive optimal care. There is a foundation that funds such special vehicles. The district could apply for one of them. "What would it cost us?" asks Kaeger. "Zero," Hanff says. "Then I can only welcome this story," Karger says.

The next appointment is less than an hour away. Kaeger is a quiet man who speaks in short, matter-of-fact sentences. The pressure is not apparent on his face. He seems somewhat distant, not absent, but as if there were a hand’s breadth of safety between him and the world. The way he crosses his arms or folds his fingers in front of him reinforces the impression.

There are currently several urgent questions to which he must find an answer. How can the huge gap in the budget be closed? Karger has already cut 111 jobs in the administration. That is not enough. It also remains to be seen how the shrinking population can be slowed down. Heiko Karger looks out the window; outside, crows flutter above rapeseed fields. The father of two and grandfather of four lives in Glocksin near Neubrandenburg. He likes it in this area. "After all, you can be in Berlin in two hours," he says, "that’s what I always tell the young people."

After a while, the car turns into the yard of Pommerland Fleisch- und Wurstwaren GmbH in Stavenhagen. Managing director Hans-Joachim Bennke is already waiting. He invites Karger into the tall brick building. "We are very glad that you are visiting us," he says. The district administrator looks at regional businesses as often as he can. "If the economy doesn’t work," he says, "nothing works."

Bennke is proud of his business; he led it through bankruptcy and turned it around. Now sales are growing. Only trainees are getting harder to find. Kaerger listens and nods occasionally. Bennke says that as of this year, his sausage no longer contains glutamates or artificial flavors. "All the crap is out." Hoods and gowns are ready for the visit.

Great sensitivities

Bennke leads the way through white-tiled halls, past assembly lines where women fill thin tubes with meat emulsion. "We work mostly with natural casings," Bennke says. "And where do you buy them?" asks Karger. "In Georgsmarienhutte."

On the way back, Karger leans back in his seat; the chauffeur stomps on the gas. The move of the authorities is still not finished, vans are parked in front of the offices of the administrative sites every day.

The logistical aspect of the move is one thing; the human one is quite another. Some employees now have an hour-long commute to work, others have to familiarize themselves with new subject areas. There is resentment above all among those who have been relegated. For example, the district administrators of the former districts who are now Karger’s deputies. "This is mined territory," says the district office. "Well," says Karger, "what can I say about that." He is considered a boss who can be quite authoritarian, but tends to mediate in conflicts. He can’t please everyone. "There are crazy sensitivities," says a political connoisseur of the region, "actually, I’m surprised the man can still sleep."

The sun is already low when Karger arrives in Neubrandenburg. The district administration office is housed in a new building complex that looks as if it has been riveted together from rough pieces. Karger settles down at his desk, a tower of mail folders in front of him. He picks up a pen and mutters, "If you’re short on time, you’ll sign partially blind." Then he starts working through the stack.