There are more exciting press events than a district council meeting. Often in a clubhouse, gymnasium, or parish hall, votes go on for hours on one motion after the other. The deputies don't make fiery speeches, they discuss dry proposals for changing sub-points in resolutions that sometimes affect tens, sometimes 100 people. It's about traffic lights, forest roads, school renovations. factual politics. Everything is different on this Wednesday afternoon in Sonneberg.
This Wednesday afternoon even the national media came to the district council meeting. In the auditorium of the Hermann Pistor School, the district council members have to weave their way through a crowd of journalists to their seats. It is the first session after the summer break. The first session after the AfD won the first district in Germany here in Thuringia. And today their candidate Robert Stuhlmann will be officially sworn in as Germany's first AfD district administrator.
Five cameras are pointed at him while he nervously pushes up his glasses with his index finger, flips through a folder undecidedly and, quietly and annoyed, fends off reporters' questions: "I have to prepare myself."
It's not all that new to him anymore. Robert Stuhlmann has been at work since July 3rd, and today he will be officially inaugurated. Thanks to 52.8 percent of the votes, he replaces CDU member Jürgen Köpper, who sits next to Stuhlmann in the auditorium, now as his deputy. Stuhlmann only wants to say something about how the induction has gone in the last 52 days as a district administrator once the "100-day grace period is over." Until then: no interviews, no press conferences, no visits to the district office.
The meeting begins, the bell rings, TV cameras have to leave the room. Audio and video recordings are not permitted in the Sonneberg District Council. Stuhlmann wears black sneakers, shirt and tie - like almost everyone who sits here in the district council: The meeting is something special, and not only because the media interest is great. After all, they only come here every few months to vote on the issues of the circle. The rest of the time, most county council members work normal jobs, being clerks or teachers.
In front of Stuhlmann are school desks and chairs in groups, similar to parliament: the Left and the Greens on the far left, 10 seats. Far right the AfD, 9 seats. In between sit the quarreling Christian Democrats, who have been in two factions for a year: Five former CDU members split off a year ago and are now forming their own faction as “Pro LK Sonn”. The CDU and the left accuse them of being close to the AfD, They don't want to hear it themselves. "It's defamatory," says Sonneberg's Mayor Heiko Voigt. The independent has also joined the Pro LK Son parliamentary group together with two FDP members. And the Social Democrats? The three of them are sitting at the back at a table.
First of all, it's not about armchair man - and at the same time it's always about armchair man. The longstanding legal adviser of the district office is dismissed and cannot quite resist subliminal criticism of the new district administrator. "I didn't manage to put my work in very good hands. It wasn't possible for me," she says. She had prepared an employee to succeed her. The job advertisement was open. When Stuhlmann became head of the district office, he withdrew the advertisement and the position remained vacant for the time being. The intended employee, it is rumored, was that Stuhlmann was too close to the CDU.
Item two on the agenda: Citizens' consultation hours. Only a handful of Sonnebergers came to the meeting, two asked detailed factual questions, but one woman from Sonneberg wanted to set an example. "I expressly do not congratulate you on your election, Mr. Stuhlmann," she says. There is an "FCK AFD" sticker on her chest.
And there it is again, the crucial question that everyone in Sonneberg now has to answer: How do we deal with the AfD district administrator? Are democratic parties allowed to work with the AfD at all? "Of course, the local parliaments then have to look for ways to shape the city and the district," said CDU leader Friedrich Merz a few weeks ago, referring to Sonneberg. A heated debate ensued about the firewall, its demolition, and its reconstruction. In the end, Merz had to backtrack: "There will be no cooperation at the municipal level either."
Stuhlmann follows this discussion, he knows that the public is watching him closely. During the election campaign, he described the Federal Republic as a "puppet state of the USA", he wanted to abolish the euro, he behaved like someone who wanted to at least become chancellor. As you can see, we're all listening to each other here. We're not building a firewall," says Stuhlmann during the break in the meeting. His press spokesman, who has been in the district office for six years, also emphasizes: "There are no ditches here." The independent mayor of Sonneberg stands next to him and nods ?” – "It's about factual issues here," repeats the mayor.
When Stuhlmann then swore his oath to the Basic Law and to the Thuringian constitution, when the bouquet of flowers was handed over and the applause, yes really, died away, Christian Tanzmeier, the leader of the CDU parliamentary group, also agrees: "It's time to return to factual issues. " Sonneberg is a lovely district. We reject defamation of voters, as has been practiced by the media in recent weeks.
You don't want to let the many camera teams and reporters in the auditorium go completely unused. Gently but firmly, Stuhlmann directs AfD member of parliament Uwe Thrum in the direction of the cameras and says full-bodied: "Here is our second district administrator." Thrum will be running in the district elections in the nearby Saale-Orla district in January next year. His dream: A second Sonneberg.
In fact, it is not entirely unlikely that in the future members of other district councils will also have to deal with a district administrator who belongs to the AfD. They then have to decide whether they will work together with the right-wing extremist party on local issues. Vote with her on motions.
That is exactly what happened several times on this Wednesday afternoon in Sonneberg. Is that a scandal now? Or simply the new Sonneberg normal?
It was about the serious shortage of doctors, the district hospital had to close its maternity ward. It was about a lack of skilled workers and the question of how to get refugees into work. To improve parking in front of a school for children with disabilities. About problems that people in Sonneberg just want to be solved. Most in the district council say: It won't work without District Administrator Stuhlmann.