Popular minister runs into trouble

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One of the most popular and highly rated ministers in Norway’s conservative government coalition has become embroiled in what he dismisses as a personnel conflict. The conflict, however, has reached the parliament’s disciplinary committee because of allegations Transport Minister Ketil Solvik-Olsen expected state bureaucrats to engage in partisan politics.

Transport Minister Ketil Solvik-Olsen is using the first few weeks of the parliament's summer recess to drive the entire length of the E6 highway, from the Swedish border in the south to the Russian border in the north, to experience road standards and traffic issues firsthand. PHOTO: Samferdselsdepartementet

Transport Minister Ketil Solvik-Olsen set off on a highly publicized two-week road trip in the summer of 2014 to experience highway standards and traffic issues firsthand. More than a year later, his ministry’s communications department is in turmoil and Solvik-Olsen faces charges he wrongly had its leader fired because she wasn’t politically cooperative. PHOTO: Samferdselsdepartementet

Not true, claims Solvik-Olsen, who sent a seven-page response this week to the committee after it had demanded that he address the allegations against him. He claims there is no foundation to charges that he asked the ministry’s communications department for assistance that would benefit his Progress Party.

The conflict stems largely from Solvik-Olsen’s highly publicized and seemingly successful road trip in the summer of last year, when he drove Norway’s E6 highway over the entire length of the country, from the Swedish border in the south to the Russian border in the north. The goal, he said at the time, was to experience for himself what motorists encounter from one end of the country to the other.

‘Collision course’
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), however, started writing last fall, more than year after the trip ended, that the project put the minister on a collision course with the ministry’s veteran communications director, Anne Marie Storli. She had years of experience heading the professional, non-partisan bureaucrats working within the communications department. Solvik-Olsen had been appointed transport minister just eight months earlier after his Progress Party won government power for the first time ever.

Problems arose when he started planning his summer road trip and both he and his political adviser, Reynir Johannesson, allegedly asked Storli and her staff to perform what the communications workers viewed as political tasks. State employees working in administrative positions in Norway are traditionally expected to be politically neutral and Storli refused, for example, to contact local mayors along Solvik-Olsen’s route, or coordinate events with Progress Party chapters in the towns and cities Solvik-Olsen would visit. That kind of activity is a job for the ministry’s political leadership, not its bureaucrats, Storli believed.

“That’s the rule I was following when I told Johannesson that we wouldn’t do that (contact mayors),” Storli told DN on Thursday in her first interview on the increasingly bitter conflict. “We could have discussed it and found a solution, but instead, he (Johannesson) got furious and then we were ordered to do such work anyway. And we did.” She claimed she has nothing against Solvik-Olsen’s Progress Party, but simply needed to remain politically neutral.

Asked to criticize former government
She and her former administrative boss at the ministry, Eva Hildrum, also have claimed that Solvik-Olsen and his Progress Party advisers wanted Storli’s communications workers to insert criticism of the former left-center government into press releases. That also raised objections.

Anne Marie Storli now says her career is in ruins after what she claims was wrongful dismissal from her job as communications director in the Transport Ministry. PHOTO: Samferdselsdepartementet

Anne Marie Storli now says her career is in ruins after what she claims was wrongful dismissal from her job as communications director in the Transport Ministry. PHOTO: Samferdselsdepartementet

The 59-year-old Storli has claimed she asked for a meeting with Solvik-Olsen to “clarify” the various roles that political and professional/administrative leadership are supposed to play in Norway’s public sector. No meeting was ever set up and in September of last year, she claims that Hildrum’s successor, Villa Kulild, informed her that Solvik-Olsen himself was dissatisfied with Storli’s work and wanted her removed as leader of the ministry’s communications department. Kulild, according to Storli, offered her another job as head of communications for the ministry’s railroad reform project. Storli said she asked again for a meeting with the ministry’s political leadership “to find a way to reestablish mutual confidence” but that was denied. “I clearly recall that she (Kulild) said the minister didn’t have time … because it was less than two years until he should win the next election,” Storli told DN on Thursday. “I remember thinking, ‘Is that really my job, to help him win an election?'”

Storli declined the railroad reform job and has since negotiated through her lawyer, Vidar Raugland. She’s now on a three-year leave from the ministry and “on loan” to Statens vegvesen, the state highway department. Raugland has told DN that the ministry headed by Solvik-Olsen did not follow legally binding procedures or “ordinary rules” governing the workplace. Another legal expert in Norwegian labour law, attorney Jan T Dege, told DN earlier this month that Storli has been subject to a “gross ” violation of her rights as a high-level bureaucrat whose position is protected from political interference. Atle Sønsteli Johansen, head of the legal division at Norway’s largest trade union federation LO, told DN that bureaucrats like Storli can only be suspended by the king in the Council of State, and can’t be transferred against their will. The reason, according to both Dege and Johansen, is to prevent state employees from becoming “puppets” of political leaders,

Mercedes muddle
Hildrum, the ministry’s former top administrative leader, has firmly supported Storli and her communications colleagues. In a written memorandum Hildrum claims Storli did “excellent” work and was wrongly asked to carry out partisan political tasks. DN has also reported that conflicts arose after Solvik-Olsen personally had negotiated a deal to use a Mercedes vehicle for this trip. Storli and others raised questions as to whether he was thus promoting Mercedes, and that reportedly upset Solvik-Olsen, too. “I called Solvik-Olsen and asked what kind of agreement he had entered into over the Mercedes, and remember that he got very irritated,” Storli told DN. She believed she should have been allowed to raise critical questions, without losing her job.

Solvik-Olsen has mostly refused to discuss Storli’s controversial dismissal, on the grounds it’s a personnel matter. In his response to questions from the parliament’s disciplinary committee, however, he wrote that he believed Hildrum’s claims that he’d sought political assistance were “groundless.” He also wrote that he had taken up his problem with the ministry’s communications department, both with Hildrum and her successor, Kulild. He said all of his dissatisfaction with the department was tied to the time before Kulild took over. As for the conflict over his use of a Mercedes, Solvik-Olsen conceded that a ministry employee got the impression that the price for using the Mercedes “wouldn’t be so high” because its use on the road trip would provide “fine promotion of a new Merdedes model.” Solvik-Olsen wrote that he also reacted badly to that and insisted that his ministry be charged market price for use of the car.

Claims denied
Neither Solvik-Olsen nor his political adviser from the Progress Party, Reynir Johannesson, would comment on Storli’s most recent claims in DN on Thursday. Villa Kulild, Storli’s boss who fired her on Solvik-Olsen’s request, sent a message to DN distancing herself entirely from Storli’s claims. DN reported that Kulild wrote: “I don’t recognize anything in Storli’s version of events,” with no further detail.

Now it’s up to the parliamentary committee to determine whether Solvik-Olsen has overstepped his bounds as government minister. A solid majority on the committee insisted on an explanation from Solvik-Olsen, over the objections of both its Progress Party and Conservative Party members.

“Our job is to learn whether political arguments have been used to reassign the leader of the communications department, and we need to chart the minister’s partipation in the process,” Martin Kolberg, the committee’s leader from the opposition Labour Party, told DN. Hans Fredrik Grøvan of the Christian Democrats, which is one of the government’s own support parties, also said it was “important to get to the principle in this case: whether political pressure was exerted against the professional leadership.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund