This time there were reactions, but not the ones Danckert had hoped for. An airport spokesman rejected his comments, calling them "silly gossip." Wowereit characterized Danckert's position as "irresponsible."
In early January 2011, Danckert contacted Platzeck directly. The two Social Democrats met at a New Year's reception in Teltow, a town on the southern outskirts of Berlin.
"Matthias, all of this is going to be much more expensive and take longer than you think," Danckert remembers having said to the Brandenburg governor.
"If I were in his place, I would been electrified," says the lawmaker today. "I would have asked: 'How do you know this? With whom can I discuss the problems at the airport?'" But Platzeck chose not to heed Danckert's warnings. Instead, he placed his trust in Körtgen, the chief planner, who insisted that he had the situation under control.
The opening date was approaching. To discuss the situation in Schönefeld, Wowereit and his fellow board members held a closed meeting at a Brandenburg hotel on Dec. 9, 2011. The hotel, Residenz am Motzener See, is in an idyllic lakeside location.
The location seemed to rub off on the attendees, who calmly discussed a few organizational issues prior to the official opening six months down the road. Waste-disposal contracts were to be awarded, as was the contract for cleaning the outside of the building, and a 50-square-meter (538-square-foot) plot of land needed to be sold. The opening party, complete with a "VIP event," was also on the agenda.
According to the minutes, the supervisory board, almost as an aside, acknowledged statements by Körtgens "that the June 3, 2012 launch date is still realistic." Körtgens also gave the all-clear signal for the "fire safety issues that were recently raised." In his report, he wrote: "The solutions that were developed are technically correct. The only thing missing is the official permit."
There is no mention in the minutes of any prolonged discussion of the issue. Wowereit seemed satisfied, saying: "The supervisory board acknowledges the report. The chairman thanks everyone involved for the good work done so far." The meeting ended at 5 p.m.
The agency that was ultimately supposed to affix its stamp of approval to the project is located in Lübben, a town in the Spreewald region, southeast of Berlin. Wowereit and his partners would never have dreamed that a provincial agency would be able to stop them. But that was precisely what did happen.
Protecting His District
Stephan Loge is the head of the district authority in Lübben. He worked his way up as head of the buildings department, and he is proud of his people. He is also determined that nothing bad should happen to his administrative district, which includes the airport site.
He is still incensed today over something that Peter Ramsauer, a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), said in an interview in early summer. "Do you really believe that the building minister is about to deal with statements made by the press spokesman from some administrative district?" Ramsauer said derisively at the time.
As Loge sees it, the fact that the large construction site in Schönefeld became a laughing stock worldwide can be attributed to the arrogance and high-handedness of the politicians involved. "Again and again, we were made to feel the condescending attitudes of the powerful, especially those in Berlin," he said. Officials in the capital often voiced the concern that his agency might be in over its head.
But it appears that others were overwhelmed instead. On March 13, Loge had a member of his staff write, in a letter to Berlin: "Please do everything possible to ensure that the passenger terminal can be placed into service with the approved fire safety concepts." There was no response.
Their Heads in the Sand
Some 3,000 fire safety doors in the terminal and 1,300 smoke removal flaps were causing problems. As a temporary solution, Wowereit's airport managers proposed deploying 700 doormen at the terminal, a plan they called the "man-machine interface."
Loge still shakes his head today about the audacious idea. Under current regulations, 500 incident scenarios would have had to be tested to implement the plan. Nothing is going to come of that, the district administrator thought to himself.
On April 20, Wowereit chaired a supervisory board meeting in Schönefeld. Once again, he addressed the issue of selling tiny parcels of land. And, once again, the opening ceremony was on the agenda. For example, the board discussed the idea of giving each guest at the party a "voucher for a meal and a drink."
The 12-page minutes of the meeting contain only 12 lines addressing "measures to safeguard the startup of BER," including "final spurt measures" the supervisory board was supposed to approve. Problems with fire security and scheduling prior to the opening date remained vague.
But the head of the supervisory board knew all too well how explosive the issue was. A month earlier, Schwarz had urgently requested a meeting with Wowereit to discuss the "current problems relating to start-up." The meeting took place on March 30. Why didn't Wowereit follow up at the last supervisory board meeting before the planning opening date?
While the Berlin mayor was holding back, the district administrator in Lübben was heading toward a decision, although he was still missing some of the documents he needed for the approval process.
On May 6, Loge called operations head Körtgen at the airport to request the documents. When he was told that everything was on schedule, Loge was shocked. He issued an ultimatum two days later, saying that he couldn't guarantee the opening unless he received an "expert test plan" on the fire safety concept within 24 hours.
Wowereit's telephone range on the evening of May 6, a Sunday. It was Schwarz, who was calling from a crisis meeting at the airport site. The opening date was in jeopardy, the airport manager told the mayor.
When asked to come up with a solution to the problem, Wowereit responded with yet another act of helplessness. His airport managers had been desperately working on the fire safety system for weeks, but the supervisory board chairman believed that he could rescue the opening through official channels. "I offered to call the big bosses of the individual companies, if necessary, and ask them to send more manpower," says Wowereit, recalling his telephone conversation with Schwarz.
It was too late. On the next day, a Monday, Schwarz had to capitulate. Fire safety problems made an opening according to schedule impossible, he told the mayor. The next day Wowereit and Platzeck held a crisis conference to take responsibility for the humiliating breakdown.
Both men have thought long and hard about how it could have come to this. They are willing to take political responsibility, but they are also quick to point out the special role of a supervisory board.
"Its obligation is to supervise, which is what it did," says Wowereit spokesman Meng. "The management is responsible for adhering to deadlines and budgets." Platzeck's officials hold a similar view, saying that they want to focus on solving the problems. "Now the airport must be completed according to plan and in a credible manner," the state chancellery in Potsdam announced.
Confronting the Mayor
Lawmaker Danckert received an unexpected call in mid-May. "Well, you clairvoyant!" the caller said. It was Platzeck.
Danckert had had plenty of time to think in the meantime. He'd had a stroke and had been bedridden for some time, and he plans to leave the Bundestag next year. He no longer has to worry about hurting anyone's feelings.
"I'm no clairvoyant!" he replied to Platzeck. And then he explained to him how, in his view, a supervisory board has to act. He told Platzeck how he, Danckert, did it when he was the supervisory board chairman of an ailing meat company, Moksel, many years ago. "Once a week, sometimes two or three times, I was given a report by management," says Danckert. He brought in accountants to advise him, visited slaughterhouses and met with business partners in the meat industry. "Why weren't you and other members of the supervisory board more active?" Danckert asked Platzeck.
There it was again: the question of why politicians often run up against their limits when serving as construction project managers and members of supervisory boards. Their resources are easily overwhelmed by the complicated interplay of technical, financial and scheduling plans, in Berlin and in the rest of Germany alike. And heads of governments also lack the time to effectively manage and supervise a complex construction project.
Danckert agrees. "The failings of the supervisory board are obvious," he says. "The shareholders should have dismissed it long ago."
But how is that supposed to work, when the two representatives of the most important shareholders, Berlin's mayor and Brandenburg's governor, also hold the two top posts on the supervisory board? Should Wowereit and Platzeck dismiss themselves?
In late June, Danckert confronted Wowereit with the issue. The mayor had appeared before the Bundestag budget committee to explain the airport debacle. "What would you do with a supervisory board chairman who delivered that kind of a performance?" the parliamentarian asked the mayor. He didn't get an answer.
BY STEFAN BERG, MARKUS DEGGERICH, FRANK HORNIG AND ANDREAS WASSERMANN
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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