Text size

When democracy is a flop, what's left?

Some of Israel's ultra-Orthodox local councils have among the poorest households in Israel. Yet they manage to collect municipal tax debts at an impressive rate.

Asking one of them how it did it, elicited the following candid response: the Ministry of Interior Affairs appointed it an external treasurer. "They stuck us with some guy from the National Religious Party who know nothing about being a treasurer. He didn't care about anything, except collecting debts."

What that frank reply failed to mention, but did imply, is that if the job hadn't been manned by " some guy from the National Religious Party who know nothing about being a treasurer", the debt wouldn't have been collected.

Put otherwise, if the treasurer had been a city insider, then considerations of rabbinical affiliations would have stopped him from collecting debt effectively.

Book-keepers that the ministry appointed to cities in trouble point at this sort of thing again and again. They tell how the mayors of the towns they're overseeing beg them to appoint external treasurers, to collect the debt for them, because they can't do it.

In other words, the cities are begging the Interior Ministry to appoint a "bad clerk" to do the dirty work of collecting debt , relieving them of the duty to force through unpopular steps.

It is not supposed to be that way. The local authorities are managed by representatives elected by the people to run the city. It is the most direct form of democracy, and is supposed to be the most efficient. A mayor who runs his city well, will get reelected. A mayor who reduces his city to poverty, unable to pay its bills and provide services, won't get reelected. That is the mechanism of the free market. Every four years the incumbents should get their just deserts.

But the model of local direct democracy has not proven itself. The facts are that time after time, unworthy candidates are elected, who reduce the cities under their control to ruin. Some have no managerial experience, a fact that their supporters evidently aren't considering. Others may have experience, but they use it to advance their own interests at the expense of the public, yet again somehow the voters aren't considering that.

There are any number of examples. Small towns, mainly Arab and religious ones, turn into virtual unions; the local authority seems to feel that its main function is to provide as many jobs as possible to as many cronies as possible, and never mind the resultant inefficiency and deficits.

In other cases, cities deep in the red entered into expensive contracts with service providers, then did not defend themselves when sued by the supplier. When that happens, the court will order the city to pay up, despite liens on its accounts; and thus suppliers manage to milk cities for money even when their bank accounts are empty.

If the public of voters had the proper legal and economic tools, and could understand that a conspiracy was shaped under their noses, to extract money from a bankrupt city for a private-market supplier - it would probably send the mayor home. But the people don't have such tools, or they're on the take: the test of public opinion simply fails to work.

There is no choice but to admit that there are cases in which democracy doesn't work. It needs mechanisms to shore it up.

For instance, small local authorities should be consolidated, so the vote for council leaders is not colored by my clan against your clan, just considerations of the public good.

Democracy also needs a strong regulator to help inexperienced city leaders, and to confront bad ones, which is not easy when the regulator is supposed to bend an elected representative. The situation today shows that the regulator, namely the ministry, is not doing its job. That is not surprising, as the ministry is political and so are the local authorities. But after the third or fourth meltdown in as many years, it's time to reach conclusions. City management in Israel will remain a disaster until subjected to apolitical supervision. One has to wonder if that will ever happen.