Who is really in control of the municipalities? The mayor? The prime minister? The finance minister? The normal answer should be the mayor, but that's the answer that suits a normal country, not Israel.
In Israel, mayors are elected directly on a personal level, so that they are fully accountable to the electorate, but they have no authority in the pivotal areas: The mayor doesn't set the local property tax (arnona), or the level of fines for infringements, or local traffic systems, and he has no local police power to enforce order and security in his city.
A mayor doesn't even have the power to decide on the location of a new traffic signal. And when he sees a motorcyclist ride on the sidewalk, he is powerless to do anything about it. The central government takes upon itself most of these issues, but then it doesn't have the accountability, and leaves the mayor to deal with matters of sewage, water and street cleaning. Even in the latter, the mayor doesn't have full say. His powers are less than that of the Environment Ministry. A local inspector is limited in the fine he can impose on any litter lout, while a ministry inspector can fine up to 10 times the amount, and more. Why?
I have written in this column, on two separate occasions, concerning Tel Aviv's transport problems. Apparently, all matters concerning the city's proposed subway are in the hands of the finance and transportation ministries, which set up the NTA to deal with the issue. Five years have gone by and no one has yet been chosen to construct the light rail system, and the date for submitting bids has been persistently postponed. They have plenty of time at the NTA. Their salaries will always be paid, so what's the rush? Irate citizens will go running to complain to the mayor in any case.
Ditto for congestion - that is traffic jams. The mayor cannot set a congestion charge on drivers entering the city or the central business district, like in London. Only the government can, but it doesn't do it. The authority, and hence the getting things done, that's all at the government's doorstep.
Down at the NTA, they have a great sense of humor. They are now asking Tel Aviv City Hall to finance the subway train, while the municipality has lashed out against the ministries for trying to get the track to run aboveground along central thoroughfare Ibn Gvirol Street.
So anyone who wants to free the Israeli economy, to add a degree of freedom and to encourage faster growth, should not settle for just economic reforms - important though they may be - but should also carry out a revolution in the division of responsibility between central and local government. Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should end the era of High Commissioner of Jerusalem, and give the authority to local mayors, or at least to those that run cities without state handouts, of which there are 18. Because you cannot assume responsibility without the authority.
But the politicians are in no hurry to give up their authority, because with it comes power, and too much of that leads to corruption. Today, when a mayor needs extra money he goes to the government, and he manages to get a meeting with a minister or his director general, who then says, "I'll sign this now for you to get the extra budget, no problem, it'll go straight through .. but maybe you could help me at the same time. You see, there's a problem at the synagogue in Neighborhood C - the roof leaks, and they've got no money for repairs. Oh, and by the way, I know someone - excellent fellow - who's been looking ages for a job. Could you help him out? Now, this has nothing to do with your funds request, which is being dealt with as I speak..."
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