Eilat chat - Moti Milrod - January 2012
Shoham Local Council head Gil Livne, left, and Ramat Negev Council Head Shmuel Rifman enjoying the sun in Eilat on Saturday. Photo by Moti Milrod
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When the heads of the Union of Local Authorities (ULA) meet today, they are expected to announce a strike for Monday. What they won't announce is that they spent the weekend enjoying life in Eilat at the Hilton Queen of Sheba hotel, following a brief board of directors' meeting of a ULA affiliate.

The affiliate is a for-profit corporation that purchases billions of shekels worth of municipal services in bulk, such as security services and trash removal. The ULA has a 90 percent stake in the company, which is called Local Government Economic Services. The remaining 10 percent is held by the Regional Council Center, a nonprofit representing the country's regional councils and chaired by Shmuel Rifman, also the head of the Ramat Hanegev regional council. LGES's financial reports are not a matter of public record, but the ULA noted that it is common for entities to hold annual conferences and in the case of the LGES, it was done in the off-season in an effort to minimize costs.

Many local authorities are in serious financial straits and are operating under the terms of financial recovery plans. Every year, the ULA complains that the state is not adequately funding local municipal operations. ULA chairman Shlomo Buhbut, who was one of those who attended the Eilat conference, is expected to announce an all-out strike by the local authorities beginning tomorrow unless there are new developments.

If the strike goes ahead, garbage will not be collected (at least in locations where it is carried out by municipal employees ), the staff of local authorities will not meet the public, and social welfare services will not be provided.

The ULA says it has called on teachers employed by the local authorities not to show up for work, but the Israel Teachers Union has stated that the teachers will be working. Security guards would be ordered not to report to work, however, including those working for privatized firms. It is also expected to affect transportation for children attending special education and maintenance workers.

The Eilat meeting was the initiative of Shaul Mizrahi, the chairman of Local Government Economic Services, who denied that the local authorities were paying for the weekend. He also said the conference delegates paid for their spouses' expenses. The company's board of directors is made up of local mayors and council heads. They and their spouses were invited to Eilat, along with ten staff members of Local Government Economic Services, including LGES's comptroller. Their meeting, on Thursday, lasted a few hours and was the only professional session held over the three-day Eilat conference. The board meeting was followed by dinner and a sing-along program.

The following morning, after breakfast, about 50 members of the group boarded a bus for a visit to the Dolphin Reef Eilat. An area where visitors learn relaxation techniques and listen to underwater music was closed to the public for four hours so that it could be placed at the disposal of the delegation. The visitors were also offered massages, a barbecue and an open bar. Members of the delegation spent the evening sitting in the Hilton lobby.

Mizrahi was appointed unpaid chairman of the company in 1998, but about ten years ago he assumed a more active position as chairman and began receiving the salary comparable to that of a government corporation chairman. He has been a linchpin in LGES's operations, serving for renewable five-year terms. Mizrahi came to Eilat for the weekend with his wife, son and daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren. He and his wife stayed in a suite equipped with a living room, bedroom and Jacuzzi. Mizrahi's son did not join him there and slept in a separate room, which Mizrahi said his son paid for himself.

Mizrahi noted that LGES has two corporate subsidiaries and explained the weekend's activities as follows: "All of us convened. We presented business plans for 2012 and summarized 2011. We also thought a little on Friday. We went to the Dolphin Reef and the women enjoyed it tremendously. I'm very happy that we could provide them with this pleasure."

"I'm the chairman of the company. I think it's my obligation to show appreciation to those same people. Our directors sit in directors' meetings pro bono [without a fee]. The strike is not connected to us. We are an economic firm, a profitable company that works. It's not a weekend. We came here for a directors' meeting. We sat here for four or five hours. We prepared business plans. We sat and worked. With all due respect, it's not the summer season. There is nothing to do in Eilat. I thought it was the best place and I very much enjoyed the fact that I can talk to them, sit and meet the wives and the families," he said.

Although Mizrahi refused to disclose the cost of the weekend to his company, standard rooms at the Hilton Eilat, including meals at half board, generally run about NIS 1,400 per night. Most of those attending the weekend spent two nights. There would also probably have been additional costs for airfare to Eilat as well as for the group of about 50 people who attended the event at the Dolphin Reef.

"There was a meeting of families from Local Government Economic Services," Mizrahi said. "The [local] authorities are not paying for this. I am paying for this. For me and a large portion of the [local] authority heads, it's not a great pleasure to be here."

Shmuel Rifman added that the weekend appeared to be "within the bounds of what is reasonable," but acknowledged that others may view the event differently.

About two years ago, Mizrahi was arrested on suspicion of favoring certain suppliers in exchange for bribes. The prosecutor's office is currently considering whether to indict him.

Read this article in Hebrew