The High Court of Justice ruled on Tuesday that Upper Nazareth Mayor Shimon Gapso and Ramat Hasharon Mayor Yitzhak Rochberger, both of whom have been charged with corruption, must step down from their posts, but did not block their seeking re-election next month, saying they could find no legal grounds for doing so.
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“From a public perspective, we are not comfortable with the two of them contending for mayor in the upcoming elections despite the indictments filed against them,” the justices wrote. “However, we could not see, from a legal perspective, a way to prevent such a candidacy.”
The ruling was by a 6-1 majority, with Court President Asher Grunis dissenting. The six justices — Miriam Naor, Edna Arbel, Esther Hayut, Zvi Zylbertal and Neal Hendel — wrote in their ruling that, “The decision by the Upper Nazareth City Council not to remove Mr. Gapso from his post is incompatible with the principles of upholding integrity and the rule of law. The conduct described in the indictment, constituting weighty administrative evidence, is inappropriate behavior. The [council’s] decision was patently unreasonable, particularly given that local elections are coming up and Gapso had announced his intention to seek another term as mayor.”
A section in the Local Authorities Law allows a city council to remove a mayor from office for inappropriate behavior, and thus the question that arose was whether indictments filed against Gapso and Rochberger are to be considered inappropriate behavior. However, the law states that a mayor must resign only if convicted of an offense involving moral turpitude.
In Ramat Hasharon the city council had not even convened to discuss whether to remove Rochberger, though four months have passed since he was charged. About this the court wrote that the decision not to meet was tantamount to a decision not to remove him, and their opinion about that was the same as expressed regarding Gapso.
The justices chose not to intervene in the question of whether a mayor facing criminal charges can run, but only if he can hold office. Since they determined that the answer to the latter question is negative, they were hinting that if either was re-elected, the city council would be required to convene and debate whether to remove him. “It goes without saying that any decision made would also be subject to judicial review,” the justice wrote.
The minority opinion held by Grunis stated that, as he had indicated in last week’s hearing, the petitions should be disallowed. He clarified that he while indeed believes someone facing the type of charges that Gapso and Rochberger are facing should both resign and not run again, “I must distinguish between the public perspective and the legal perspective. Since the forthcoming elections are to take place within a short time, there is no reason for the court to replace the voters in the local authorities in question.”
Two months ago, the High Court refused to issue a similar ruling in the case of Ramat Gan Mayor Zvi Bar, though the latter, after hearing forceful comments by Grunis about the inappropriateness of his candidacy, voluntary agreed to a compromise under which he would remain in office until the end of his term but drop his campaign for re-election. Though that compromise received the validity of a court ruling, it did not set any legal precedents.
In the absence of a clear ruling, a new wave of petitions flooded the High Court against Rochberger and Gapso, with the looming elections making a decision more urgent. The petitioners were the Ometz good-government group, Liran Silverman, Tzvi Tzemah and Aharon Assouline in the case of Rochberger; and the Movement for Quality Government and two Upper Nazareth city councilmen, Ze’ev Hartman and Ilya Rosenfeld, against Gapso.