Ministry Fights Move to Force Transparency on Local Israeli Governments

'We have to stop regarding local governments as ex-territorial and include them in the concept of government transparency,' Tel Aviv council member says.

Arye Dery faces the camera during a meeting, October 2015.
Alex Kolomoisky

The Interior Ministry is resisting a move to increase oversight and transparency in the local authorities by putting them under the supervision of the Justice Ministry’s Freedom of Information unit.

The unit is responsible for instructing those agencies subordinate to it about implementation of the Freedom of Information Law; to compile information on the issue and produce an annual report; to operate a website; to help the public file Freedom of Information requests; and to deal with complaints about officials who do not respond to them.

Correspondence between MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) and the office of Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked on imposing Freedom of Information procedures on local authorities shows that while Shaked supports this, the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for local government, objects.

“Recognizing the necessity of the matter, the minister’s position is to broaden the authority of said unit, while contacting the Interior Ministry to formulate an agreed solution,” Shaked’s office said. “As of now the Interior Ministry objects to expanding the unit’s authority to include local government.”

The Interior Ministry’s legal adviser, Yehuda Zameret, responded to Zandberg in a letter, saying, “We do not see a reason to establish another body to oversee the activities of local government, taking into account the trend to delegate powers to the local governments and the government trend toward reduced regulation.”

Zameret added that the Freedom of Information Unit, “does not have the required authority with regard to the local governments,” and that during a discussion on governmental integrity, the local authorities’ position was “to object to imposing the unit’s authority on local government.”

In response, Zandberg said, “I’m saddened that the Interior Ministry headed by [Arye] Dery continues to stymie the plan and is essentially blocking the transparency revolution in local government with his body. I call on Minister Dery to reconsider and join the initiative.”

The Freedom of Information Law states that every resident has the right to contact any public agency covered by the law and request information, meaning any data that the agency has a hard copy of – written, printed, photographed and the like – without having to explain why he wants the information. Upon paying a fee, the information is supposed to be supplied within 30 days of when the request is made, and if the agency refuses to supply it, it must explain why by referring to the section of the law under which it is refusing, so that the refusal can be challenged in court.

A public agency can refuse an information request when responding would require an unreasonable allocation of resources; when the information was produced or received more than seven years before the request is being made and there would be real difficulty locating it; or when the agency simply doesn’t have the information. It can also refuse to reveal information that could harm state security, violate someone’s privacy, or if other laws forbid making the information public.

According to the unit, in 2015 there were 6,500 requests made for information. The law has served journalists and social advocacy organizations and has led to a wide range of revelations, ranging from the diaries of public figures, the lists of cases that judges refuse to hear due to conflicts of interest, the outlays of the Prime Minister’s Residence and the internal procedures of the police investigations division.

Mickey Gitzin, a member of the Tel Aviv City Council who is working with Zandberg to subordinate local governments to this framework, said, “Because there is no oversight, the Freedom of Information Law is not effective in the local authorities. If they feel like cooperating with Freedom of Information requests, they do, and if they don’t feel like it they just ignore them.

“In general, we have to stop regarding local governments as ex-territorial and include them in the concept of government transparency,” he continued. “The fact that billions of shekels of public funds are not subordinate to the laws of transparency and freedom of information is a scandal and facilitates public corruption.”