'The machinations within the municipalities don't make for sexy headlines," says Hemi (Nehemia) Doron, the head of the Path to Proper Governance Movement, a new non-parliamentary organization he founded to combat local authority corruption. The former Shinui MK ended his term in the 16th Knesset by leaving the party due to "ideological differences." Which is perhaps not surprising, considering that the 51-year-old Rishon Lezion resident with a law degree hailed from the Likud.
More surprising is that the single-termer managed to get seven laws passed during his tenure - five of them relating to local authorities. (Two examples are the requirements that every municipality have an education committee and that every mayor and deputy mayor has to declare his personal assets.)
But Doron, an insurance company owner and 10-year member of Rishon's city council, says he doesn't want to talk about the past or party politics. Particularly since he wants his movement - which he says he was persuaded to establish by attorney Ehud Stener, who does all of its work pro bono - to remain apolitical.
"It's still in diapers," says Doron, explaining that he can afford at this stage in his life to "take a break to focus on getting the movement running, as well as on other things that interest me," among them teaching a course on municipal government at Ben-Gurion University.
Why the "non-sexy" subject of local authorities is something he is so passionate about has to do with his own personal "bitter experiences" during his decade of city council service. Furthermore, he suggests, "Serious corruption begins at the bottom."
In an hour-long interview in Hebrew, Doron paints a grim picture of the practices he hopes to rectify through a combination of exposure and litigation. No wonder, then, that he so wholeheartedly champions the crusade and practices of State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss.
The focus of your political life - and the movement you have established - has been clean governance and proper legal procedure in the local authorities and municipalities. Extrapolating from that, how do you view the conflict between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss? Is Olmert trying to silence Lindenstrauss, or has Lindenstrauss been overstepping his own bounds?
Lindenstrauss has been acting completely within the framework of the authority vested in him by the law. The main difference between him and his predecessors is that he changed the rules of the game. Up until now, the state comptroller has usually been a retired Supreme Court justice who would examine material from a historical perspective, and then submit a big fat report five years after taking the position. This would be done amid great fanfare. He would submit the report to the Knesset speaker, and they'd have their photos taken holding it and smiling. And the report would wind up on some shelf, in the best case. In the worst case, it would end up in the garbage.
Lindenstrauss changed all that. Instead of following in his predecessors' footsteps, he decided he would examine events and situations in real time - and publish smaller reports in spurts - so that ills could be rectified. This is what a state comptroller should be doing. Of course, he'll also prepare a comprehensive report in the end, but in the meantime, he's tackling the issues while they're happening.
According to the law, the state comptroller determines his own work methods. Nobody can tell him what to investigate and what not to. But Olmert is trying to do just that.
Can the government really function in such an atmosphere? Given the pressure of a country at war, is it wise to bombard the public with allegations against its leaders every five minutes? And is it even ethical for Lindenstrauss to keep leaking his findings to the press?
You of all people should know that when the media want to get hold of a piece of information, they do. Lindenstrauss doesn't leak to the press, though it's possible that information occasionally trickles out of his office. It's inevitable. I mean, the minute one of his representatives is seen at the office of this official or that, everybody immediately knows something is up. And that's how it reaches the media.
Finally a comptroller has come along who wants to fight corruption at the government level - someone with the balls to stand on principle. And he bites! Up until now, everybody got used to having "poodles" in that job, and they thought they were getting another one. Instead, what they got was a rottweiler. Which is not only fine, it's exactly what a country like this needs.
Look what has been happening in our system. Anybody who exposes corruption gets fired and/or boycotted from getting another job. Just look at Rafi Rotem! [Rotem was an employee of the Tax Authority's department of investigations, who in 2003 exposed corrupt procedures at his office, then requested of state comptroller Eliezer Goldberg that he give an order that would prevent his being fired, demoted or having his salary lowered for his "whistle-blowing." Goldberg rejected the request.] He can't get a job, because he's labelled a troublemaker for "betraying the values of the organization."
Can you imagine? Has everybody gone mad?
And then there's the case of [accountant] Maya Koch, who recently passed away. She was fired from Tnuva [in 1985] after exposing corruption in the company. [Not only was she fired, but Tnuva had the Tel Aviv district psychiatrist declare her mentally ill. She sued Tnuva, to prove her mental health and the corruption she had uncovered, and won compensation.]
Isn't that against the law?
Nu, really! Would you like me to show you how many laws the government of Israel violates?
And the courts do nothing about it?
It's problematic, because let's say a person gets fired for exposing corruption and he goes to labor court. If he wins his case, the court orders the employer to take him back. What good is that? The person goes back to work, and his position there is totally undermined. He work conditions are changed. He's completely isolated. They put him in an office by himself, without a computer.
We're living in a country whose motto has always been: "Kill the messenger."
So, maybe instead of a rottweiler, what we need is a constitution?
That wouldn't make any difference. A constitution doesn't prevent people from breaking the law. Furthermore, the reason there isn't a constitution is because the government isn't really interested in having one.
Because a constitution provides rights, while the law demands duties. In Israel, the leadership prefers to leave rights vague. Duties and requirements are clear - they're written in the law. It's very convenient for the government not to have rights be clear and defined - the way they are in the United States.
So, along came the Supreme Court, in the midst of the so-called constitutional revolution, and said, "Part of the basic laws is actually a constitution." For example, the freedom of speech act. But, the government has no real interest in creating a constitution. And as long as Israel goes by religious laws, such as those relating to marriage and divorce, there's no chance of there being one. As long as the haredim have such power, it won't happen.
Now, I am in favor of a constitution; I am in favor of a constitution for a Jewish state. I have no problem with its determining that Yom Kippur, for example, is a day off. But I don't want to have a situation in which I have no choice about my wedding.
What you're saying sounds kind of paradoxical, given that Israel is a state in which "everything is judicable." It is a country known even better for the power of its courts than of its religious institutions.
That's not true. I am in the process of writing a seminar paper for my master's degree in law on the legal status of the rotation agreements in the local authorities. There are rotation agreements - according to which candidates on municipal lists who don't get into office rotate halfway through the term - yet nobody abides by them. These are political agreements. Until 1995, political agreements could not be judicated by the courts. It is because of the rotation agreements that weren't being honored that this was changed. [Former Supreme Court president] Aharon Barak says that his statement, "Everything is judicable" will haunt him for the rest of his life. But it came as a result of the rotation agreements.
Nevertheless, it doesn't mean that it's possible to enforce the court's judgment. In fact, the court has not enforced any of its rulings on these political agreements. But that's not its job anyway.
Why do the local authorities interest you so much? Are they some kind of microcosm of the government?
No. My thesis is that serious corruption begins at the bottom. And the local authorities are completely run by the clout of rich "criminals" who arrive in their BMWs at mayors' offices, and offer political support in the next elections, in exchange for benefits worth billions.
Is that common?
Very. And it's much worse than anything that's going on in the Tax Authority, but tax scandals make for sexier headlines.
A classic example of something that was taken little notice of, while the Tax Authority scandal was erupting, is the issue of [furniture chain] Ikea and land in Rishon Lezion. Ikea bought land to set up a store there and declared its intended use was industrial. The price of land intended for industrial use is significantly lower than that of land intended for commercial use. The day after Ikea won the tender, it submitted an exception request to use the land for commercial purposes for a period of 15 years.
So what? Ikea's request could have been turned down, couldn't it?
Turned down by whom? This was all planned in advance. The proof of this is that suddenly, the Rishon Lezion city council added a new clause to its arnona [property tax] requirements, according to which businesses with an area larger than 21,000 square meters will receive a 66 percent discount in their arnona. There is only one business that fits this description in Rishon - one - and that's Ikea.
Are you saying that the mayor has an ulterior motive?
I'm not going to accuse anyone of anything here. But I'll tell you what such a mayor claims. He claims that a business of such magnitude boosts the development of the city.
Well, that's true, isn't it?
No. Who are the people working in places like that? Those who earn minimum wage. This is the population you want to encourage to move to your city - while opposed to bringing hi-tech there? That's the kind of city you want?
Hold on. Ikea is extremely popular. Are you saying that Rishon wouldn't benefit from having people flock there from all over to shop?
Benefit in what way? Look, if Ikea receives a discount in arnona of $1 million per year, in 15 years, that amounts to $15 million. Do you know what can be done with $15 million in the schools, for example? And do you think the workers at Ikea are going to be from Rishon? Well, they won't be. Moreover, all the merchants in the city are saying that it will wipe them out.
Small businesses always say that when a commercial giant or shopping mall crops up in their vicinity.
But in this case, Rishon is already a city of shopping malls. And, aside from Canion Hazahav, all the others failed. You can't have an excess of commercial areas.
OK, so what is the mayor's interest in having Ikea there?
Good question. I won't tell you what my opinion is, because I don't want to be sued for libel.
But you are saying that the facts in this case warrant looking into.
Of course. This is what our movement is all about. We're encouraging city council members to report such things. They give us the material, and we give them the backing. If they need to go to court, for example, we'll provide them with pro bono legal assistance.
Isn't it true that the real problem with the local authorities is that the government has too much power and financial control over them - which is why they have been in such terrible shape and unable to pay their employees?
That's a big lie. The real problem is that most mayors pour money into unnecessary grandiose projects in order to make themselves look good. This is also a political problem. A mayor is elected for a five-year term. So, what's he going to do? Build a concert hall to make an impression by the next elections - or invest in education, which will only become apparent in 20 years? The average politician opts for the concert hall.
But the residents of a city are the ones who vote. Maybe they want a concert hall. Are you saying they don't know what they're getting when they reelect their mayor?
We conducted a survey called "Public Faith in Local Government." According to this survey, 93 percent of the public believes that local government does not act in good faith, but rather operates in the interest of the rich. In other words, the public thinks that everybody is corrupt, so it doesn't matter who wins the municipal elections. And what does this result in? A low voter turnout on Election Day - a mere 35%. And the lower the voter turnout, the greater the guarantee of victory for the incumbent, whose own people are certainly coming out to vote for him. The day the public punishes corrupt mayors who are acting against its interests is the day when mayors will start running their cities differently.
Now, not all mayors are corrupt, which shows in their cities. I'm not referring to cities that have more attractive grass and flowers; I'm talking about the essentials, such as social programs. Bat Yam, for example, has undergone a revolutionary transformation over the last three years, due to a vast improvement in its education. Or Akiva is another wonderful example. Families want to live where there is good education for their children. Take Ra'anana, Kfar Saba, Kfar Shmaryahu, Omer...
One could argue that the places you just named have good schools because of the level of the pupils, not the education. Does the school make the population or does the population make the school?
That's like asking whether a person makes a job or a job makes a person.
When Moshe Dayan was defense minister, for example, the Defense Ministry became the most important ministry. When he became foreign minister, suddenly the Foreign Ministry became the most important one. In my opinion, it's the man who makes the job.
Which is why I suggested that it's the kids who make the school.
No, because when you have places where you don't invest your budget in education, you see the picture.
What picture are you talking about? Matriculation scores?
Yes. And the trouble with most mayors is that they don't think or act like businessmen - which is to say that if they fail, it's not their own money at stake.
Speaking of money, what was behind the whole scandal of municipal workers not being paid their salaries for months on end?
That was the result of a number of factors. One was a lack of proper management. It's not that the municipalities didn't have money. Believe me, the mayors and their deputies received their salaries. It was only the lower ranks who didn't get paid. It was a cynical exploitation of their workers on the part of the mayors. It went like this: Let's suppose a mayor had in his coffers NIS 10 million. From that sum he had to fork out NIS 20 million - NIS 10 million to suppliers and NIS 10 million to the municipal workers. He preferred to take the money and give it to the suppliers. Why? Because, if he didn't pay a supplier and the supplier sued him, that wouldn't make headlines. But, if he didn't pay the workers and claimed that it was because the government wasn't giving him money, that would look very good on TV and pressure the government to solve the problem by giving him money.
Didn't the workers understand this?
Some did. But what were they going to do - kill the mayor, their employer? Which brings us right back to the discussion about the state comptroller and what happens to whistle-blowers.
Are you not, then, acting like a private comptroller?
No. Our aim is not to investigate anybody. It's to reach an understanding with mayors and correct ills. If that doesn't work, the next step is to turn to the Interior Ministry. If that doesn't work, we'll go to court.
Are there any cases of bad management in municipalities that have nothing to do with corruption, but are merely due to a lack of managerial skills? Can they be helped the way someone in a business needs to be helped to run it with efficiency?
Yes. There are mayors who are simply incapable of managing their budgets. But then, they have no business being mayors.
What is the story behind the arnona issue in Yavne?
When Meir Sheetrit was mayor of Yavne, he encouraged residents to add basements to their homes by promising them that they would not be charged arnona for the extra space. In 1999, suddenly, the residents who had built basements were told they had to pay extra arnona - and both the interior minister and the finance minister concurred.
Sheetrit came out in their defense, saying he had made a commitment. A few days ago, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the residents, and ordered that all the people who had been paying extra since 1999 be reimbursed.
What does arnona actually fund?
Arnona is a tax on your property the way income tax is a tax on your income. It is not earmarked for anything specific; it is for the municipality's general use, unlike other kinds of fees, like those for building roads or paying for licenses. Therefore, you don't receive anything specific in return for it. So, for example, if tomorrow morning the garbage in your neighborhood isn't collected, you can't refuse to pay your arnona.
Why is it so high in some cities and neighborhoods and less in others?
One of the problems is that there is no law determining a uniform measuring system. Every city decides for itself how it wants to measure the area of a house or an apartment. Some go according to "net-net" - inside the house, wall-to-wall. Others measure it by "net-gross" - wall-to-wall plus the walls inside each room. Others do it by "gross-gross" - including the outside wall, which adds a lot more.
Israel is a small country with many municipalities, some of which seem unnecessary, given their geographical locations. Suburbs of Tel Aviv, for example. Can't they be incorporated into a single umbrella local authority?
No doubt. If the uniting of local authorities were to be carried out according to the plan [former finance minister Binyamin] Netanyahu tried to implement in 2003, it would save NIS 2 billion per year, according to the Treasury. Which, ironically, is exactly the sum lacking in the local authorities right now. There is no justification for a country with a population of 7 million to have 260 municipalities. It's insane.