The toughest job in town

Chemi Doron, a Likidnik, is the Jewish mayor of Taiba, Israel's third largest Arab city.

May 27, 2009 16:33
The toughest job in town

Chemi Doron 88 248. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Plagued by empty municipal coffers, violent crime and political cronyism, Taiba is a mess. But that, says Chemi Doron, the town's second consecutive court-appointed Jewish mayor, means there is nowhere to go but up With a population of approximately 37,000, Taiba is the third largest Arab city in Israel. Located in central Israel, it is an old city characterized by striking contrasts between traditional, religious and modern; wealthy and poor; good and bad. A walk through old neighborhoods takes one down narrow roads. Old houses are built so close to each other that they share walls. The new areas boast mansions that can compete with homes in the wealthiest cities in Israel. If one turns a blind eye to certain imperfections, the city might seem full of potential. It has antiquities, thriving businesses, traditional coffee shops and a winning soccer team. Many prominent professionals, including Knesset members, doctors, lawyers and pharmacists, have emerged from Taiba. The city, however, has gone awry and has drifted away from the traditions and values of previous generations. Over the years, it has been plagued by constant social and financial problems. The city is composed of two large extended families, and municipal elections are centered around these families rather than on political parties, opening the door to inequality within the municipality. Favors and promises in exchange for votes allow relations of the winning candidate to be at an advantage. The losing clan tends to be shunned from municipal jobs and other benefits. Residents keep hoping that the situation in their city will improve, but have been disappointed year after year. Corruption and mismanagement have left Taiba bankrupt and in disarray. Disillusioned voters expect municipal leaders to remain loyal to their family members (even if it is not to the city's benefit), while even good-to-do residents are hesitant to pay taxes because of their fear that the money will be used improperly. In addition, high crime rates and a lack of a police presence have caused fear, hopelessness and despair among the residents. Theaters, clubs, libraries and shopping centers do not exist, leaving the city's children bored and wandering the streets. While many locals have tried to compensate for the municipality's ineffectiveness by finding education and entertainment elsewhere, others have succumbed to a sense of apathy. At the end of 2007, the Interior Ministry stepped in and appointed an Israeli Jew, Shlomo Tuizer, as mayor. The city's problems continued, and Tuizer was replaced. Chemi Doron, 52, from Rishon Lezion, has been serving as mayor since September 2008. A member of the Likud, Doron has been active in politics since 1993. Sitting at his desk, with the national and city flags behind him, Doron welcomed me with a polite apology for starting the interview a few minutes late. Upon establishing that his Arabic and my Hebrew are equally poor, we conducted the interview in English, which he speaks fluently. He is a friendly man, eager to talk about his job, the municipal problems that he faces, and the huge task that has been placed before him. Chemi Doron is a man with a mission. Tell me about yourself. It's a long story. I was born in Israel. I am a fifth-generation Israeli, and I live in Rishon Lezion. I have a BA and MA in law, with a specialization in municipal(ity) law. I came to politics from a business background. I spent 25 years in the insurance business, and during that time I spent 10 years as a city council member. For three and a half years I was the deputy speaker of the Knesset, and I was a member of several Knesset committees. In 2006 I left the Knesset, and from 2006 to 2007 I taught Beduin students at Ben-Gurion University how to be members of city councils. How is it that you became the mayor of Taiba? [Interior Minister Meir] Sheetrit brought me to Taiba, although we are from different parties. He told me that this was a Zionist mission. The acting mayor was here only one day a week, and the situation of the city required that a mayor be present all the time, and committed to the city 100 percent. What was the situation of Taiba when you arrived? Of the 260 Israeli cities, about 39 have court-appointed mayors. But Taiba is different from any other city. It is unique because it is under Chapter 11 (bankruptcy). There are NIS 1 billion in claims against the municipality, and the people of the city owe the municipality NIS 200 million. When I was appointed, some advancement had been made and now I'm trying to [usher in] another era. How have Taiba's residents responded to you? There are many good people in Taiba. I have been able to talk to all kinds of people who want to make, and are looking for, a change. The young people want to have a good life. They want and deserve it. They want their kids to have places to go. Now, they have to take their kids to the parks in the Jewish sector to play or for entertainment. Most welcomed a change here, and they already feel and see some of the changes, like cleaner streets, some fixed roads; and we are building a junior high school which will open in September. When I get good responses from the residents, it encourages me to make demands on the government. What do you have to say to those who are not pleased with your appointment? Most of them are politicians who want to be in the city hall. It's best to have an elected mayor and elected city hall, but those who were sitting here caused the problems we now face. I say that people should be patient. We are facing a difficult situation, especially with the government budget. I am doing everything in my power. The town's success depends on the help of the people. They have to take responsibility and put in an effort. There are a few things I would like you to comment on. Let's start with crime. The municipality doesn't deal with crime. We do not have the power to do that. It is not possible for city hall to handle something like that. The police answer to the government. We can put in a request for police presence. We do deal with the consequences of the crimes, like the junkies and the needles they leave in the schoolyards, and the broken families. Taking into consideration that Taiba has such a high murder rate, and most of the murders are unsolved, shouldn't there be police in the city? Have you requested a police presence in Taiba? What about traffic police? I get reports from the police about unusual things like shootings and murders. There is less crime in Taiba now compared to in the past, but it is generally rising in other places. I have asked the police to be present here but they do not have enough power to put policemen on every street. When traffic signs are put in the city, then there will be traffic police. The schools: I have told the head of the Education Department that I do not want any child under the age of 18 in the street. My responsibility is to the students from Taiba, not the kids from Tira or Kalansuwa, who sometimes come here. I will find a place and a school for every child from Taiba. But one problem is that the parents do not register their kids on time. We need the cooperation of the citizens. Just last month we started a national program run by the government for kids at risk. It's for elementary-school kids, and addresses kids who drop out. Social workers are dealing with them. What about after-school clubs? Because of the city's financial problems, we are not in a position to add clubs. Informal education is very important. Kids who stay in the street will be in bad places. The Mifal Hapayis has all kinds of activities, and the community center will open in July. But the problem is there is no money to invest in activities. The budget: Running a municipality is not like running a company. With a municipality, you give and do not get in return. In the Arab sector it's difficult because businessmen are not willing to invest in the towns, and with the political situation as it is, not many Jews want to invest, either. So it's a Catch-22. When the citizens pay their taxes according to the law, the money goes directly back to the city. In return, there is a bonus from the government to match what we collect in taxes. Most of the current tax collection is outstanding taxes from previous years. There has been a huge improvement in collections, but it's easy to climb from zero! What have you accomplished so far? We are going to open four new playgrounds and finish the community center that was started years ago. We have started building a new school, which will open in September. We are working on the roads, and the city is cleaner. What are your long-term goals? All of the Arab sector is watching Taiba. I hope it will be a pilot for the whole country, not just for the Arab sector, but also for the Jewish sector. It is risky and complicated but it is important to me to succeed. It can influence the whole country. Do you feel that there is a difference in how the Arab and Jewish towns are dealt with? I can't speak in general, but Taiba didn't get all that it needs. The person who is elected should be considered to be the mayor of everyone, not only of one family. Things should be equal. The local regime and the government regime did not pay attention to the Arab sector, so yes, there was discrimination. Sheetrit is very aware of the problems of the Arab sector and is addressing them. Has being in Taiba changed your perception - personally or politically - of the situation in the Arab sector? When I enter the city, I leave politics out. Citizens of Israel are entitled to all the rights that Israel has to offer. This is our city. I feel that I belong here. Do you have any regrets? I have no regrets; on the contrary. This is one of the huge challenges I have faced in my professional life. I am frustrated because of the Chapter 11. Name one thing that is important for you to accomplish. The sewer infrastructure. There shouldn't be a single building not connected to the sewer. But we need NIS 100 to 150 million for this project. If you could have one wish, one thing that you could change, add or accomplish, what would it be? I have a vision. People say that I am a dreamer. My vision is that in five years Taiba will be different. People in Taiba and all over will feel it. I am working to put Taiba on the map of tourism. It will help the economy of the city. Jews will shop here, as they do in Tira. Arabs and Jews are afraid to come to Taiba because of the crime. We have requested that the name of the police station be changed. It serves the whole area, so why should it be called "Taiba Police Station?" I want people to say that they are proud of Taiba.

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