Almost 10 months after he won the elections, Mayor Nir Barkat has fulfilled at least one major promise: Kikar Safra under his mayorship has undergone a dramatic change and has been transformed from a shtetl-like institution into an efficient, no-nonsense, hi-tech style administration.
Out are the cookies and soft drinks. In keeping with Barkat's health-conscious attitude, the counters in his large, renovated chambers sport a dish of freshly cut carrots, cucumbers and kohlrabi. On festive occasions, you might find some cherry tomatoes. There is no walking around, no small talk with the political echelon - wasting time is not held in high regard here. Meetings take place according to a strict schedule. In fact, this journalist was even politely informed that the scheduled meeting would be delayed by 15 minutes - a warning no one at Kikar Safra would have dreamed of issuing once upon a time, not even when the delay reached almost an hour.
Barkat is a management freak. Besides a certain amount of disdain for political game-playing, he believes in order, accountability, results and facts on the ground. Show him surveys, planning, programs and graphs, and you make his day. His own world is based and designed on hi-tech models, and he is unbelievably serious and dedicated. Since he has become mayor, his daily working hours have extended up to 18 and sometimes more.
Functionality, efficiency, maximization of the means at his disposal are key words, and all the staff members surrounding him fit into this model: young, modern, serious, focused. None of them belongs to the different political camps. In the new, large but so efficiently displayed chambers, there is no doubt that all the staff's primary loyalty is to Barkat.
You have been in the job for less than 10 months, but due to the changes you have introduced here, both on the physical and the content levels, this is a totally different municipality from the one you inherited.
You're right, it's not only a change in the way things look or sound, it is first and foremost a totally different way of working. We deal with economic development, upgrading the education system and a lot of additional issues, but using a totally different approach, whether it is the transportation network, the cleaning, etc.[...] We prepare our plans for the coming year based on realistic goals. The local budget, the special development budget, the funding - everything is taken into consideration together at the beginning of the year.
There will no longer be situations in which the budgets for projects are only disclosed at the end of the year. Everyone will know right from the beginning of the year what he has or hasn't been allocated and work accordingly. We are completely changing the whole organization. The work will be done in total synchronization with all the parameters and the changing factors: budgets, plans, programming.
This is indeed very impressive. But is it really a different municipality?
Yes, absolutely. No more business under the table, no more opacity - transparency for me is not just a word. Look at what is happening among the city committees: their debates are open to the public, they work, they meet regularly, they reach conclusions, decisions, there is a professional follow-up - it's working. Take for example the city's board. In the past, this very important committee used to meet barely twice a year. Now we meet twice a month. We decide on an agenda for the next city council. Issues that are important to board members are always brought up at city council meetings. I'll give you more: Since I am in charge, even members of the coalition can submit a motion. Once this was only for the opposition benches, with almost no effect. This is not just a cosmetic change, I would call it a dramatic change.
Okay, so you've changed the rules of the game; people work seriously and the 'Persian bazaar' atmosphere we saw in the past is gone. But beyond that, what does that change bring in?
It makes a lot of difference. The whole system - all the municipality employees and the directors - react positively and move forward. They accept and agree with all the changes and reforms we have brought in. I feel very satisfied, very encouraged to see that we are reaching the real things. It's tachles [the bottom line] now - no more talking.
Please give me an example.
This administration now deals with promoting projects and plans rather than political intrigues as occurred in the past.
But isn't some political drama the soul of a city council?
Here and there, yes, we can still see some examples. But most of the time, I and the members of the city council are very busy promoting this city and its residents' interests and not wasting our time on political intrigues. And in my eyes, that is a blessing.
This is a very hi-tech-based model, very matter of fact, very focused. By doing so, have you perhaps convinced your coalition members to walk in your footsteps for the benefit of the city as you conceive it? But what happens to the large administration you have here? Could it be that soon, perhaps even now, a part of this professional apparatus will become superfluous?
No, I don't think so. What we are doing now is contracting the municipality system from 35 different departments into seven administrations, to work more in focus. Take the new plan of partitioning the different neighborhoods [announced last week]. It is connected only to the physical aspects of the city and has one major aim: to bring some accountability into the system. Once this new apparatus is in place, there will be officer in charge of the quarter. It's built on a command structure.
So whatever goes wrong in a certain neighborhood, from now on the residents will have one person to whom to present their grievances? One officer in charge who will be accountable for the failures and the results?
Absolutely. This commander in charge of the quarter will work with the municipal employees, based on the nature of the issue raised. I'm talking about the physical branches, all those who until now worked only under their own bosses. From now on, they will have to answer to the person in charge of the neighborhood, who himself is responsible to the residents. This person will receive daily all the complaints presented to the 106 station for this specific neighborhood, and he will be responsible to find answers and solutions to the issues presented by the residents. This includes the self-administered neighborhood directors as well. The bottom line is that from now on, residents will have an address for all their complaints.
Are you sure this new formula won't lead to mass firing?
I will not go into that for the moment. My method is different. First, I want to define what has to be done, to synchronize all the factors involved in achieving our goal. Once that is achieved, we will look into it. And if indeed some part of the system turns out to be superfluous, we will work out ways, either by retraining or relocating. But in any case, I believe it will be only minimal. I do not believe in revolutions, I am a man of evolution. I'd rather make use of upgrading than massive firing. Upgrading and efficiency - that's my way.
This week the government took you by surprise with its recent announcement of a project to offer support to students from the periphery who will study in colleges. How come you were not aware of this?
I am aware that for a long period, both the Knesset and the various governments got used to not caring too much about the city. [This is] first and foremost because nobody here barked or bit when the city's interests were not taken into consideration. I intend to be on guard, together with the city council members.
But you have a good relationship with this government; that shouldn't have happened to you.
Yes, I agree. But it still needs to be translated into action. I believe it is our duty and our task to see that words of engagement are translated into acts and deeds for the benefit of the city. I will tell the government this: If you don't like what we do here, tell us. But if you think we're doing well, support us. Jerusalem has to regain the status it deserves.
Let's talk about education. Now that you have abolished the quotas and the registration areas, what's your next step?
That's already behind us. This year we are launching the Computer for Every Teacher project in cooperation with the public and philanthropic organizations. About 1,000 laptops will be given to 1,000 teachers in the city - and that's only a beginning. We will add the same number every year until all the city's teachers have laptops, thus upgrading the whole education system in the city. I find it unacceptable that while any factory today wouldn't dare not be computerized, we accept that it's not the case in our schools, the most important factory in our life. I am working on a very aggressive plan to improve our matriculation results; this is urgent. We will introduce new indices and measurements of our achievements. All this is done through the private-public partnership I have promoted since my campaign.
What about the creation of branches of the special semi-private schools in the poorer neighborhoods?
Absolutely. We're working on it right now.
Will we see results by next year?
It depends. I guess we will have some first cases. These things take time.
The parents' association complains that you override them, that your fight with their president, Eti Binyamin, takes its toll and causes embarrassment.
I have a very good relationship with the parents, with the staff in schools. I am available to all; I don't need any go-between. I have created the education council, which works well, and [the parents'] association is invited through its representatives to all the meetings. I don't see a problem here. I listen to the parents of Jerusalem.
What are you doing to improve the education situation in the Arab sector?
There is no question that there is too large a gap between the western and eastern sectors of the city. By the way, it is no better in the haredi sector as far as learning conditions are concerned, due to the lack of classrooms as a result of the birthrate. It is my duty to present this issue to the government. I always raise this issue at my meetings with the education minister. I push it forward, and I will not cave in. But let's not forget that building classrooms is a government's responsibility.
Silwan residents complain that the Jewish residents there make their lives miserable, and the municipality doesn't give them any support.
I cannot react to something I haven't seen for myself. There's only one thing I am ready to admit: The neighborhood urgently needs upgrading, and that is something I am planning to take care of pretty soon - a large plan of upgrading in various locations in east Jerusalem, and it doesn't matter if there are Jewish residents or Arabs. I agree: Arab residents need and deserve a serious upgrading of all municipal services in their neighborhoods. I expect them to support the efforts we are going to invest there, including the taxes for the infrastructures that they will have to pay, like any residents in any city, such as for roads and sidewalks, like in every other part of the city, according to the law. I see this as a win-win situation. We will invest there, their conditions will improve, and it will serve to promote tourism to this region.
How are you going to finance this program?
With both public and private funding: municipal taxes, government budgets and private donations that I intend to bring in.
How would you assess your relationship with haredi society today?
I think the haredim understand today that this violence, this breaking of the law is not serving their interests. And I know, as everybody knows, that these agitators are barely five percent of the haredi community, which drags down the other 95% who are law-abiding residents. I think they understand now that I am not caving in to the violence, and very soon they will have to realize that having a dialogue is much more effective than all their attempts to impose their laws on us.
After almost a year in the job, what have you learned that you didn't know before? What has surprised you?
First, the positive aspect. I was pleasantly surprised by the willingness of the employees, especially at the high-ranking and political levels, to accept a change, to join me in the new programs and methods I introduced. Once they understand what I have in mind, what my vision is, it works very quickly and that surprised me. I didn't expect that.
Can you mention any failures?
I still haven't been able to to decipher the code of the government's involvement with the city and its needs. I am planning to reach that soon, and I'll see that it changes. Also let's not forget that in the past while, there wasn't really a government here. There was no address for the city, no one to talk to.
And how will you achieve this?
I am creating a special forum, a link between the city and the government. We're working now on the programs for the coming year, at the Knesset, at the government. I have no doubt it will work. It hasn't been so for the moment, as I was deep into the election process. I was not aware enough, but this will change very soon.
So you finally discovered what former mayors have known - that Jerusalem is not really at the top of the government's agenda.
Yes, and I will definitely have to work on that. I don't blame them, I just say that I understand that it needs a lot of work to bring Jerusalem back to the status it deserves. It is not to be taken for granted, not only in declarations but in facts on the ground. We're still not there, but I am confident we will reach that position.
Any promising news for next year? Are you planning additional support for culture in the city?
Hasn't it been great this summer? All these events, these festivals? Have we ever seen such a thing here before?
Indeed, but what about next year?
And it's not over. There's more to come before the end of this summer! As for next year - yes, definitely: I am planning a major increase in the culture budget - at least double, from NIS 20 millions to NIS 40m. And on top of that, I am still trying to get back from the government the whole sum of [Jerusalem's special budgetary allocation]. They are still negotiating, but I will not give in until we obtain the original sum promised [about NIS 250m.]. This is Jerusalem, they will have to understand.