At a recent evening dedicated to his late mother, Sarah Kaminker, filmmaker Eitan Fox told the audience about her lifetime achievement: the community councils in Jerusalem, which later became known as a tool for residents to take an active part in shaping their neighborhoods. In Teddy Kollek's time, the idea was to decentralize the power of the municipality and distribute it among the localities. Kaminker, an American who brought with her new ideas and attitudes from the 1960s in the US, convinced then-mayor Kollek that decentralization was the best thing for the city, especially after the unification of Jerusalem in 1967. She, together with a group of municipal employees, created the models that later developed into the current 31 community councils.
Kaminker attended the residents' meetings wherever they took place, be it the underprivileged neighborhoods of the Katamonim, Kiryat Hayovel or the Arab sectors annexed to the city after 1967. Meetings in Arab neighborhoods comprised men who would debate for hours on end the pros and cons of joining the project. "I think that after a while they stopped regarding me as a woman," she explained once when asked how she was accepted at such strictly male assemblies. "They got used to seeing me there, period. The result is that we now have now community councils in Arab areas of the city as well."
"From the way her son described her involvement in this project," says former city council member Anat Hoffman, "it is clear that it was her most cherished endeavor. It is such a pity that we are now witnessing the agony of her life's work."
The community councils are undergoing a major crisis, and some even say their future is in question. Mayor Nir Barkat recently announced his decision to close down the Jerusalem Association of Community Councils and Centers (JACCC) after he could not obtain the council chairmen's agreement to hold elections for new council boards as required by law.
Not so long ago, Barkat himself very much identified with the community councils, the association that represents them and its director-general, Tzvika Chernichovsky. But he now considers the association and Chernichovsky an opposition he can no longer trust.
The decision to close down the JACCC and to move community councils into one of the municipality's departments has been received as a declaration of war by the association, as well as by some of the staff of the community centers and councils.
The argument between the two sides that the elections should be held as soon as possible has already become ugly. Personal accusations are being slung, and the association is running ads in the local press opposing the mayor's decision.
The main opposition comes from the Forum of Chairmen of the local councils, an informal organization comprising city council chairmen that has become quite powerful. None of them has ever been elected, but they would like to delay the voting as long as possible, arguing that elections have to be prepared carefully and not hastily.
After three months of debates, meetings and negotiations - some of them in a highly tense atmosphere and dissonant tones - Barkat reached the conclusion that the association was in fact an obstacle not only to launching the elections procedure but also to providing the apparatus with which to give the residents the services they are entitled to. Thus he said to Chernichovsky a few weeks ago, "Either we go for elections in all the neighborhoods or I close down the association [of which Barkat is, by law, the chairman] and you go home."
As a result, Chernichovsky became the association's hero overnight, while the Israel Association of Community Centers, with which Chernichovsky's association is affiliated, publicly declared its intention to defend him. So now a war has been declared between the two sides.
"I AM not so surprised by this outcome," remarks city council member Meir Margalit of Meretz, himself a member of the municipal City Councils Department. "This is a typical situation where everybody is minding his own store rather than considering what is in the public's best interest."
"There is no argument that hardly any of these chairmen have been elected to their positions and are not exactly what I would call the best representatives of the people. They are not really leaders but people who like being in charge, albeit on a voluntary basis, and have thereby garnered a lot of power and influence," says Margalit.
"We are not against this mayor," says Ze'ev Landner, chairman of the Ramot Community Council and chairman of the Forum of Chairmen. "We want him to succeed; we have no other alternative. But he has to understand that he shouldn't interfere with us."
Adds Landner, "The mayor must understand that the community councils are a jewel of an achievement in regard to residents' involvement. They are based on the principle that any staff member or elected official's aim is to serve the public."
Landner, a veteran of the struggle against the haredi hegemony in Ramot, says he is sure that eventually logic and reason will prevail but adds that, for the moment, none of the neighborhood chairmen is ready to cave in, especially on the issue of firing Chernichovsky. "Mayor Barkat and all his staff have to realize who we are. We are volunteers. Not only do we not get paid for what we do, but we spend our own money to do it. Where else do you find people who feel so committed, who give so much of their own time, meeting at night and so on?... Regarding Chernichovsky's position, one should remember that he is an employee of the Israel Association of Community Centers, a public organization, and there is no way the mayor of Jerusalem can fire one of its employees. It's absurd. The salaries of 21 of the 30 directors of these community councils is paid by the national association, which invests in Jerusalem much more than it has to. What will Mayor Barkat do if they decide, as a result, to stop all these extra investments and funding? Who will cover it? That will create a loss of some NIS 9 million at least," says Landner.
Yet the mayor's request to hold elections in the neighborhoods after more than 15 years is a legitimate democratic request. Why would the chairmen be opposed?
"If we consider it from a populist point of view, then yes - why not? Let's have elections, a festival of democracy, blah, blah, blahâ€¦ But let's also try to remember what the situation is: For years, in Ramot for example, we haven't had elections, among other reasons for fear that the haredi population would take over the whole administration and force changes on us we wouldn't accept. Did that prevent residents from joining or leaving the board of the administration? No, people came in, joined us, others left. Isn't that what we call a democratic process?" says Landner.
CITY COUNCIL member Rachel Azaria is in charge of the community councils and centers and was, in fact, the first to attempt to reach an agreement about elections. "I have been working in good faith vis-a-vis the chairmen," she says. "It was one of my first tasks upon becoming a member of the city council. I really believe in the power of self-administration, decentralization and the need for a dedicated and active local leadership in the neighborhoods. I also believe in the importance of their freedom, of the need to ensure their independence. So we started to work on the project of the elections, step by step, in total confidence. Then I began to realize that the chairmen were wasting - or gaining - time. When we reached the goal, they just got cold feet and it was very clear that they were withdrawing and trying to avoid reaching any operational stage."
Even before this, Azaria began to discover that some of the chairmen and their boards did not feel they were well represented by Chernichovsky and his deputy, Yuli Ben-Lavie. "It was a surprising discovery for me, but I began to receive messages from chairmen telling me that the two weren't exactly representing them and their constituencies. Still, I went on with the procedure to prepare the elections, explaining to them both that holding elections in the neighborhoods was a major issue in this municipality's working method. Chernichovsky once suggested launching a 'democratic festival' and having elections on the same day in all the neighborhoods. My response was 'It's like making a surprise party for a 90-year-old: It could turn into a disaster and he could end up in the hospital. You don't take such big risks; you have to do these things cautiously.'"
Azaria adds that the discussions went on for more than two months, trying to find a solution and to agree on at least two or three neighborhoods that should hold elections. "But every time I suggested a date, they would find a reason to turn it down and came up with a later date. If I said August, they proposed September. Then September didn't work, so I suggested November. They postponed it to December and then argued that December is in the winter, so it wouldn't work, and it should be in January, then in February and so onâ€¦ Now really, didn't they know before that it's winter in December? By then, it was clear to me that the chairmen of the community councils should not be involved in the election process. After all, what do elections mean to them? That some of them might not be re-elected, right? Why would they want to collaborate on a procedure whose outcome could put an end to their status?" reasons Azaria.
A few years ago city council member Meir Turgeman, head of the opposition on the city council, was very close to Barkat. Today, the two don't even speak to each other. As head of the prestigious comptroller committee and a former chairman of the Forum of Chairmen, Turgeman has his view on the situation. "Barkat began to be involved in public issues through the community councils. That is where he began to understand the power of organized residents, who stand up for their rights and represent themselves before the bureaucracy and the municipality. My understanding regarding this deep crisis between him and his former close friends and supporters is that he understood, and feared, that what they, with his support, did to the former mayors - Olmert and Lupolianski - they might do to him to one day. He was there when they managed to bend those two to obtain what they believed was the best for the residents of their neighborhoods - and today, he is the mayor. He has a different point of view, different interests now. He can't afford to take the chance that they will stand in front of him with all the power that volunteer and public involvement is giving them."
Kobi Cohen, a resident of Kiryat Hayovel, is the chairman of his community council. Until two months ago, he was the chairman of the Forum of Chairmen but decided to quit and to focus only on his neighborhood. "I think we should separate the crisis between Chernichovsky and Barkat from the issue of the elections and the mayor's decision to close down the JACCC. These are two different issues - the first one being, in my opinion, partly connected to the fact that Chernichovsky, who was an open supporter of Barkat during the 2008 campaign, expected some reward - and was harshly disappointed. In this context, Chernichovsky's attitude and his open support for Barkat was highly criticized inside the association, including by me, and the question why mayor Barkat is rewarding someone who showed him so much support by threatening to fire him still remains unclear and deserves a separate investigation.
"Obviously, Barkat the mayor sees things differently than Barkat the social activist and the former head of opposition on the city council. And obviously, he doesn't appreciate any opposition to his view and positions. The question is, are we going to cave in or are we going to fight back? My feeling is that the will to fight back is strong, and we plan, with the support of the Israel Association of Community Centers, to organize our struggle, including PR and public demonstrations. For the moment, I already know that in the 2010 budget, there is no mention of the money for community councils. I think that speaks for itself."
As for Chernichovsky himself, he says the mayor is making a mistake, "and I wish he could just realize it and reconsider things." Chernichovsky adds, "We should all remember, the mayor included, that it is much easier to destroy than to build" and explains that the whole idea of the community council was a revolutionary concept not so long ago, "but it has proven itself as the best way to enhance residents' rights and involvement. What we have created in Jerusalem has become a model for the whole country and even abroad. Is that what the mayor wants to destroy?"
Asked if the problem was political or simply a different conception of the best way to obtain the same results, Chernichovsky says, "In the past, there were many attempts to put limits on our independence, and this mayor knew about it. We never surrendered, since we considered the whole issue to include the rights of the residents and not our private affair. There have always been such attempts, both from the political level and from the professional ranks at the municipality. Many people didn't like our independence, our direct contact with the residents, the lack of bureaucracy in the working methods of the community councils. And in fact, we at the JACCC and at the Forum of Chairmen see any damage caused to us as a direct injury to the residents, so it is out of the question that we can accept it."
Regarding the reasons that led the mayor to change his attitude so radically, considering that during the election campaign Chernichovsky was openly supportive of Barkat, Chernichovsky says, "Perhaps the fact that he realized that we didn't hesitate to fight former mayors Olmert and Lupolianski convinced him that he should take steps to protect himself from the same. But I really don't know, that's only speculation. What I am sure of is that little by little, we have realized that there is a serious gap between his declarations and slogans and the reality he is trying to achieve, and that's a pity."
Regarding the rumor that he is leading the opposition to the mayor because Barkat didn't offer him a position in the municipality, Chernichovsky says there is no connection at all. "I realized quickly that if I had accepted such an offer, I would have been forced to become a yes-man, to be stuck inside a gilded cage and to renounce the privilege of being free to say what I think - and that's not me."
"THERE IS a lot of misinformation on this issue," Barkat told In Jerusalem in a phone interview from Washington. "The first thing I want to emphasize is that the independence and the freedom of the community councils is very important to me, and I am dedicated to preserving it. But when we look closely at the current situation, we see that we have an apparatus that has become cumbersome and somewhat ineffective and thus is no longer able to deliver what we expect from it: serving the needs of the residents in the best way.
"What we expected from this organization was to simplify the procedures - but in reality, what we have is a superfluous apparatus that doesn't help or facilitate anything for the residents. What we have today is an organization that has never been elected democratically by the residents. And on top of that, they are trying to attach their own agenda to the municipality. That is not acceptable. What I expect is accountability. I want to be closer to the community councils, to hear what their needs are.
"I'm less interested in the association's needs - they are not the residents. I know that in the past, mayors didn't like the independence of the community councils - but I come from a totally different place. It's not the residents' interests - as represented truthfully by the community councils - that bother me, it is JACCC that seems to me totally unnecessary. Think about it: All the money we give them, which also goes toward their salaries, will from now on go directly to the residents' needs. What's wrong with that? I am sure this is for the best of the residents, and I have no doubt it will pass the vote at the city council. We will have free elections and I, as mayor, will be able to work with real elected residents from now on."