Municipalities, impenetrable bureaucracies, citizen rights

Israel is an amazing country for the way it has developed despite the many existential problems which it faces on a daily basis.

Beersheba water features 521 (photo credit: Courtesy of Beersheba Municipality)
Beersheba water features 521
(photo credit: Courtesy of Beersheba Municipality)
The Jerusalem light rail, after what must have been the most protracted and error prone construction of an urban transit system anywhere in the world, has been running smoothly for the past six weeks. It would take up the entire column just to list the numerous mistakes and delays which accompanied the construction of this project, resulting in its inauguration many years after the initial deadline had passed, and at a cost exceeding original estimates by tens of millions of dollars.
So far, the free trial run of the system hasn’t encountered any snags. If, as assumed, many of the regular buses along the rail route are eventually phased out, the result should be a less congested and less polluted city, in which internal travel is a less hellish experience than it has been in recent years.
But none of this can excuse the misery and suffering it has already caused countless Jerusalem residents. I’m not referring to the financial losses incurred by many shopkeepers along the route, especially in the center of town along Jaffa Street, but to the significant worsening of living conditions for many of the capital’s senior citizens, whose life has been altered by the construction of the railway system.
Take, for instance, the many residents of Herzl Boulevard in the Beit Hakerem neighborhood where, for some unknown reason, the rail line was constructed along one side of the street instead of in the middle.
Many of the residents in this area are elderly and, even without the light rail, had enough problems accessing the main street. Today, these residents, who have become prisoners to the railway lines, so to speak, have to walk – or be assisted by their helpers – with great difficulty to the nearest intersection to get access to the street.
These residents were never, to my knowledge, consulted prior to construction of the rail lines, nor were their problems taken into account afterwards. Furthermore if at any point they ever did raise questions or register complaints, they were mostly ignored and brushed aside by the large bureaucracies such as the Jerusalem municipality or the legal advisers of the railway company.
In almost all of these cases, the municipality and the rail company have hidden behind the bureaucracy of large law firms.
Unfortunately, bureaucracy in Israel still works by the method of attrition.
Never answer the first two or three letters.
Then, if someone persists, pass the letter or complaint on to numerous other departments.
It will normally get buried at this point along with a pile of other papers and requests, although if the applicant is lucky they may get a short reply, normally rejecting their complaint. If, a year or more down the road, the complainant still persists, pass it on to the legal department, where it usually remains for six months without getting any attention and, finally, generates a short, politely worded letter in legal jargon explaining why the complainant does not have any justifiable claim. If the complainant has not been totally worn out by then and he/she decides to take it to court, there is a chance that he/she may succeed, but the average complaint simply fades away, so for the most part the large companies, such as the rail company, come out ahead.
The country’s municipalities and local government authorities remain some of the worst offenders. Take for example the community of Metar, my own place of residence in the south of Israel. This suburban community, north of Beersheba and numbering almost 10,000 inhabitants, could indeed be one of the hidden jewels of the Israeli landscape were it not for its extremely poor, inefficient and bureaucratic management, which only appears to get worse by the year. For twenty years I have lived adjacent to the unfinished skeleton of a house which constitutes a perpetual hazard to the residents in this community. Like other residents of this and other neighboring suburban communities such as Omer and Lehavim, we pay among the highest local rates in the country because, in return, we expect to receive a high level of service provision from our elected municipal officials. Instead we get dirty streets, untended public spaces and the continued existence of deserted and skeletal houses which scar the residential landscape.
Metar is just one example of a municipality which, while touting an exclusive quality of life environment to the outer world, and charging high levels of local taxes accordingly, is poorly managed and fails to provide a reasonable level of service amenities to its residents. There are many other such municipalities throughout Israel – the level of local government management has not improved greatly during the sixty years of the state’s existence.
Israel is an amazing country for the way it has developed despite the many existential problems which it faces on a daily basis. But all this is no excuse for the continued mismanagement of our residential fabric, and the age-old use of large, impenetrable bureaucracies to prevent us, the citizens, from having proper recourse to our legitimate complaints.
The writer is professor of Political Geography at Ben Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics. The comments expressed are his alone.