high court justices 298.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
This country's overburdened taxpayers were informed inconspicuously last week that criminal investigations would at long last be launched against seven - inexplicably unnamed - local authorities. These authorities, despite recent emergency infusions of central government cash have, scandalously, failed to reimburse their unpaid employees.
If anyone deserves kudos for lighting a fire under the legal system, it is Labor Court President Steve Adler, who had been loudly and unequivocally harping on the question of "why, when the attorney-general invests so much effort into investigating suspicions of government corruption, there have been no legal proceedings against local authorities' heads in whose bailiwick such deficits have been accrued as to raise strong suspicions of felonious conduct."
Adler went so far as to publicly suggest summoning Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz to his own court hearings about gross municipal failures to pay wages. Adler additionally threatened delinquent mayors with jail time if they fail to honor his February 12 extended deadline and by then submit detailed accounts of how much, if anything, they owe their employees' pension and savings funds.
The Histadrut last November launched a strike against most public sector facilities - including Ben-Gurion Airport - to protest the ongoing denial of pay earned by workers who continue to report for their municipal jobs each day, and who perform their assigned duties, but yet do not get recompensed for their labor.
Following this, Adler negotiated an agreement whereby the central government would make funds available to the insolvent local authorities to at least partially pay off debts to their employees. As the Treasury predicted, however, in some cases this was throwing more good money after bad: The financial relief never made it to many workers' accounts.
The inflow of funds did relieve the situation temporarily in some locations but things may be worsening again. Last month it was reported that 22 local authorities are in arrears. According to latest Histadrut assertions, more recent figures indicate that there are now 47 authorities that haven't fully paid their workers.
In Adler's judgment, this smacks of wrongdoing. Bluntly put, it cannot be ruled out that public money has gone into private pockets. This is the concern that prompted Adler to begin his push for legal action against those local authorities whose breaches are considered particularly egregious.
For its part, the Histadrut petitioned the Supreme Court demanding the government show cause why criminal proceedings are not under way. Mazuz initially replied that the problem was managerial rather than criminal. By last week, though, the state prosecution had changed its tune and informed the Supreme Court that the police have been instructed to proceed with criminal probes in seven cases. Queries by the press as to which authorities are targeted have so far gone unanswered.
The prosecution should be congratulated for having decided to initiate - even if belatedly and almost under duress - an investigation. After all, the taxpayers' hard-earned shekels have been poured into some municipalities' bottomless pits for years. No matter what rehabilitation or bail-out programs were offered, some townships consistently continued to bleed the taxpayers for more handouts.
Often these are local authorities - some in the Arab sector, some not - which refuse to collect appropriate or full local taxes from their own residents and which are riddled with corruption and nepotism. To continue propping them up or allowing them to cheat hard-working employees of their earnings is unconscionable.
Though late is better then never, the action now still leaves open the question of why the suspect authorities are not being openly identified. This is a classic case of right-of-the-people-to-know and of transparency in government. Also, if only seven of the localities yet due to pay wages are to be investigated, why not clear those not under the pall of suspicion?
Town residents deserve to know how badly their elected officials have been handling their affairs. And the rest of us deserve accountability, since we all eventually pay for whatever is amiss in the unnamed local councils.