Lost in translation

Activist and opposition groups are pushing for greater transparency on Tel Aviv’s city council.

Tel Aviv City Hall 311 (photo credit: Jesse Fox)
Tel Aviv City Hall 311
(photo credit: Jesse Fox)
Mya, a 30-year-old writer, lives near King George Street in central Tel Aviv. “It’s a narrow street, and it’s always backed up,” she says. “I work from home, and it’s difficult to concentrate with all the cars honking and buses and delivery trucks idling outside.”
“I think the city has started building a subway,” she adds. “That might help things, but I’m not really sure when it’s actually supposed to start running.”
However, despite her annoyance with the situation, Mya has never bothered to contact the municipality about it. “It just seems like a total waste of my time,” she explains, adding with a sigh that her trash cans keep disappearing, too.
Theoretically, the body responsible for dealing with urban issues like transportation and garbage disposal is the city council. Consisting of democratically elected representatives of various communities, the council’s role is to govern the city. Yet in Tel Aviv, this is not necessarily the case.
“The way that the mayor has engineered matters, the city council has no role at all in determining what the city does and how it does it,” says Dr. Noah Efron, a member of the city council since late 2008.
In his year and a half serving on the council, says Efron, a professor of history and philosophy at Bar-Ilan University, “not a single policy or ordinance proposed by a city council member has been brought up for debate, much less approved.”
Efron represents Ir Lekulanu (City for All), an ideological political movement that has had an adversarial relationship with Mayor Ron Huldai since winning five seats on the council in the last local elections.
But it isn’t only members of the municipal opposition who would like to see a more democratic process in the city council. Says Reuven Ladianski, a city councillor and member of Huldai’s coalition: “The fact that so many motions raised in the city council are simply transferred to the various municipal committees without discussion undermines the city council, to the point where it becomes almost irrelevant.”
The general public, for its part, no longer bothers to attend council meetings. This was not always the case. Following the 2008 elections, which swept a number of fresh faces onto the council, a rowdy and energetic crowd regularly packed the aisles. Since then, however, the enthusiasm seems to have worn off.
In 2010, city council meetings draw an audience of barely a dozen or so spectators, mostly local bloggers, journalists and political activists.
With a low hum of chatter emanating from both the council and the audience, meetings are conducted in technical and legal language that spectators often find bewildering. Council members frequently slip out for cigarette breaks; the mayor himself often gets up and simply walks out of the room, mainly when members of the opposition get up to speak.
“Our job is to translate everything that happens there into something the residents of the city can understand,” says Tamar Neugarten of Council Watch, an organization that monitors city council meetings. “That means separating the important from the unimportant, reading the documents and breaking through the legalese.”
Council Watch recently opened a new blog where it posts summaries of city council meetings and analyses of municipal decisions, including those of the city’s urban planning committee.
“These are important public bodies,” Neugarten insists, “and they should be transparent, along with dozens of other municipal committees that are not open to the public. But the truth is that the mayor manages everything behind closed doors. In Tel Aviv, the real policy-making is done by the Management Committee.”
The Management Committee is a body chaired by the mayor. Its members include deputy mayors, members of the coalition, and a handful of powerful senior officials. Although little is known about its workings, the committee is considered a sort of a shadow city council.
On its blog, Council Watch writes: “The Management Committee was set up based on the Municipalities Ordinance, which defines it this way: ‘The council may choose from among its members a permanent Management Committee to advise the mayor with regard to carrying out his duty, and serve as a committee in any matter that is not the authority of another committee, permanent or temporary.’”
In reality, claims Council Watch, the Management Committee has largely become the body that determines municipal policy de facto, effectively superseding the city council. However, unlike the city council, the committee does not publish its discussions, and its meetings are closed to the public, opposition parties and the media.
“The Management Committee publishes nothing,” says Neugarten. “We do not know when it meets, what issues it discusses, or who is invited to speak at its meetings.” In this way, she says, important decisions are made without transparency, and without the possibility of holding politicians accountable.
According to Dr. Yishai Blank, a law professor at Tel Aviv University, the tendency to hold important policy discussions in closed committees, instead of on the city council, reflects a will to weaken opposition parties, while deflecting public criticism.
“Municipal committees are supposed to be the local version of parliamentary committees, like those in the Knesset,” explains Blank. “Their job is to hold in-depth discussions and develop municipal bylaws, but also to make sure that the leadership carries out the will of the city council.”
The problem, he explains, is that city councils in Israel have chronically weak oppositions. “This is especially conspicuous in Tel Aviv, where for years there was no significant opposition in the city council, which allowed the mayor to function virtually unchecked.”
“Now we are seeing the development of a new opposition,” he says, adding that due to the importance of a body like the Management Committee, it would be proper to invite members of the opposition to participate in it as well, so that it reflects the entire city council.
A hint as to the character of Management Committee discussions was provided earlier this year, in an article by Yoav Zeitun on Internet site Ynet. The committee was reportedly discussing a proposal to grant residential parking permits to young people who live in Tel Aviv, but whose cars are registered in other cities (under their parents’ names).
Huldai, according to the article, opposed the idea, and began to raise his voice, yelling sarcastic and vulgar remarks that embarrassed committee members. He was eventually convinced to support the idea, however, and later apologized to the committee, explaining that he simply got carried away with enthusiasm.
The secrecy surrounding the Management Committee may also be concealing a lackadaisical organizational culture in which meetings are held at irregular intervals and pressing issues wait in line for months before being brought up for discussion.
The Management Committee has been criticized as a sort of municipal “black hole” into which motions from the city council and municipal committees tend to disappear for an extended period of time. Says Neugarten: “We know from comments by city council members that the Management Committee has a huge backlog of issues up for discussion, due to the fact that it doesn’t meet often enough.”
This creates a situation in which important decisions languish for months while waiting for the committee’s approval. This is what happened, for example, to a motion submitted by Pe’er Visner of the Green Party, which proposed granting children free entrance to the city’s museums. Visner’s motion waited over half a year before being discussed by the Management Committee.
Reuven Ladianski of Latet Lihyot is a member of the Management Committee, which he describes as a forum that discusses both motions and recommendations that rise from the city council and the municipal committees, and policy proposals that come down from the mayor and senior officials.
He confirms that there is a backlog, adding that during his first year in office, the committee convened only about once every two months. Lately, however, he says, the body has begun meeting more frequently, approximately once every two or three weeks. The change is apparently due to pressure from the media and city council members.
 “It makes no sense that the body that effectively runs the city should meet only once every few months,” says Ladianski. He also believes that the workings of the committee should be made more transparent, even suggesting that its decisions be brought before the city council for discussion.
“Aside from certain issues which might be considered especially sensitive,” he says, “I don’t see a reason why the Management Committee’s discussions should not be published.”
Adds Efron: “If city council members were able truly to represent the people that voted them into office, the city would look very different. There would be real efforts to keep housing affordable and air breathable. Schools in the south of the city would get more money and resources.
“If city council members were allowed to represent their constituencies, the agenda of the city would look radically different, and better, than it does today.”
In response to claims raised in this article, the Tel Aviv Municipality issued the following response: “First, it should be emphasized that Management Committee meetings do not take place in the dark, as is implied, but are work meetings conducted in accordance with the law, with their discussions recorded and decisions publicized in an orderly manner. Any citizen, including city council members and members of the opposition, may review the minutes of the meetings.”
“In addition, it should be noted that, contrary to claims, a majorityof coalition members are of the opinion that discussions in theManagement Committee are much more effective and efficient than plenarydiscussions in the city council, especially regarding issues thatrequire a long and thorough discussion that allows for input fromprofessionals. Moreover, every operative decision approved in theManagement Committee is eventually brought up for approval by the citycouncil.”
“It should be understood that with the scope of activity required in acity like Tel Aviv-Jaffa, most decisions reach the city council afterhaving been processed and discussed at the professional level and inthe relevant committees.”
Regarding the Management Committee’s backlog, the Tel Aviv Municipalitytold Metro: “Every motion that is transferred to the ManagementCommittee will be brought up for discussion. In the case that a backlogis created, additional meetings are scheduled, as directed by themayor. It should also be noted that many times, discussions arepostponed on the request of those who submitted the motion.”