A chance for civic participation

While two Ginot Ha’ir community council members differ on the wisdom of running the Blue Line down Emek Refaim Street, both agree the decision-making process is ‘broken.’

‘Bring the citizen back into the decision-making process’: Aaron Katsman and Idit Rubin on Emek Refaim Street (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
‘Bring the citizen back into the decision-making process’: Aaron Katsman and Idit Rubin on Emek Refaim Street
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Think this summer has been hot? The temperatures outside are nothing compared to the heated arguments taking place in the German Colony over controversial plans for the light rail.
Now that the municipality has revealed its intent to run the Blue Line down the German Colony’s Emek Refaim Street, public meetings at the Ginot Ha’ir community council have drawn huge crowds, as residents energetically vocalize their support for, or – in most cases – strong opposition to, the city’s plan.
The often-angry debate may appear to simply be democracy in action. But in reality, the anger is a result of a broken process that is anything but fair and democratic.
It is important to know that we, as members of the Ginot Ha’ir community council, write this with opposing views about the rail route: Idit supports the city’s plan; Aaron is against it. But we agree that the decision-making process is deplorable. Instead of productive dialogue between residents and the municipality, the city has fostered a no-win fight pitting surprised and frustrated neighbors against one another over a fait accompli.
The irony seems lost on the municipality that as we approach Tisha Be’av, a day commemorating the Temples’ destruction partly brought about, our rabbis say, by baseless hatred, the city has put neighbors at each other’s throats over some train tracks.
It is obvious from our public meetings that there is great frustration over city hall’s high-handed approach to the entire process, since it is evident that the community has been cut out of the decision-making. Citizens are learning that they don’t matter in a system that appears to be rigged against their wishes and considered judgment. The municipality may pay lip service to the idea of increased community involvement, but in fact it has presented a plan already decided upon to the very people who will be affected by it – and only then asks for citizen participation, once such input becomes pointless.
The train, so to speak, has already left the station.
City hall has a duty to create a process of actual community involvement and a meaningful voice for affected citizens in urban planning issues. Only such a partnership can make residents feel that they truly have a say.
The community centers in Jerusalem are placed in an impossible situation. With extremely limited resources, community board members volunteer countless hours of their time to work with the community and understand their needs and then serve as a bridge between the community and municipality.
But what happens when the council doesn’t receive detailed information from the city in advance? What is the point of the community councils when the actual decision-making process is hidden from community boards and, by extension, from the citizens themselves? Don’t our elected officials have basic responsibilities to keep informed the voters who sent them to Safra Square? We are suggesting the implementation of basic principles that have been adopted by municipalities the world over to foster real civic participation:
• The city must present detailed plans to be discussed before decisions are made. People are fed up with the “once the plan is approved, then we will present the details” approach that has unfortunately defined our municipal politics for decades.
• A transparent system needs to be implemented so that the people can see how and why decisions are made.
• Community participation should take place from the earliest stages of the planning.
• The city must create an environment where community opinions and feedback are sought, valued and respected, not just given lip service.
• Community participation will ensure issues and concerns are understood, considered and taken into account as part of the decision- making process.
We all want what’s best for our city. Now is the time for the community, politicians and urban planners to work together to ensure that we solve problems openly through true citizen-government interaction, and not through heavy-handed dictates which ignore the wishes of the communities they affect.