Behind the glass panel

It can be annoying, but it shouldn’t be shut up – certainly not in an election year.

Jerusalem city hall in Safra Square (photo credit: DANIEL BARÁNEK/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Jerusalem city hall in Safra Square
Once upon a time, a new era appeared on the Jerusalem horizon, full of promise of cooperation and partnership between the residents and the authorities. Full transparency, full coordination with the local councils and various local associations – these were to be the hallmarks of a strong alliance between the residents of the city and the new tenants of Safra Square, led by Mayor Nir Barkat.
Almost a full decade has passed since Barkat was elected. Some of his promises have been implemented, others have fallen by the wayside, but in what might be the most significant deviation from what was to have been a new spirit of leadership, a glass panel is being erected to separate the council members from their public – the residents of this city.
Admittedly, things have not been easy for several months. Barkat has had to face repeated outbursts during debates as he tried to keep to the agenda. He exhibited little patience for what some see as the core role of the opposition: to ask questions, annoy and even harass those in power. The mayor holds all the power; those with opposing views are reduced to trying to disrupt the course of things, to question, interfere and perhaps on occasion influence a decision. The council opposition has a narrow range of possible actions. A mayor can be dismissed only if he fails to present a budget approved by the council by the end of a calendar year; other than that, the most that opposition members can do is annoy the mayor.
One of the ways to annoy a mayor is to bring residents to the monthly council meetings and encourage them to disrupt the debates with remarks from the public benches, loud protests, slogans, perhaps some banners. Such things done by the opposition members and their followers are not permitted, but they have always been tolerated to some extent.
Reactions to disturbances through the years have ranged from asking the public to keep quiet to the use of security officers to remove the noisiest people from the hall. In the early 2000s, city council member and then head of the opposition, Pepe Alalu (Meretz) brought in dozens of pupils dressed in red and instructed them to wave their red shawls in front of then-mayor Ehud Olmert to protest the lack of classrooms in the city. After a few minutes, Olmert had the security guards remove them.
Barkat has championed transparency and public participation in all debates. He was the first mayor to introduce live broadcasting from City Hall to the municipality’s website. Yet now he is erecting a glass separation barrier between the area where the city’s elected sit and the public benches. After he twice moved the meetings to another hall where he forbade the entrance of the public, Barkat apparently has reached the conclusion that vociferous protests will probably continue and his solution is to distance residents from the debates that determine many aspects of their daily lives.
After almost 10 years at the helm, with quite a few remarkable achievements as well as some painful failures, this violates the spirit of partnership and open democracy that he represented. While all agree that disruptions, outbursts and shouts in the middle of serious debates can be a nuisance, these are the game rules of a democracy. It can be annoying, but it shouldn’t be shut up – certainly not in an election year.
With six known candidates (and perhaps more in the coming months) eyeing the seat of a mayor who still hasn’t announced if he is running for a third term, it seems that the leader is to some degree losing contact with the residents.