City councillors: Fighting for their rights

Stay tuned to hear the mayor’s decision.

Deputy Mayor Ofer Berkowitz (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Deputy Mayor Ofer Berkowitz
There is something that most residents in Israel are probably not aware of: Members of the city council who are not deputy mayors are not paid or compensated in any way for their time and effort.
This situation has been an issue for quite a few city councilors in Jerusalem and has even reached the Knesset, but with very little result. About six months ago a bill was presented at the Knesset to offer some compensation for participating at monthly meetings and to pay for parking during those meetings, but it has not yet been approved.
Last week, a few members of the local city council, mostly from Shas and United Torah Judaism, backed by Deputy Mayor Ofer Berkowitz (Hitorerut), sent a letter to Mayor Nir Barkat with a list of their demands, asking him to remedy the situation.
Whether Barkat accedes to any of the demands or not, one must admit that this raises an issue that is more serious than a few city councilors trying to obtain some advantages. The question is how democratic is a process in which only wealthy people – or, in a much concerning way, only those who have a vested interest – can attain the position of representing the residents freely and fairly? Former city councilwoman Anat Hoffman, who served on the city council for 14 years without pay – and could afford to do so – told In Jerusalem that the current situation is a real failure to ensure full democratic process and opens the gate to conflict of interest. Another former councilwoman, Roni Alony Sadovnik, now a lawyer living in Tel Aviv, tried to bring the matter to the Knesset in the late 1990s, but with no success.
Officially, the status of city council members is that of volunteer, unless they are appointed deputies to the mayor. In that case, they are considered both as employed by the municipality and representatives of their constituencies. Being the largest city in the country, Jerusalem has eight deputy mayors who, together with the mayor (albeit Barkat has renounced his salary), are the nine on payroll. The 22 remaining members of the council serve the city’s affairs with no remuneration.
To complete the picture, city council members have to show up at multiple committee meetings, make decisions such as who or what organization will receive city properties or funding, take part in the Finance Committee, which decides about every shekel – that comes mainly from taxpayers – that the municipality spends, and vote for all the proposals and recommendations of the 15 or so committees at the monthly city council meeting.
On top of that, they have to read or listen to residents’ complaints and requests, check on many issues brought to their attention, and come prepared – i.e., with enough objective information – to all those committee meetings to vote on the proposals with a clear conscience.
Hours of meetings and debates, hours of listening to residents, hours spent as representatives of the council at various official events – not to mention the task of seeing to their constituencies’ interests, since we all know that we live in a regime of sectorial representation.
All this is basically and officially open to any resident. It is enough to have no criminal record and sufficient supporters to send them to Safra Square. Preferably, one might want to have enough money to run a campaign. Otherwise, the best way would be to join a party and convince the leader to recommend them for the job. But even after having surmounted all those obstacles, the main obstacle that looms large is: Who can afford to spend so much time on public affairs and still have time for a professional occupation that will enable the candidate to make a living? Not to mention the fact that one’s profession might conflict with the matters to be tackled on the city council or one of the committees.
And even after all these, there are coalition matters (that do not always fit one’s position). And last but certainly not least, there is the local press, which sits on their tail and tries to find which mistakes or controversial decisions or acts the by-nowexhausted candidate has made.
And we residents expect these people to do all that for nothing? No wonder a group of them have called upon Barkat to consider some compensation, such as free parking and tickets for events organized by the municipality.
Stay tuned to hear the mayor’s decision.