Getting down to brass tacks

There is still work to be done in cleaning up the Building Permits Department, but the new procedures Mayor Nir Barkat introduced last month are a step in the right direction.

A laborer works on an apartment building under construction in Jerusalem (photo credit: REUTERS)
A laborer works on an apartment building under construction in Jerusalem
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Imagine a resident of Mars making aliya and deciding to live in Jerusalem. “Minor” problems such as his capacity to understand the rituals of the place, not to mention his incapacity to provide a certificate proving his Jewish origins or his doomed attempts to understand the traffic rules of Israelis – all these are petty compared to the real problem awaiting our nice little green oleh. He might, naïve outsider that he is, decide to go to the municipality to request a building permit for the balcony, the extra room or the elevator he might want to add to his earthly new residence. That may be the moment when the well-known hatred between Martians and Earthlings depicted in many Hollywood films began. After all, we all know that Jerusalem is the beginning and the end of everything.
But knowing the end of a story doesn’t have to prevent us from discovering all the long and winding twists in the tale. Our little green man arrives at Safra Square – by light rail, of course, as it is much more modern than those famous spaceships – and, using the elevator, arrives at the fourth floor: the Building Permits Department. The first thing he will notice is the large number of people there, the conversations between the employees and residents, mostly arguing about some forms that were submitted, or not. And then he will probably notice one or two men who, despite not being employees, seem totally at home in the department, knowing the employees personally and obviously enjoying some kind of special status. These are the facilitators, or more commonly called the “macherim” – mostly former inspectors of the department who had quit and now, knowing how things work from the inside, work for residents to spare them the bureaucratic red tape.
The mere existence of macherim is a bad sign. It means that the bureaucracy is so heavy and tortuous that nothing can be done or can move forward without them, that the administration is not accessible to everyone as it should be. It may also, but not always, enable a slippery slope of personal favors, illegally shortening procedures and ultimately ending up in fraud, bribery and corruption.
The mayor, who already served as leader of the opposition on the city council for five years, knew that he had to clean up that department, and though many things have improved and more transparency can be found in most of the procedures, there is still a lot of work to be done.
“It is not normal that a resident has to apply to the municipality so many times and wait months to receive a permit,” former deputy mayor Itzhak Pindrus (United Torah Judaism) remarked during last year’s election campaign.
Well, things are definitely improving. Last month, Mayor Nir Barkat launched a special short procedure time for two permits – building a protected room and/or an elevator.
Considering that these two items are seriously required for security reasons after the experience of last summer and to enable easy access for senior residents or the disabled, the decision to grant the permits in a shortened amount of time is a good thing. As of this month, these two requests will obtain the special Orange Code, which will guarantee that the permits will be granted within three working days instead of a year as it has been until now.
This is a bold decision, perhaps even a presumptuous one.
Time will tell if the department employees will be able to deliver the goods, but it certainly shows something very important.
First, that from the lowest to the highest level, there is an understanding that the current situation cannot continue. And secondly, that it if is possible to shorten the time required to grant a permit for a protected room or an elevator from a year to three days, then why not apply this revolution to the entire system of building permits? Why only protected rooms and elevators? What about adding another room or a balcony? How much longer will residents have to use the dubious help of macherim?