The City: ‘You are not respecting the people here’

As the battle over the light rail’s Blue Line rages, residents get a lesson in City Hall democracy.

City councilwoman Laura Wharton of Meretz (photo credit: FACEBOOK)
City councilwoman Laura Wharton of Meretz
(photo credit: FACEBOOK)
Just before the start of the new school year, some hundred residents of the German Colony area learned the Jerusalem City Hall definition of democracy, or if not exactly that – democracy as conducted by Mayor Nir Barkat.
City Council opposition leader Laura Wharton (Meretz) tried unsuccessfully at a council meeting on Tuesday evening to present a motion to delay a final decision on whether the light rail’s Blue Line will go along Emek Refaim Street. Most residents are opposed to this route because it would change the character of the German Colony’s main artery and cause traffic congestion in the side streets, most of which are narrow.
The meeting was supposed to start at 6 p.m. but did not get under way until 6:25. Most of those who had come from the German Colony were seated by 5:45.
They were appalled by a buzzer system that Barkat employs to cut off a microphone so the speaker cannot be heard. He would not allow Wharton to present her motion because the agenda had already been set, and he was not about to waste the time of other council members.
But Wharton is a fighter who doesn’t scare easily, and she made a valiant attempt to get her point across. Despite the mayor’s efforts to override her by speaking loudly though his own microphone while she was talking, she remained undeterred and unflustered, charging him with not listening to her and to the people for whom this issue is so important.
When Wharton began to speak, Barkat cut her off, saying he had sent a plan to the people concerned and that he’d spoken to them. He refused to allow her to ask a question or move a motion, saying, “A question and a motion will not resolve the problem.”
Wharton insisted that whatever edict had been imposed by Barkat on council meetings, she was within her rights. She advised him to read the law and not to close the microphone on her.
“You didn’t listen to people, and it was only recently that they found out about the route,” she charged. “There are a lot of people with good ideas.
It’s not right that you didn’t listen to them and that you didn’t pay attention. The least you can do is listen now.”
The speech earned loud applause from the visitors.
Barkat told them that just as there is no applause in the Knesset, there is no applause in the council chamber. “We heard you and we saw you,” he said by way of acknowledging their presence.
Noting that the light rail had been in the planning stages since the 1990s, Wharton said the plan as it stands now has many flaws, especially in matters related to the German Colony.
There are many people who are against the plan and even those who support it want explanations and guarantees of a time frame, she said, adding that she had read a lot of protest comments on the Internet, and that some of the authors of those comments were present at the council meeting.
Despite the objections, the city intends to go ahead, she said, emphasizing that this makes people lose whatever confidence they may have had in the council.
“We need the light rail,” thundered Barkat.
“That’s not the point,” shot back Wharton. “The point is this plan. This is not the way to serve the public. You can’t present them with a fait accompli instead of working on the project together with the community.”
She urged Barkat to begin cooperating with residents now and to defer any final decision till December. “Listen to what the residents have to say,” she insisted. Despite the admonition, the guests again burst into applause.
“Cooperation with the public started four years ago,” retorted Barkat.
There was a loud chorus of “No!” “It’s very important to me to listen to complaints. They (representatives of the residents) came to my office.”
Barkat also declared that Deputy Mayor Meir Turgeman had gone to the area and spoken to residents. “Not true,” chorused the visitors.
Barkat conceded that certain changes might have to be made in the plan, which in any case, could not be implemented without the approval of the district planning committee. As things stand, he said, the implementation has already been delayed.
“You are not respecting the people who are here,” asserted Wharton, who had hoped to create a situation in which at least some of the objections could be voiced in the presence of all the council members.
Barkat simply went on to the next item on the agenda, as the visitors filed out in disgust.
Beyond making Barkat aware of residents’ displeasure, nothing had been accomplished.
However, if he read the local Hebrew, English or French media, he would already be aware of the fact that most of the residents in or near Emek Refaim are ill-disposed toward the Blue Line.
Comments heard in the corridors, in the elevator and in the street outside reflected anger and disappointment.
Suspicions of corruption and graft were voiced.
“Who got paid off?” asked one man.
“That was so depressing on every level,” said a woman. “Thank goodness there were no children to hear it.”
Doubts were also expressed about Wharton, who had attempted to be as evenhanded as possible, but was perceived by some as just trying to make trouble for the coalition.
Two Jews, three opinions? That’s an understatement.