The wrath of the south

Two different groups of Jerusalem residents agreed to sit together at the same table - with terrible results.

Moshe Lion (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Moshe Lion
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
In 2009, following a round of elections for the local councils in the capital, two relatively small and geographically close councils were united into one large council – and the Darom (South) Local Council and Community Center was born.
Apparently, this was a birth under a bad sign, since, from about a few months after the election, nothing could be described as less harmonious than this new council.
“The idea to put together under the same roof two such different populations was doomed right from the beginning,” says a member of the council staff, “but I think that nobody thought it would reach such levels of dysfunction and even violence.”
Violent and dysfunctional it is indeed – to such a level that at least twice, meanwhile, attempts were made to close it down and reorganize it into two separate councils. Mostly for financial reasons, but also because nobody at Safra Square wanted to admit that the creation of one council for two different neighborhoods was a bad idea, the split has so far been canceled, though the problems are still there and growing.
The board of the united council was elected in 2012, and it was carefully chosen so that it would represent the two different populations. On one side, the residents of Gonen and Rassco, two relatively well-to-do, mostly young families; and on the other side, the residents of Katamon Het and Tet, a low-income population, whose representatives on the board apparently felt, right from the beginning, underestimated and perhaps even discriminated against.
The tensions and the problems surfaced from the beginning, but by 2015 the Jerusalem Society for Local Councils and Community Centers had published a report describing the aggressive atmosphere at the board’s meetings, sometimes even including physical violence.
The main issue has been the suspicion of each side that the other gets more services at its expense.
On top of this – again according to the staff member, who refused to be identified at this stage – “there were differences in what each side wanted to run in the council and community center’s programs.
They didn’t share the same taste about what’s preferable.”
The municipality’s legal adviser was informed almost in real time about the problems in the council, followed by warning letters addressed to the persons involved in the case, but apparently it was not enough to put an end to the situation, and things continued to deteriorate. The municipality and the councils provided some solutions, such as workshops on developing organizational and consulting skills, but nothing helped, and by the end of 2015 the decision was taken to deconstruct the council and later split it back into two separate councils and community centers.
But then, as a last attempt, the newly appointed holder of the local councils and community centers portfolio in the municipality, council member Moshe Lion, stepped in and tried to restart the situation on the ground.
One of the most urgent issues was the lack of trust between the board, the management and the staff, especially toward the preschools administration. Employees did not receive their salaries, others were fired by members of the board who did not have the authority to do so, and the like. As a result of all this dysfunction, a program implemented in the Katamon Het and Tet part of the council to advance early childhood programs in the preschools was canceled by the foundation that financed it. Later on, the program was reinstated but with less of a budget, and it is still not clear what will happen this school year.
Yossi Saidov, a resident of Gonen and a longtime social activist, who was elected to the board in 2011, was forced to resign, but he says that the problems there are far more serious than the fact that he was not given any option other than to leave.
“Our children do not get what they deserve, things are not working properly, money is wasted on unnecessary things, and nothing is working out. It’s a shame, and this should be stopped immediately.
This unification is not working; the municipality should take an immediate decision,” says Saidov, who is also one of the leaders of the struggle for the Mesila Park project and the opposition of Gonen residents to move the light rail’s Blue Line from Emek Refaim to Harakevet Street.
The last blow – for now – has been the case of one of the council’s secretaries who allegedly added to her salary large sums to which she was not entitled.
Lion says that while he does not disregard the problems, he believes that some of the issues have been exaggerated, also because some of the people involved have their own interests to promote.
But things are not that bad, he says, or at least are improving. The parties have agreed to sign a document stating that from now on, all contacts between the board and the management will be conducted in a respectful way.
“I agree that these are two quite different populations, and it may be really difficult to get it together, but I have managed to get the attention and the engagement of all sides to start on a new path and move on. I believe that this is still possible.”