Whose council is it anyway?

Yerushalmim chairman Aaron Leibowitz (photo credit: FACEBOOK)
Yerushalmim chairman Aaron Leibowitz
(photo credit: FACEBOOK)
City councils (and parliaments in general) are a basic must in almost all societies (and not only in democratic systems), but too often tend to be the most disregarded bodies – and not only as a result of political aims. Strong leaders often tend to consider the debates that take place in such institutions, debates that are indeed sometimes long and fastidious, as obsolete or superfluous.
The Jerusalem City Council has met this kind of fate quite often in past decades, with variable results. Legendary mayor Teddy Kollek respected his council members, but veterans from that period say that in practice, he didn’t consult them too often. Mayor Ehud Olmert’s attitude was the closest thing to total disdain and his cynical remarks, equally addressed to members of his coalition as well as the opposition, revealed what he didn’t always bother to hide – that he held the council in little regard.
Mayor Nir Barkat, who began his public and political path as a close partner to civil associations (mostly on education) and devoted lot of time and attention to forming his first list to the council, seemed to bring a change.
But whether he changed his respect for the council’s democratic process or didn’t really mean it from the beginning, interactions between him and some council members of the council (especially from the opposition) have turned sour.
One of the privileges of the opposition is to present questions to the mayor, which he must, by rule, answer in writing by the next monthly council meeting.
During the meeting, the councilor who submitted the question has a right to present, ad-hoc, additional questions on the answer received.
The procedure may be long and fastidious, but that is the core of the democratic process, and the only way to ensure a free, open and fruitful process for the representatives of residents who are not part of the coalition. Sometimes, the situation for coalition members may be worse – since these are handcuffed by the coalition discipline imposed on them.
Laura Wharton (Meretz), until three months ago the sole representative of the opposition on the council, has on many occasions expressed a lack of patience – to put it mildly – with Barkat.
She has repeatedly tried to confront him about decisions of which she didn’t approve.
The pattern is almost the same every time. Wharton asks a question, gets a short answer, replies she is not satisfied with it, asks another question, gets an even shorter answer and from then on, it is usually a matter of a few minutes before the exchange becomes tense.
Things then devolve into a most unpleasant dialogue, on the edge of verbal violence, and end with a silencing of her microphone. (Unpleasant, but still a prerogative of the mayor, one must say.) Since last February, the three members of the Yerushalmim list have joined her on the benches of the opposition, and their chairman, Aaron Leibowitz, not exactly a fan of Barkat, has joined the team for some even more inflamed sessions. And last week, one more level of antagonism was reached with councilor Arieh King (Jerusalem United). His list is part of the coalition, while he himself has stopped being part of it after slamming the door behind him, alleging that Barkat is a disguised man of the Left who harms the prospect of installing more Jews in the eastern side of the city.
Moreover, during the festive council meeting held last week in the Kotel tunnels in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the reunification of the city, it happened again – and in an even worse way, according to opposition members.
During the visit of US President Donald Trump, the celebration of the 1967 anniversary and more, Barkat didn’t even bother to present his answers to opposition members. The opposition’s questions were submitted at least 10 days before the meeting, which should have given the mayor plenty of time to give answers.
Whether, as suggested by one of the councilors, Barkat sought to avoid the usual confrontation on such a festive occasion or just because, as hinted above, debates at councils have little importance in the eyes of politicians, the result was the same: no answers whatsoever to any of the questions submitted.
As for King, officially still a member of the coalition, his right to submit a motion for debate was also rejected, officially for the same reasons, but with the difference that King turned the matter into a small declaration of war on the mayor and the city’s legal adviser, attorney Eli Malka, who sustained Barkat’s decision not to give answers.