Jerusalem Municipality closes council meetings to the public

Opposition slams Barkat, saying he harms freedom of speech in the city.

Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat
For the fourth consecutive meeting, the Jerusalem Municipality intends to restrict public attendance of the monthly City Council meeting.
On its website earlier this week, the municipality invited the public to watch Thursday’s meeting on a large screen on the first floor of the municipality building while it is held in the main hall on the sixth floor.
In recent City Council meetings, various residents’ groups staged protests inside the main hall itself against various moves planned by the municipality. The protests were often aimed against Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.
For instance, in the meeting that was held on August 31, parents of children with cancer who were affected by the Health Ministry-Hadassah feud, protested against Barkat’s lack of involvement to solve the crisis. During the protest, they shouted at Barkat and criticized him personally, while he refused to talk to them. At some point, one of the parents called Barkat “a dictator.”
In some of the following meetings, restrictions were imposed on the public; a large screen was installed on the first floor, and not all residents were allowed to enter the sixth floor hall.
The municipality would not answer The Jerusalem Post’s question as to whether this situation is permanent.
However, it said – as it was first released on mynet – that the possibility of installing a glass wall between the sitting area and the council table is not being considered.
“Barkat is the one who added transparency to all municipal systems, and since he took office, all city council meetings have been open to the public – unlike in the past,” a statement that was sent to the Post read. “However, no parliament in the world can allow its guests to take advantage of an open meeting to disrupt its normal course – and neither can the Jerusalem Municipality.”
Opposition leader and mayoral candidate Ofer Berkovitch (Hitorerut) told the Post this move shows that Barkat cannot handle criticism, and uses his power as mayor to mute the public’s protests.
“It proves to us that democratic values and freedom of speech are not top priorities for Barkat,” he said.
“Despite the image of him that he tries to create, we see here a mayor who would not listen to criticism against him.... He often shuts microphones [during council meetings] and erases articles from meetings’ agendas with no proper reasons,” Berkovitch said.
City Councilwoman Laura Wharton (Meretz) told the Post that this move comes amid what she sees as a trend to limit transparency by the mayor.
“The mayor is closing himself off from the public. His official policy is not to meet with people,” she said. “Closing the council meetings to the public is yet another move in this direction. He is working by himself and does not consult with any council member, and there is zero transparency.... A good example of this was when he advanced his plan to divide the city [the neighborhoods plan].”
The municipality said in response: “It is sad to see that Hitorerut decided to use the transparency that Barkat implemented in order to summon provocateurs who disrupt and interrupt the council meeting. The Hitorerut faction also cynically and politically exploits innocent residents and encourages them to interrupt, instead of helping them find solutions to their problems.
“[The municipality] will maintain the live online broadcast of the council meetings, and residents can come to city hall to watch it on a large screen and to meet with council members outside the hall. However, it will not be allowed to misbehave only to create a provocation – just as [this would not be allowed in] any other parliament in the world,” it said.