J'lem community associations fight Barkat's closure decree

Jlem community associat

The Chairpersons Forum of Jerusalem's community administrations on Monday evening launched a campaign to stop what they called "[Mayor Nir] Barkat's plan to liquidate the Jerusalem Association of Community Councils and convert the city's community administrations into municipal entities," which members said would undermine the autonomy of the long-independent neighborhood bodies. All 28 of the city's community administrations, which were created in 1994 by longtime Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, have since their inception been the grassroots connection between neighborhood residents and the bureaucracy of City Hall. Such administrations have also supported local residents in recent battles to save city landmarks such as the Jerusalem Pool, the Smadar Cinema house, or the so-called "ghost houses" of Rehavia, along with initiatives to enhance public transportation in Jerusalem and other local causes. In November, Barkat announced his decision to close down the JACCC, which gives professional support to the community associations, after failing to reach an agreement with the council chairmen on holding new elections for council boards, which are required by law, although no time period is specified. Forum members say they agreed that elections were necessary, but wanted a gradual process, with trial runs in three neighborhoods while preparations were made in the others. This was necessary, they said, because some neighborhoods were more diverse, calling for more planning before holding elections. While closed-door discussions between the mayor and JACCC members have reportedly been taking place since last month's decision, Monday's press conference signified the forum's intent to go public with their fight, which forum members said was necessary to ensure that local residents retained their voice in the future development of the city. "Barkat's plan to liquidate the JACCC will be a death blow to the community administrations and their autonomy," said forum chairman, Zeev Lander, himself a community administration head in the capital's Ramot neighborhood. "The [JACCC] is the professional, social and political anchor of the administrations, and its liquidation will accelerate the mayor's intention to wipe out the community administrations in their current form." Lander's neighborhood, for example, poses a prime example of why forum members are opposed to holding immediate elections for new council boards. Since 2003, the last time such elections were held, Ramot's population has become 40 percent haredi - a near about-face for the demographics of the once mostly secular neighborhood. While Lander has been successful in lobbying for the creation of two community administrations in the mixed neighborhood - one for national religious and secular residents and the other for haredim - rushing into elections, he said, could throw the delicate balance that currently exists there into disarray. The overriding fear in all neighborhoods, Lander explained, was that the community associations would lose their authority. "The city's residents will be compromised," Lander said. "The budget will be in the hands of political parties and the [city's] inhabitants will have no say." In response to Monday night's press conference, the mayor's office released a statement slamming the forum's campaign, labeling it a "waste of taxpayer money" that "has been undertaken with no budgetary authorization." The mayor's statement also stressed that the community associations would remain independent, "as they always have been, and will continue to be." "In elections that will take place soon, residents will choose 9 people for every association that will carry out their duties as volunteers and serve the public only, and not the municipality ... The goal of changing the way the community associations are built is to simplify and enhance the system and advance the participation of the public," the statement read.