An officer and a civil servant

Eitan Meir: I was not trying to be nice or to make people and employees like me. That was not my job.

eitan meir 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
eitan meir 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Last Thursday, at the opening of the city council meeting, Mayor Uri Lupolianski announced that the director-general of the municipality, Eitan Meir, had decided to leave City Hall. Lupolianski added a few words of praise to the man who, for the past four-and-a-half years, has planned, conducted and realized some of the major transformations in the city. After the mayor's announcement, Meir, known as the tough guy of Kikar Safra, sat there, in the first row behind the city council members, and for the first time in a long time, smiled and chatted instead of leaning on piles of documents. "The toughest guy around has laid down his shield," said an employee. "Look at him, even the color of his ties has changed from gray and blue to hot pink." Col. (ret.) Eitan Meir, 56, came to City Hall 13 years ago, at the invitation of his friend and then director-general Ra'anan Dinur, to join the civil service after he quit the army. Both men served in the Education Corps for a while. Meir accepted the invitation and quickly became identified as a hard-working employee with rather rude manners. One of the stories that circulated in City Hall was that on snowy days, when residents were keeping warm at home, Meir, who lives in Modi'in-Maccabim-Re'ut, managed to arrive at his office at 6:30 a.m. (usually he gets to work by 7 a.m. at the latest). In private conversations, he doesn't hesitate to express his disdain of "employees who do not work enough, who complain they are tired, who are not ready to serve at any hour." The director-general's tumultuous relationships with opposition members are also legendary: He was often at loggerheads with Meretz representative Pepe Alalu and recently, Meir Turgeman accused him of acting like the Gestapo (he later apologized). But according to the figures, Meir has accumulated some impressive achievements during his time at City Hall. The cumulative deficit dropped from NIS 600 million to less than NIS 200m. The municipality, which was close to being declared bankrupt by the Interior Ministry, moved from a running deficit to a slight plus in its budget in 2005, a balanced budget in 2006 and another expected plus by the end of 2007. These impressive results have had their price: In the opposition, Meir is accused of having transformed the municipality into a "business-like" enterprise. "They employ more and more parking inspectors, and every move you make here translates into money for the municipality's coffers," opposition leader Nir Barkat complained recently. Meir, not surprisingly, disagrees. This Monday, in an interview with In Jerusalem, he gave a personal account of his time on the fifth floor of Kikar Safra. For years you were an IDF officer. But when you became the highest-ranking professional at the Jerusalem Municipality, it was the first haredi mayor, who represents a non-Zionist public, who appointed you, a secular Zionist, to serve him and his coalition. Was it a difficult decision to accept the post? I had reservations. I come from a totally different background and it was not easy. But I am first and foremost a civil servant. Lupolianski was elected in democratic elections, and besides, I didn't [accept the position] to serve him but to serve Jerusalem. When he offered me the job, I couldn't allow myself to refuse. What kind of relationship did you have with the mayor and his coalition? It was, most of the time, fairly good. I have benefited from a free hand and a lot of confidence. There were also cases where I saw things differently. In those cases, I tried to convince the mayor, but once his decision was made, I implemented his policy to the best of my ability. That's the way I believe things should be done: The civil servants's job is to realize the policies of elected officials. If you cannot do it, you should not be in the job. Even in the cases I thought differently - and there were a few - it didn't get to that point. Did you decide to leave because you felt it was expected of you? Did you feel that otherwise you might have been hinted that it's time to go, or even have been fired? Absolutely not. I think there is a broad appreciation of what I did as director-general in four-and-a-half years. But I have decided that 37 years of public service (24 in the army and 13 at the municipality) is enough, and it's time to move on. Instead of public service, I will now serve my own interests and work in the private sector. People say you're not gentle, that you yell at employees, that you have no patience, that at meetings of heads of department you embarrass them in public. Is that the proper way to run a municipality? I've heard these stories. Part of it is folklore. But let me tell you this: You cannot run such a complex and complicated organization as the Jerusalem Municipality and always be nice. It's impossible. You have to be tough and demanding; otherwise it won't work. So yes, I was not trying to be nice or to make people and employees like me. That was not my job. But I believe I was fair. [According to Meir's personal assistants, dozens of employees keep sending letters full of praise and appreciation.] Perhaps it's not that they suddenly like you, but fear that once you and your deputy Yehudit Shalvi, and the new city engineer and maybe more high-ranking non-haredim will leave, the real impact of a haredi leadership will emerge? I am not responsible for people's decisions to stay or leave. I don't know about other people quitting here - I am leaving because I feel I've achieved all or almost all of my aims and it's time to move on. It has nothing to do with the haredi leadership. What do you count among your achievements? The light rail project, the [city's economic] rehabilitation program, the new computer system, the face-lift and the pedestrian malls in the city center, and balancing the city's budget are the most important achievements. The rehabilitation plan meant a loss of jobs for more than 1,000 people. True. And if this administration wishes to survive, it should shrink further from 6,100 employees to a maximum of 4,500 (when the plan started, there were 7,300 employees). That will be more than enough to achieve the real goal: To serve the citizens of the city. We do not have to construct roads, to produce events, but to assure the best possible services for the citizens. Do you mean privatization? Yes, by all means. I have already proudly admitted that I am not a socialist. Yes, but people were put out on the street and now you are saying it should happen again? That is not true. They all got very good redundancy packages, and yes, my job was not to secure jobs for people but to transform this administration into a functioning one. When you put forth the rehabilitation program, you said you'd ensure that qualified employees would not be among those quitting. In fact, that didn't really work. True, I didn't succeed completely in preventing some of the best people from leaving. But that doesn't mean that those who remained are not good workers. I have worked very hard, with the mayor's support, to save the economic life of the city. Here is an example: During the first two years of the intifada, the improvement tax earned from the city center was barely NIS 2m. It means that there was almost no economic life there. In 2007, the income from property tax in the area will reach NIS 150m. Need I say any more? There is no argument that this city's economy depends on the government and cannot rely on income from arnona alone. I, for instance, thought that the municipality should increase the culture budget, but the mayor thought that he needed the money for other urgent issues - for the benefit of the residents, in welfare, in improving the services. He thought that the culture budget, for instance, should come more from the government, because, after all, we're talking about the capital of the state and not any other city. So my job was to transform to facts on the ground the mayor's policy and decisions. Also, we didn't make any cut in the sanitation budget. On the contrary, we keep improving the level of services for the residents. Ask anyone in the city what they think of our municipal hot-line - it's a success story. This is what this mayor had in mind from his first days on the job, and this is what I helped implement on the ground. But you didn't succeed in getting more money from the government, although it is headed at the moment by the ex-mayor and the ex-director-general of this municipality? Please do not involve me in political issues. I am a civil servant. These issues belong on the political level. Go and ask them, not me. My job is to transform policy into facts on the ground, no more. True, I have my opinions and my thoughts, but I do not wish to share them with the public. Lately, even you have joined the opponents of city attorney Yossi Havilio. Are you not for the preservation of the law? I have always directed this municipality according to law. How do you feel about the discrepancy between high and low salaries in this municipality? I'm sorry for those who earn low salaries. Really. But people have to understand: If you want to keep the best and most qualified employees, you have to pay them according to their skills -otherwise they will leave. There is no other way. Do you have a special wish? Yes, I really hope they will not forget to invite me on the day they cut the ribbon for the light rail.