Comptrolling the city

Rubin released two reports that "point to an ongoing culture of disdain for the law."

jerusalem rooftop 88 (photo credit: )
jerusalem rooftop 88
(photo credit: )
This week, Municipal Comptroller, Attorney Shlomit Rubin, released two reports, a special report on the municipal authority for haredi education and the annual comptroller's report. Both reports, says Rubin, "point to an ongoing culture of disdain for the law, abuse of power, and unacceptable 'mutual back-scratching.'" Although her manner is usually mild, in releasing the reports the comptroller said publicly that the reports had been written despite "attempts to squelch the review." In reference to the apparently increasing pressures, Rubin wrote that "the attempts to terrorize the comptroller by taking disciplinary action and shutting people up... will not dissuade the comptroller in the future from fulfilling her task." The report, which spans more than 1,000 pages, deals with a wide variety of municipal failures in the various departments. In at least one case, Rubin's severe criticism has led to a surprising result: the assistant head of Manhi (the Jerusalem Education Administration), Hannah Gilat, whose work was reviewed in response to the large number of parents who had complained about her work, reached her own conclusions and resigned from her position. Overall, says the comptroller, the findings reveal that little has changed in the municipality's mode of functioning, including promotions that defy legal requirements and proper procedure, and violation of laws regarding tenders. A review of the municipal properties reveals a disturbing lack of respect for public property. According to the comptroller, the municipality does not adhere to regulations regarding allocation of properties and apparently does not even know what properties it has and how to maintain their value. The municipality persists in waiving property improvement taxes. This year's waiver was granted to the Holyland Project; the municipality waived taxes valued at approximately 40 per cent of the cost of the project, totalling nearly $17 million in waivers. Rubin complains that most of the information about the project is unavailable and that her office will continue to investigate during the coming year. The municipality does not enforce the laws of peddling, and businesses continue to take over public areas and illegally display their wares on the sidewalks, endangering pedestrians. Absurdly, due to the infrastructure work for the light rail, the municipality has paid extensive compensation to businessmen for loss of areas that they actually had no legal right to use. As in past years, the haredi departments are the stars of the report: the department of religious culture, headed by Rabbi Gedalia Shreiber, who is considered to be allied with MK Ya'acov Litzman and one of the most powerful men in the Agudat Yisrael party, spent hundreds of thousands of shekels for rental of halls for extensive periods of time for cultural activities for the haredi population. However, in at least three cases - in Kiryat Moshe, Ramat Polin and Bayit Vegan - the halls are in a state of disrepair and the events never took place. In one case, the municipality did in fact attempt to return the property to the owner and get its money back, but the move was blocked by the head of the Finance Committee. The municipality permits food stands to operate within public schools, yet despite the fact that these stands do good business, the municipality has not required them to pay for use of the property or even municipal taxes (arnona) - the municipality even pays for their electricity and water. In this case, the comptroller noted that the municipality could, at the very least, offer these food stands to unemployed or disabled residents under the care of the welfare department. The Safra Square Authority, that the comptroller report describes as an unnecessary and redundant body, continues to operate. It has become part of Moriah, a municipal subsidiary, but this has not put a stop to the wasted funds, according to the comptroller. Since the mayor is also the Chairman of the Board of Moriah, the comptroller noted that it is about time that the mayor disband the Authority once and for all. The comptroller further noted that antennas for cellular transmission have been placed on almost every available rooftop, without any coordination between the municipality and the Environment Ministry, clearly ignoring the health needs of the public. The report also relates to external bodies - such as subsidiaries, the light rail and the mass transportation system. The report found that with regard to the preparatory and infrastructure works for the public transportation routes along Hebron Road there is no correspondence between the financial investment and the inconvenience that the residents have suffered (and are still suffering, we note) and the results. "In addition to the time-frame, which was doubled, all of the mistakes and corrections have cost the taxpayer large sums of money," the comptroller wrote and added, "the public can continue to anticipate extensive discomfort, when ...the time comes to lay the rails for the light rail." The Moriah company, which only two years ago was "awarded" a sharply critical review, was reviewed yet again with regard to management and finances. It didn't fare very well this time, either. According to the review, Moriah regularly ignores laws and regulations and suffers from extensive mismanagement, attributed (yet again) directly to the mayor. As an example: The comptroller discovered that the company has continued to work with the same legal firm for more than 20 years, although the law requires the company to change firms at least once every three years. Furthermore, the mayor's personal attorney is also a partner in that firm; this same lawyer has represented the mayor in cases when the municipal legal council has refused to represent him. The severity of the report on the haredi education authority, headed by Benny Cohen, came as a surprise even to the opposition. According to Rubin, Cohen has exceeded his authority and spent sums of money far in excess of his budget. Most of the haredi educational institutions in this city are not municipal public institutions. Although the law does not require the municipality to fund such institutions, it has been doing so for several years. In 2003, the budget for the haredi schools in the city totaled NIS 23,940,000; in 2004, it was reduced to NIS 20,190,000. The major portion of the budget is allocated towards maintenance, construction, renovation and preparation of buildings and establishment of mobile units, as necessary. The comptroller focused on the high cost of this work and discovered that most of the work was performed at Cohen's sole discretion. The review further discovered that most of these works, including building violations, building permits and construction variances, despite their high cost to the taxpayer, were never registered or recorded in protocols, as required by law. Moreover, four schools regularly benefited from these improvements, while most did not. Cohen has exceeded his budget by NIS 6,410,626. Most of the work was carried out without the required building license, which is a particularly disturbing fact, considering that this is a department of the municipality, responsible for implementing the law. From time to time, Cohen did bring plans to the municipal council, but then he deliberately withheld information. In other instances, he falsified the location of the renovations, so that it would appear that they were being performed in approved schools. Cohen persisted in this activity despite repeated warnings from the legal adviser and a written warning from the municipal director-general. According to the law, the municipal director and treasurer bear personal criminal liability in cases where the approved budget is exceeded. "The attitude of the head of the haredi education department towards these warnings reveals his crass disdain for the law," the comptroller wrote, adding that this behavior requires both a criminal and disciplinary response. She further writes, "Despite the physical difficulties in these institutions, we cannot accept a mode of operation that blatantly violates the law and contradicts municipal regulations and procedures." City councilman Sa'ar Natanel (Meretz) responded that this is one of the most severe reviews of a senior municipal official ever released and that "the culture of governance of the municipality is corrupt." Council Meir Tourjeman (Jerusalem Will Succeed) announced that he has demanded that the Interior Ministry investigate whether Cohen can be considered personally responsible for these violations, and has already filed a complaint with the police. The municipal spokesman responded that the municipality has established a special committee to study the report and its conclusions. He further noted that "conclusions will be reached over the coming weeks."