Corridors of Power: Never a yes-woman

Outgoing city comptroller Shlomit Rubin proved to three mayors she was no pushover.

Shlomit Rubin (photo credit: Courtesy)
Shlomit Rubin
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘It’s not easy to be mayor of Jerusalem,” wrote acclaimed poet Yehuda Amihai. He was right, of course, but it appears that mayor is not the only difficult job at City Hall. There are some positions that can easily turn into a real nightmare, such as legal adviser or city comptroller. Seeing as the latter is retiring, this is an opportune time to look into the life of a comptroller at Kikar Safra.
Last week, city comptroller Shlomit Rubin confirmed her imminent retirement, although officials close to her admitted that the public announcement by the municipal spokesman took her by surprise. Having reached official retirement age, Rubin is compelled to retire by the end of this year, according to the regulations of public service, but she wanted to announce it herself when it was the best time for her. Some sources say that she was even trying to find a way to remain at her post longer.
However, the hasty announcement took the wind out of her sails and left her with no recourse. A source at Kikar Safra suggested that perhaps it was a firm but elegant way to hustle her out of office before the good relationship between her and Barkat turned sour. True to form, Rubin refused to answer any questions.
The relationship between city comptroller and mayor has often been tense. In that regard, the most famous case is probably that of Uzi Sivan vs. Ehud Olmert. Sivan was the comptroller when Olmert became mayor in 1993. It is important to note that from the start, replacing such a legendary figure as Teddy Kollek wasn’t going to be easy for Olmert. On the other hand, it didn’t take long for Olmert to show that he was more than ready for the battlefield and that he wasn’t going to serve his term as an apologist.
One of the first points of friction was his relationship with the city comptroller. Olmert – to put it mildly – didn’t like the criticism leveled at him in Sivan’s reports.
By law, the comptroller is appointed by a committee headed by the mayor, but firing a comptroller – especially following loud disagreements with him (or her) – does not win kudos from the public. Olmert didn’t fire Sivan, but he made his life miserable. At one of the low points, one morning Sivan found his belongings strewn in the corridor and the lock to his office door changed, following Olmert’s instructions.
Olmert did the same a few years later to one of his deputies, Larissa Gerstein, who disagreed with him on a municipal issue and voted against it. The following morning, Gerstein also found a new lock on her office door.
Sivan wasn’t too impressed. He refused to cave in, and Olmert finally reinstated his rights. After a while Sivan decided, for personal reasons, to retire. Rubin took over in 1997. At first, quite a few people thought she would prove more malleable than her predecessor, but Rubin quickly proved that she was far from being a yes-woman.
Still, the relationship between her and Olmert never reached the same peak of hostility, though he did at least once, following the submission of one of her vitriolic annual reports on the corruption and misbehavior of municipality employees, declare to the city council: “I respect the comptroller but, nevertheless, reserve the right not to agree with her conclusions.”
Nevertheless, Rubin published report after report, harsher than ever. In the 2002 report, for example, she revealed the scandal of the Golovenchik brothers, who managed to dupe the municipality through the Moriah Company by exploiting the mayor’s desire to finish the works on the northern part of the Begin Highway,which Olmert wanted to inaugurate on the eve of the 1998 elections. The development company evidently had not thoroughly checked who the property belonged to, so just before the work was completed the two brothers sued the municipality for working on their property without a permit, forcing the city to pay $8 million for land estimated by experts to be worth only $200,000.
The report was hard on Olmert and on Moriah’s CEO, but Olmert refused to draw any conclusions from it regarding Moriah’s activities.
Another issue that wasn’t easy for Olmert to face was the city’s sanitation conditions. Rubin’s reports showed that, contrary to the mayor’s proud declarations, the city was in fact very dirty. Olmert may not have liked it, but Rubin never found the lock on her office door changed.
When Uri Lupolianski was elected mayor, despite his gentle manner tension rose quickly between him and the comptroller and, accordingly, Rubin’s annual reports were anything but kind to his leadership.
Lupolianski was proud of the emphasis he placed on high-quality service to the city’s residents, but Rubin’s reports revealed that the goodwill did not correspond to reality. In three consecutive reports, she proved that the number of legitimate claims against the municipality’s services was constantly increasing.
And here, too, the issue of sanitation was raised, sullying the relations between the sixth floor of Kikar Safra and the comptroller’s office.
One of the highlights of the reports during Lupolianski’s term was the welcome-to-Jerusalem project at the entrance to the city, which was redesigned and reconstructed five times. Rubin released at least two reports on the exorbitant cost – more than NIS 10 million so far – which many residents and municipal employees describe as “a sheer disgrace.”
Still, there was never anything close to a repeat of the Sivan-Olmert scenario.
Now Rubin is leaving, and thus far the stockpile of names at Kikar Safra has not rendered even one viable candidate to assume her position. But the main question is not who but what kind of comptroller will replace the friendly but feisty Shlomit Rubin.