Getting with the program

Barkat's mayoral blueprint is far-reaching and ambitious, but how realistic is it?

nir barkat great 224 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi [file])
nir barkat great 224 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi [file])
Three weeks after the dramatic outcome of the local elections that brought him to victory, newly elected Mayor Nir Barkat is stepping into his new role. On Wednesday at 10 a.m., Barkat opened the official inauguration ceremony and entered the mayoral chambers on the sixth floor at Kikar Safra. Fourteen days later, on December 17, Barkat will, for the first time, head a city council meeting. Loaded with the promises for a better life he delivered during his campaign, full of energy and convinced of his capacity to fulfill that dream, Barkat plans to make some radical changes in the city he will be in charge of for the next five years at least. The "Barkat Program for Jerusalem," the new mayor's working plan, is a six-point program that, at first reading, looks like a typically ambitious campaign blueprint. A second look gives rise to the feeling that "ambitious" may be too mild a word to describe it. In several of the items, the program sounds more like a prime minister's campaign than a mayor's blueprint. To mention just a few, Barkat plans to change the situation in matters such as housing (municipal intervention in the local housing market); commerce and employment (accelerated economic growth and reinforcement of business activity, including an increase in tourism of up to 10 million visitors a year); and the young generation's needs (creating a municipal job placement system - which already exists but apparently is not very successful - to find appropriate fields of employment) - all of which are usually national-scale issues. In addition, there are more common municipal matters, such as education, environment and sanitation. The management of the city itself will, according to Barkat's plan, combine vision and the ability to achieve results. The new mayor also brings a totally new approach to the satellite towns, such as Ma'aleh Adumim, where many Jerusalemites are moving to get cheaper housing and arnona (property tax). He believes they should no longer be regarded as a threat to Jerusalem's status or competition for taxes. In his plan, Barkat wants to create a "corporation of cities" to improve the situation regarding shared matters such as sewage and industrial zones, as well as issues that concern the Jewish population of the greater Jerusalem region. "The plan's ambition is its strength and, at the same time, its most problematic aspect," comments a former high-ranking employee in City Hall, who asked not to be identified. "If I had to choose between average candidates, who usually don't even think in terms of planning their future mayorship, and a candidate with vision, I would prefer the vision and the planning," adds the former employee. "But vision is something one has to fulfill, and Barkat's vision is so far beyond a practical mayor's vision, that I cannot see how, in the actual political scene, he will be able to deliver the goods. Some of his intentions require radical changes in the attitude of the government employees, not to mention its meaning in terms of budget. In other words, what lies at the bottom of this plan is an implicit assumption that Barkat has the power to influence and even change the government's agenda, more than his predecessor [Uri Lupolianski] and even [Ehud] Olmert, and the results here are not clear. Besides the fact that he acts as if he's been elected prime minister and not mayor of this city, Barkat gives the impression that he believes he can change the priorities of the municipality under his control by using its budget differently - and I don't see how he can achieve this. But in any case, his plans will have to be developed and implemented during more than one term, that's for sure," says the former employee. In Barkat's circles, the criticisms are known and, judging by the serenity some of his closest assistants show, they are not really worried. Barkat has said more than once that he is confident in his ability to fulfill his promises. "We are aware of the very high level of expectations we have raised. Nir is fully aware of what he has taken upon himself, and although he is excited, he is convinced that this is the right thing to do - and he is ready for it. Barkat is going to govern this city according to a plan that is duly prepared," says Michal Shalem, Barkat's recently appointed chief of staff. For Dr. Israel Kimhi, a scholar at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies and head of the department of planning policy during Teddy Kollek's term at the municipality, Barkat is on the right path. "A city like Jerusalem should certainly have a department of planning and strategy. It is of the utmost importance that the municipality work with and according to a strategic planning program, according to a vision, to a clear idea and program of where this municipality wants to go and what it wants to reach. It's impossible otherwise." According to Kimhi, in Kollek's days, although it wasn't yet called "strategy," the department of planning policy was the closest thing to it, and it gave the municipality a framework that enabled a minimum of working tools. Olmert shut down the department. But, says Kimhi, "It's time it was reinstated in order to translate the vision into realistic plans and actions to achieve the mayor's ideas." SO NOW that the posters have been removed, the campaign has concluded and the hundreds of volunteers and supporters have been sent back to their daily life, Barkat is confronted for the first time with cold reality and the main question: Will he be able to "deliver the goods" for which he's been chosen? According to his closest assistants and to words he has himself expressed on several occasions, what the residents of the city will experience with Barkat at the helm will be a totally different scenario. In other words, Barkat has no intention of playing the role of the nice guy who smiles at various photo-ops. He means business. The question is, of course, will he have the tools and the power to introduce the changes he is talking about? "If you read his program carefully," says the former employee, "one of the first things you understand is that Barkat plans to be in office for a long time. Some of the tasks he undertakes will clearly require more than one term, perhaps even more than two. He's talking about radical and wide-ranging changes in typical ministerial issues like housing, education, jobs opportunities, which are far beyond a mayor's purview. In other words, this is a vision - much more than a working plan. And, of course, the primary requisite to fulfill it would be committed and generous cooperation from the government - and this is exactly the major problem. To obtain the support and the funding for this, one has to be a real persona grata within the government - any government. Frankly, I don't see, from what I know about Barkat's position, how he is going to achieve that. Former mayor Olmert was part of the political system, and that enabled him to bring in the huge budgets he needed for his infrastructure plans for the city (roads, bridges and so on). I'm afraid Barkat is not in that position." Asked if the new mayor was not overdoing it and stepping into unknown territory with different rules on the national level, Shalem replies, "One has to understand who Nir Barkat is in order to evaluate his capacities to implement his plans. If you throw him out the door, he will enter through the window. He will stick to his goal until he achieves it. There is no way to sideline him when he is convinced he has to do something. And he has patience. Remember: Barkat is a marathon runner, a long-distance runner. Things will perhaps take time, but there is no way he will give up." Another aspect is the authority that lies in the mayor's hands. It is a widely accepted belief that mayors are totally independent and have even wider powers than ministers. "The mayor has all the necessary authority to implement his plans," says Kimhi. "True, he has to obtain the interior minister's interest and approval - but since Barkat's plans will save money and not waste more, and since we're talking about Jerusalem, the largest city and the nation's capital, I see no reason why it wouldn't work. His ideas about the corporation of cities, for example, are a true metropolitan vision, and that is exactly what is needed today. His plan to introduce philanthropy in education is a good one. We already have philanthropy in the city; imagine what we would have here without the tremendous input of the Jerusalem Foundation. Since the government is not able to give the money that is needed, there is no other choice. And a boost in the education system in Jerusalem is crucial. An exemplary education system could be a deciding factor as to whether people remain in the city or not. The current situation, with investment per student in Jerusalem lower than in small cities in the rest of the country, is unacceptable. Philanthropy could be the answer." It seems that despite his lack of experience - an issue often raised regarding Barkat - the new mayor has already found ways to promote his ideas. And one thing is certain: Barkat understands that the support of various ministries is vital, and he is already working on it. "Let me tell you first on what we base our expectations for success," says Shalem. "In the past few days, Barkat and his team, including myself, have met with officials of various ministries. Our first meeting was with the Finance Ministry. The most important thing I can tell you about that meeting was the favorable and supportive reactions we received there. They said, 'We're happy to receive, at last, a request from the Jerusalem Municipality. Please submit working plans to us, and you will see the results.' They confirmed what we already knew: that in the past five years, no proposal or request had been submitted from the Jerusalem Municipality. They can't do our job. After all, isn't it the mayor's task to come with ideas and plans?" One of the volatile issues that the former employee is hinting at is Barkat's plan to allow students the choice of educational institutions, rather than the current system of mandatory school districts. "The reform that Barkat is planning in this area will require a huge amount of money. The option for students to choose the school they want to go to would also create the need to construct new schools, and there is no money in the municipality's budget for this," says the former employee. According to Barkat's plan, total freedom of choice for junior and high school will be given to students in the city. "Full parental choice, removal of the quota mechanism and neighborhood zoning restrictions for school placement… 90% of students will be admitted to their first choice of school." True, the situation at present does not facilitate this initiative, since many schools and kindergartens in the secular sector are being handed over to haredi institutions, where the number of children is increasing all the time. In order to allow secular or religious Zionist students to go to the schools of their choice, the municipality has to supply the space for these students - and that is not likely to happen unless new schools are built. And that would require additional funding from the Education Ministry. For the outgoing head of the Finance Committee, Eli Simhayof (Shas), things are rather straightforward. "The new mayor will have to prove his ability to work out his plans. Now that the time for hugs and smiles is over, we'll see how he acts and works, and we'll watch the media's attitude. This is the test of the media. They will have to show how impartial and fair they are. Meanwhile, on one issue at least, I must say I am disturbed: This Sunday, less than a week before he steps into his new functions, letters of dismissal were sent to dozens of people at City Hall, without any consideration or attempt to find alternative solutions. All the assistants of the outgoing members of the former coalition were fired, including municipality employees - and not only those on personal contracts. I understand that Barkat has a huge number of assistants to whom he has obligations. While he cannot, obviously, increase the number of employees, the easiest thing for him to do is fire people and bring in his people. It won't work. We will not allow it, nor will the chairman of the employees' committee." It is important to note that Barkat was supportive of the rehabilitation plan of the municipality, which reduced the number of employees by 1,000. Thus he will find it difficult to add new employees to the municipality staff, beyond the four positions every new mayor is entitled to without releasing a tender. Simhayof believes that this is the real reason behind the wave of firing that started this week, "literally throwing into the streets people who have served us, the elected officials, for years, without batting an eyelash." Barkat spokesman Evyatar Elad was not aware of the dismissals. Simhayof, who at press time is not even certain whether his party will be part of the coalition, knows there's no way he will be appointed deputy mayor under Barkat, thus losing a hefty salary. Asked what his plans are, Simhayof confirms that he is a candidate for the job of director-general for the Beit Shemesh Municipality. But he adds that in any case, whether his party will be part of the coalition or not, he will remain a city council member. "We have to keep an eye on Barkat's activities. We can't abandon our constituency without any defense," he says. Although Barkat is preparing a team of experts to help him on the level of strategic planning, he will inevitably face various degrees of opposition inside the bureaucracy at Kikar Safra. "The system can beat him, absolutely. This is a serious challenge," says a high-ranking official in the finance department. "The administration, by definition, doesn't like change. We bureaucrats tend to swaddle ourselves in our positions, and we have the strength to make him fail. It's a challenge. He has to be careful not to falter right from the start, otherwise he will be classified as weak, and he won't be able to budge the system." A first taste of what awaits Barkat might be found in the recent declarations of the chairman of the municipality employees' committee, Zion Dahan, who has already opened a front, threatening to go on strike if his requests are not fulfilled. PERHAPS THE most ambitious part of Barkat's program deals with education, an issue that brought him into the realm of public affairs years ago when, as a father, he was confronted for the first time by the strict zone registration in the city. "Our plan is to improve the education system in the city, to turn it into one of the most attractive systems available," says Shalem. The first day after his election, Barkat gathered a group of experts in various fields and put them to work on drafting plans and proposals for a number of critical issues. Later on, the team - or part of it - will form the core of the strategic department at Kikar Safra, headed by Barkat. This, in addition of the City Hall committees comprising city council members and the public committee, on which residents serve as well. "The education planning team will be headed by Rabbi Shai Piron [head of Hakol Hinuch, which develops educational initiatives]." Other members of this planning team include Danny Bar-Giora (former principal of the arts high school), Prof. Navah Ben-Zvi (head of Hadassah College) and Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein (head of Tzohar rabbis) "They are part of the first 100-day team," explains Shalem. "Their first task is to map the real situation and needs in terms of education and to develop models for improving the teaching methods in our system. We have already had meetings with people at the Education Ministry; the Jerusalem Education Administration [Manhi] is involved. And with the financial support of the three-pronged education foundation, we will also have the necessary funding. [The planned foundation will be comprised of public, philanthropic and business funding.] The goal is to incorporate new pedagogical concepts into the education system, to create a new platform on which to handle educational issues in order to foster equal opportunity in education," explains Shalem. "I BELIEVE there must be municipal intervention in the local housing market to ensure that everyone will be able to live in Jerusalem," reads the opening line of the chapter on housing in Barkat's plan. "…The establishment of a corporation of cities for the Jewish local authorities in the greater Jerusalem region..." "These are typical issues in which government involvement and participation are required," remarks the former employee. "Housing, regulations on construction and rentals, construction permits, including east Jerusalem or creating a corporation of cities - these are all results of government decisions. It is not in a mayor's hands. I'm not sure Barkat understands that. Again, I appreciate the vision and his desire to change and improve, but one has to be realistic. And in any case, these are not things you can achieve within weeks or even months. These changes, providing they can actually be implemented, will take years. The commitment to reduce arnona for students is exclusively in the hands of the Interior Ministry - the mayor has no say in this matter. Take for example one of Barkat's best-known plans - increasing the number of tourists [to 10 million]. This is not an impossible achievement - we will reach that number anyway within a few years, at least as long as we don't face dramatic security events. But again, this is a goal to be achieved through close cooperation with the government; in this case, first the tourism minister. If you want to bring 10 million tourists into the city, you have to prepare the infrastructure first, and that is not something you can achieve through the municipal budget," concludes the former employee. The budget is almost ready; but, says the municipality's chief accountant, Eli Zituk, "Some changes can still be made. For example, if the new mayor decides to transfer funds from one department to another - of course, according to the needs of the city - it is possible within a certain limit." And indeed, at the launching of the Hamshushalayim festival on Sunday evening, Barkat announced in his speech that one of his first steps as mayor will be to double the budget of the culture department, from NIS 10 million to NIS 20. "We are, of course, aware of the problems and difficulties," says Shalem. "We are already working in cooperation with the various ministries. Regarding our plan for affordable housing, what we aim to do is obtain a total synchronization of incentives for the developers and builders and to obtain the support of the agents as well. We have already met with the heads of the agents' association, and the forecasts for full cooperation seem very encouraging," she says. "And another thing: We are aware of the rare window of opportunity we have now, in the national election period. Nir has already met with the three major candidates. The meeting with opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu was very constructive, but we also met with Kadima head Tzipi Livni and Labor leader Ehud Barak. All three pledged to support Jerusalem and reacted very positively to Barkat's suggestions and requests. Nir has asked them to put Jerusalem at the top of their priorities.. In terms of money, we are putting a lot of emphasis on two issues. One is to resume the takanat Yerushalayim [government compensation for the revenue lost due to arnona discounts] fully. We aim to get back the NIS 190m. we had in 2007 (instead of the NIS 169m. in 2008) and to increase it to NIS 1 billion within a decade. As for the reductions in taxes imposed by the law on the municipality's budget, we will request that the government cover it totally. Reductions for large families and impoverished residents is honorable, but why should it be taken from our modest budget? After all, Jerusalem is the poorest city in the country. Is that the way to help and support it - by adding the cost of these reductions? We're talking about NIS 440m. a year - this is a huge sum of money. There's no reason the residents of Jerusalem should pay it out of their pockets. It's the government's responsibility," says Shalem. In response to the comment that Barkat's attitude is more like that of a prime minister than a mayor, Shalem asserts, "Yes, absolutely. We are going to turn Jerusalem into the most important ministry of the government of Israel."