You say haredi, I say Sephardi

Shas city councillor Eli Simhayof defends the decision to fund a gala event from the culture budget.

If nothing pressing or unexpected comes up, the city council will next convene in September, two months before elections. As our elected city councillors clean out their desks and head out to their annual vacation, let's take a look at some of the city council's recent decisions. One of the latest "scandals" at Kikar Safra is connected to deputy mayor and municipal Finance Committee head, Rabbi Eliyahu Simhayof (Shas). Only a handful of months ago, rumors circulated that Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef had instructed that Simhayof be taken off the party list for the next city council. Recently, however, rumor had it that the deputy was back on. Whether or not related to this alleged development, last week Simhayof organized a gala event "for the honor of Torah," which he financed with public funds: NIS 550,000 drawn from the municipal culture budget. Let's back up a bit. During former mayor Ehud Olmert's days, a separate culture budget was allocated for haredi events. True, it is a small budget (about NIS 1.5 million), but the general culture budget (NIS 10m.) is not very impressive either. So why did Simhayof decide to finance the rally - which was hosted, surprise, surprise, by Yosef - through the general budget and not the haredi one? "This is Sephardi culture; it's a part of the general culture," Simhayof explained at the last city council meeting. Sources at Kikar Safra said that Simhayof didn't have a choice: his Ashkenazi haredi counterparts at city council wouldn't dream of allowing him to use one shekel from the haredi culture budget, they said. City attorney Yossi Havilio, who doesn't really care about the difference between Sephardi and general culture, took issue with something else: Simhayof forgot to submit the project for approval before it took place. Not surprisingly, Havilio and the opposition were outraged by the use of public funds for an event that sounded more like a political gathering than a cultural one, especially with an already meager culture budget. But it's not all losses for the opposition. Over the last year, the local taxi drivers association waged a battle, with opposition leader Nir Barkat's support, against Mayor Uri Lupolianski's decision to raise to NIS 9,000 the annual municipal fee for taxi station signposts. Their efforts finally paid off: the municipality announced that the fee would be lowered to NIS 1,500 for the coming year, and would increase to a maximum of NIS 2,500 over the next three years. Who said opposition at city council has no power? Moving on, during Olmert's second term at Kikar Safra, building the Begin Highway was one of the biggest items on the agenda. Unbeknown to the Moriah Construction Company, a sister-company of the Jerusalem Municipality which headed the project, a bridge along the highway at the Lifta junction was located on private property. Moriah assumed that all the land allocated for the highway belonged to the Israel Lands Administration. As construction proceeded, no one noticed the two men who visited the site each morning to inspect the building developments. About two months before the project was completed, with Olmert eager to cut the ribbon before the 1998 elections, the two men finally revealed their identity: the Golovenchik brothers, owners of a large part of the plot for the highway's construction. Not surprisingly, the brothers secured a work-stop order on the grounds that their land was being developed without their permission. Construction stopped - at a daily loss of NIS 1m. - and with elections just days away Olmert pressured his treasurer to reach an agreement with the Golovenchik brothers. The outcome was astounding: the municipality paid $8 million for their plot, which was estimated by two independent experts at $200,000. A couple of years later, after the event came to the public's attention with the release of the city comptroller's report, Havilio decided to take the matter to court, eager to save as much as possible of the taxpayers' money. But for unknown reasons, his request to hire an external attorney was turned down. Recently, ex-city treasurer Yissachar Ben-Haim sued the municipality for refusing Havilio's request. In response, Lupolianski asked Havilio to defend the municipality against Ben-Haim, but Havilio refused, arguing that he shared Ben-Haim's stance. Lupolianski's reaction to the chain of events was interesting: he appointed Havilio's deputy (the two do not speak to each other), Elazar Mor, to represent the municipality against Ben-Haim. Meanwhile, Havilio still hasn't secured legal aid in his lawsuit against the Golovenchik brothers, who, by the way, have filed a countersuit against the municipality for the amount of $26m. If Havilio doesn't get the professional assistance he needs, this surreal story could end with a municipal loss of $34m. To top things off, this week municipal director-general Yair Ma'ayan revealed that until recently his wife had business dealings with the Golovenchik brothers, a detail Ma'ayan neglected to mention upon being appointed to his position. In response, city councilor and Investigative Committee head Pepe Alalu (Meretz), who spearheaded the decision to sue the Golovenchik brothers, declared: "I have already spent eight years of my life on this unbelievable story. It seems I will have to continue for a long time, but this is public money, I will not capitulate."