Mitzna to the rescue

Haifa's former mayor volunteers to help bring tiny Yeroham from despair to repair.

amram mitzna 88 (photo credit: )
amram mitzna 88
(photo credit: )
What happens when a secular, Ashkenazi, left-wing, Laborite ex-general and ex-mayor of the traditionally secular, Ashkenazi, Laborite city of Haifa goes down to the Negev to take over one of its bankrupt, traditionally religious, right-wing Mizrahi development towns? In the match-up of Amram Mitzna and Yeroham, what happens is something like love at first sight. At the weekly Tuesday shouk convened in a parking lot off Borenstein, Yeroham's main street, the local bargain-hunters are abuzz with talk of Mitzna, who took the job of caretaker town manager last November when the Interior Ministry fired the elected council head for aggravated financial mismanagement. A crowd soon gathers, with one resident after another eager to talk Mitzna up. "He's brought a lot of optimism to Yeroham," says housewife Shula Yosef, 49, sounding a theme heard frequently throughout this well-kept but seemingly motionless, actionless town of 10,000. "He goes out to listen to people, in the schools, in the shouk - he treats people with respect." The biggest change Mitzna has brought is the reopening of the community center, the heart of this town's social life, and the paying of salaries at City Hall, the kindergartens and the family treatment center, all of which were shut down for months at a time because Yeroham ran out of money to pay their salaries. It wasn't Mitzna personally who brought local services back to life - it was the government in Jerusalem that provided the municipality with millions of shekels in emergency funds once Mitzna and his management committee took over. "Mitzna is a brave man and an honest man," says Vivian Biton, who works at one of the local children's centers. "He gave up his nice house in Haifa and rented an apartment down here." Alongside the praise came one very vehement complaint: he'd raised the arnona, or municipality tax, by 13.5 percent. "What does he think this is, Herzliya? I won't pay it, he can sue me for it. What do we get for our money? There's nothing to do here but watch TV," says a 50ish woman who gave her name only as Rachel. YEROHAM IS a very warm and friendly town. "The people here appreciate everything you do for them. In Haifa, no matter what you do, people complain that it's not enough," says Mitzna. But while there is a thick enough layer of middle-class people in Yeroham, a half-hour's drive southeast of Beersheba, with a few science-based companies in its industrial park and even "villa" neighborhoods, this is fundamentally an economic backwater, a consistent leader in the national unemployment statistics. Since the town was founded in the early '50s and settled with North African immigrants, nobody has ever changed that fundamental fact - not even former council head Motti Avisror, who, in his decade of stewardship, reversed a tradition of mismanagement and educational failure, bringing a measure of hope to the residents. But most remained poor, which is why in 2003 they turned out Avisror in favor of Baruch Elmakies, thinking he would hand out money and jobs like he did when he was council head in the '80s. Instead, he ran the municipality into the ground and was thrown out by the Interior Ministry for the second time. That's where Mitzna came in. The Labor Party thought he was its savior when it nominated him for prime minister, but Mitzna turned out to be a little too dry and considerably too left-wing for Israeli voters who, in the midst of the intifada, clung to Ariel Sharon. The sojourn of Mitzna, 61, to Yeroham could be seen as reminiscent, in a minor fashion, of David Ben-Gurion's leaving national politics in the mid-'50s and settling in Sde Boker, only to return to power after two years. Is Yeroham the start of Mitzna's comeback - a couple of years in the desert before another run at the top? "The question is irrelevant," he replies. In other words, all options are open. One thing that Mitzna's welcome in Yeroham does make conclusively clear, however, is that tribal labels like leftist and rightist, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, secular and religious, military and civil, don't carry the weight at the local level that they once did. When it comes to nuts-and-bolts local government, providing services and paying salaries, Israelis want competence over everything else. I talked to about 20 people in Yeroham, the overwhelming majority of them Mizrahim, and nobody mentioned anything about elitism in connection with Mitzna. Except Baruch Elmakies. A former Black Panther from Petah Tikva who was a local bank manager before entering politics, Elmakies still sees Mitzna as part of a plot by the Ashkenazi elite and its Mizrahi lackeys to drive Yeroham's pride into the dust. "The message is, 'If you didn't know you're second-class, we'll make you understand by sending you someone who's first-class,'" Elmakies says during an interview in his kitchen. He refers to Mitzna as a "UFO," a "megalomaniac," a "dog" and a "liar." A kippa-wearing Labor man, he rails against the local Ashkenazi academics, the hesder yeshiva leaders, the national religious field school operators and the businessmen who've carried out this "bluff" against the people of Yeroham, saying he's being punished for trying to run the city properly and getting rid of all the featherbedding imposed by the local elite. Before, his nemesis was Avisror - Moroccan-born, like himself - and now it's Mitzna, the yekke, who wants to impose "apartheid." Elmakies, 53, a motor-mouth, bantam rooster of a man, has a Supreme Court challenge against the Interior Ministry's dismissal of him. If he wins, he gets reinstated as mayor. "In the meantime, I'm not alive and I'm not dead. Shouting is all I can do," he laments. AT THE Golden Agers Club at the end of Borenstein, Orli Avigail, the founding director, says the center, which serves 60 elderly locals, came very close to having to shut down during Elmakies's tenure. "The municipality is supposed to supply 25% of the funds, but we didn't get a penny for two years. We were owed NIS 400,000. We had to ask charities for money. I spoke with Baruch and he promised to take care of it, but we never heard from him again. "But I have confidence that Mitzna is going to be different," she continues. "He told us that he would try to raise money for the clubhouse, and I'm optimistic that it's going to happen. For one thing, he has a record of funding old people's facilities in Haifa. "What Mitzna's done in Yeroham," Avigail says, "is to give people a sense of hope. That's no less important than the concrete changes he's made." FOLLOWING HIS trouncing by Ariel Sharon in the February 2003 election, Mitzna's career was floundering. He was one of the early supporters of Yossi Beilin's Geneva Agreement, but while the agreement may have hastened Sharon's decision to embark on disengagement, it was then superseded by disengagement and unilateralism as a strategy for peace, and Mitzna joined the chorus of the ignored with the rest of Labor and Meretz in the Knesset. "I felt dissatisfaction in the Knesset. For one, I'm more of a doer than a talker, and two, the standard of quality in this last Knesset was very low," he says. When the Interior Ministry, then under Labor's Ophir Pines-Paz, threw open the job in Yeroham, Mitzna "decided immediately" to take it. He'd seen Yeroham a couple of times in the election campaign, and the new "front" in Israeli affairs, he noted, was the social front. "There is no more central spot in that front than a town like Yeroham," he says. He is in town alone; his wife, Aliza, a teacher, stays at home in Haifa, where Mitzna returns on Wednesday nights before going back to work in Yeroham on Sunday mornings. Comparing the running of Haifa with the running of Yeroham, he says, "In Haifa you have a municipal workforce of about 3,000, so there's a tremendous buffer between you and the public. Here there's a workforce of 70 to 80, so you basically have to do everything yourself." Yet Menahem Aharon, a long-time resident and manager at a local pharmaceutical firm, says this is a mistake. "Under Baruch, a lot of the municipal department heads quit, and Mitzna hasn't found people to take their place. He doesn't have a full-time, local head of the education department, he doesn't have a full-time, local municipal engineer. He's only here for two years, and he doesn't seem to be preparing the system to run smoothly after he leaves," Aharon says. Continuing on the differences between Haifa and Yeroham, Mitzna says they are not limited to scale. "Haifa is an economically solid city with a tradition of good municipal management. Then you come here and you see that there is no such tradition, that there's been such neglect of management. The residents have lost confidence in their ability to effect changes. Yeroham has very serious problems, and because there's no tradition or routine of proper management, you have to invent everything as you go along." THAT ASSESSMENT is certainly true regarding Elmakies's off-and-on decade in office, but certainly not about Avisror's, which saw Yeroham win national awards not only for education and beautification, but also for good government, owing to the consistent annual balanced budgets that Avisror's team produced. "The municipality ran like clockwork when Motti was council head; Mitzna isn't introducing anything new there," notes Aharon. When the new boss took over, Yeroham was running an NIS 32.9 million budget deficit - caused mainly, according to Mitzna, because of the Finance Ministry's drastic cuts to poor municipalities, which saw several of them defaulting on salaries for several months, and Elmakies's refusal to rein in spending despite the ballooning deficits. By the beginning of last year, the Interior Ministry had appointed a comptroller to control the municipality's spending, and the result was that it didn't have enough money to cover the cost of basic local services, from garbage collection onward. When Elmakies failed to pass the budget last year - a failure he blames on a deliberate Likud act of obstructionism - the Interior Ministry fired him, Mitzna volunteered for the job and Pines-Paz appointed him and the management committee to take over. There may be less joy in Yeroham with Mitzna in the two years to come; they will be, he says, years of austerity. "We'll have simpler celebrations on holidays, and we're going to have to send about 10 municipal employees to early pension," he says. At the bi-weekly management committee meeting, he takes up the issue of arnona increases, announcing that he is going to have to back down on them. He explains that the Interior Ministry and Attorney-General's Office opposed his idea to raise the rates by so much, arguing that it was premature before the national budget determined how much it would contribute to poor municipalities like Yeroham. If the increase were to be challenged in court, the attorney-general would not defend it, Mitzna adds. He points out that the rate rise would add only NIS 7 a month to the average homeowner who gets a discount for old age or other circumstance, and only NIS 25 a month to those without discounts. Noting that the state is forgiving Yeroham several million shekels in debt in its recovery plan, Mitzna insists, "It's legitimate for the state to ask the residents to contribute to the recovery as well." Nevertheless, he adds that he learned in Haifa that arnona is a "very provocative issue, no matter what the facts are," so he instructs officials to notify homeowners that the arnona rise is canceled, and no change will be made without the Interior Ministry's approval. WHILE being photographed at the edge of town, with the brown desert hills in the background, Mitzna turns to national political issues, saying he feels vindicated that Sharon removed settlements after he advocated that very approach - as a fallback if negotiations failed - during his campaign. Asked his opinion of the current campaign of Amir Peretz and Labor, he replies, "There's no question that Labor is running an excellent list of candidates, but at the same time Peretz has not won the public's trust. So what the party should do is emphasize the list's strengths and de-emphasize Peretz's weaknesses." Pointing out that the public wants to achieve the Labor-Left policy toward the Palestinians but wants Ehud Olmert and Kadima to carry it out, Mitzna says Labor should ask the voters not to put it in power, but to strengthen it as the socioeconomic junior partner to Kadima in the coalition. Asked what was wrong with Peretz as a prime ministerial candidate, he declines to elaborate. He says he's aware that some critics see him as a patronizing representative of the old Israeli elite come down to save the helpless underclass. "Nobody's said that to my face, though," he adds. "Look, people see that I'm not coming down here for a week, I'm here for two years [until a new election is called]. People here have shown me a lot of appreciation, especially the edot hamizrah [Mizrahim]." Half-joking, he suggests, "Today, it's leftist Ashkenazi generals who are an oppressed minority." Nationwide, maybe, but not in Yeroham.