Sacking mayors

Far from striking, the Arab sector should back Bar-On for starting to rid it of rogue officials.

Bar On 88 (photo credit: )
Bar On 88
(photo credit: )
All of Israel's Arab local authorities are going on a "warning strike" on Sunday and will only partially resume operations the next day, when they will keep their offices closed to the public. The reason: Interior Minister Ronnie Bar-On's decision last week to sack three of the country's most negligent and incompetent mayors for gross mismanagement of their local authorities. Bar-On had moved with singularly measured circumspection. There are certainly plenty other deserving candidates for disciplinary action among the nation's local authorities. For now, Bar-On homed in on the worst of the worst offenders - the mayors of Taiba, Kafr Manda and Migdal. The small village of Migdal is a Jewish locality. The other two are Arab - as are, sadly, most of the serially insolvent local councils, which are chronically delinquent in paying their own employees' wages. Because of their egregious fecklessness, if not worse, the entire country has on several occasions been dragged into exceedingly damaging strikes. Far from striking, the Arab sector should gratefully back Bar-On for starting to rid it of rogue officials, who have done nothing but harm to their populations and driven hard-working employees into destitution. But the objective of curing the Arab sector's persistent local government ills apparently doesn't impress the Council of Arab Mayors, which met in emergency session in Nazareth on Thursday - as soon as Bar-On's dismissals were proclaimed. Instead of supporting the minister's resolve to right what is so obviously wrong in these very shady local administrations, council head Shawki el-Hatib declared war on Bar-On. Worse, the council in its official statement accused Bar-On of nothing less than "racist persecution of Arab mayors." Taiba Mayor Sheikh Abdel-Hakim Hajj-Yihyeh has already announced he will petition the Supreme Court against his dismissal on the grounds that Bar-On hounds him because he represents the Islamic Movement. "Bar-On had drawn a circle around his chosen target and then looked for the excuse," Hajj-Yihyeh contends. What Taiba's mayor omits to mention is that his city has consistently been a fiscal basket case and that his employees have only rarely seen any recompense for their labors. Arab municipalities collect just five percent to 20% of the local rates due them. This is politically expedient for nationalistic reasons, as the mayors are seen as thumbing their noses at the Zionist state and also gaining favor with voters by not taxing them. These mayors expect to be subsequently bailed out by the central government. Thus Taiba's expenses would be borne by citizens who live elsewhere - and who do pay their own local rates. The Treasury has intermittently capitulated to Histadrut pressure and footed the bills for Taiba and similarly mismanaged localities, but even then the councils did not always use the funds to reimburse their shamefully unpaid workers. Suspicions of corruption and nepotism led to the launching last winter of criminal investigations against seven (inexplicably unnamed) mayors. Hard-earned taxpayer shekels have for years been poured into such bottomless barrels as Taiba, which, regardless of whatever rehabilitation program was on offer, consistently demonstrated that it would not be dragged out of the red. Taiba is estimated to have a rate-collection deficit of NIS 90 million. The city is believed to collect no more than 9% of the rates owed it annually. Taiba's scandalous remedy for the salaries crisis speaks for itself. It recently concocted a scheme whereby residents in arrears on their local tax payments can now remit the balance directly to an unpaid employee. Said employee would inform the city and the debt would be written off. This has created rampant opportunities for hanky-panky, including unauthorized arrangements for private "reductions" of the debts and partial defrayment thereof. Wage-denied city employees have been begging neighbors for handouts in lieu of rate payments. No central government should countenance such practices. Neither should the Arab sector stand for such shenanigans. By whipping up passions and griping against imaginary racism, Arab mayors don't help their people but, rather, perpetuate and aggravate the ills that Bar-On is rightfully seeking to eradicate. Hajj-Yihyeh's fellow Arab mayors should be censuring him and thanking Bar-On. They cannot expect to run wasteful nepotistic fiefdoms without accountability and then to submit their bills to the general public, bleeding it for emergency infusions of cash. We cannot be expected to continue propping up patently delinquent bureaucracies and give them a license to make a mockery with impunity of even the most minimal codes of civic conduct.