Local Authorities: An Issue of National Importance

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Who is addressing the problematic relationship between local and national government in Israel? Is anyone designing a a comprehensive reform program to solve some of the issues that are the result of a malfunctioning system of local governance? How, if at all, does the national media deal with this issue?

"What is a recovery plan? A recovery plan is unnecessary. What is necessary is a modification of the thinking process of the Israeli government with regards to municipalities.

—Shlomo Lahat, 1993"

"The citizen demands of the mayor of Jerusalem—just as citizens demand anywhere else—a high level of responsibility to the quality of life in the city, organized transportation, high-quality education, synagogues, kindergartens, roads and sidewalks. But the authority that the mayor of a city has according to the existing government is much less than the authority of a medium-status clerk in any governmental office. Bordering on absurdities which I've personally experienced hundreds of times, it is difficult for me to believe that this is the way a modern country behaves in the end of the 20th century

—Teddy Kollek, 1993"

Guilty of Indifference

After watching the media's coverage of the recent municipal elections, and following years of financial troubles that have afflicted municipalities time and again, we must ask ourselves a number of questions: who is addressing the problematic relationship between local and national government in Israel? Has anyone assumed the task of designing a comprehensive reform program, which could solve some of the issues that are the result of a malfunctioning system of local governance? How, if at all, does the national media, the most defining factor in shaping public discourse in Israel, deal with this issue? Even when the media does provide national coverage of the municipal elections, the crucial problem of the dysfunctional relationship between national and local government is never addressed. And although many of us are familiar with the names of the different candidates, it seems that none have presented us with a plan for dealing with this issue, and neither the media nor the public perceive it as an issue of national concern.

The significance of the media's decision to disregard local politics is expressed, first and foremost, by the low voting rates, which characterize municipal elections. Just as in national elections, voter turnout in municipal elections has been diminishing, and a number of recommendations have been made in an effort to increase the number of voters. But the media does nothing to promote public awareness of the problematic relation between local and national politics or to give local politics any positive coverage.

It seems that the public today perceives both national and municipal politics in the same negative light. When we are exposed to a flawed educational system and recurring teacher strikes, should we blame the mayors, the Minister of Education, the Knesset, or perhaps the Prime Minister? The public's sense of detachment from the government and of contempt for it is not limited to national politics, but to encompasses municipal politics, as well.

The Media's Agenda—Municipal Government vs. a Nuclear Iran

The public's perception of municipal elections is complex. Public opinion comprises two separate, essentially contrasting, points of view. On the one hand, municipalities are seen as petty political organizations that deal primarily with trivial matters. According to the opposing point of view, while "all national leaders are the same" a mayor has the power to promote education, culture and leisure, and, therefore, electing one who will do so is no less important than voting for the Knesset, if not more so. Both attitudes seem reasonable, but the way in which the media addresses them exposes the true issue regarding municipal politics—its structural relationship with the national government.

The media is interested in local politics only when they affect national issues, and we have yet to witness any direct interest in the dire state of local governance in Israel, unless it is part of some other "national"' story. Although municipal elections in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem do get a limited amount of coverage, they are not seen as localities, but rather as national symbols: Tel Aviv represents Israel's financial center and Jerusalem is a city in which diverse social groups (Jews and Arabs, Religious and Secular, etc.) coexist. Any PR firm could easily attest to the fact that the chances of national media coverage of any candidate outside of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem are slim to none.

The Media's Mission

The claim here is not that the media should take great interest in each and every municipal campaign. First of all, this would be unreasonable and would require vast resources. In addition, every news item is always at the expense of a different item, and 'truly' local news does indeed belong in local newspapers, which have been giving the upcoming elections vast coverage.

What we do intend is for the media to advance a fundamental change in the way local politics are perceived by the public. As representatives of the Treasury squabble with mayors time and again over who is responsible for the municipalities' enormous debts, the media must address this issue as one that is ingrained in the structure of our national government and the way that it relates to local government, rather than repeatedly presenting it as a temporary problem. For the sake of comparison, consider the media's coverage of the issue of education over the past few years. Given the amount of attention from the media and the public, it is no wonder that every self-respecting politician on the national level has his or her own stance on the future of education – an issue which is obviously a matter of great importance to the media and the public.

A similar dynamic could, and should, characterize the discourse concerning the relationship between the national and municipal governments. The Israeli public is familiar with many public committees that were active in the fields of Defense or Education, such as the "Agranat Committee", the "Winograd Committee" and the "Shochat Committee", because they received so much attention from the press. How many of us are familiar with the "Ne'eman Committee" or the "Zanbar Committee", which addressed the issue of Israel's municipalities and local governments?

As long as the relationship between the national and the local governments is left to local newspapers, it will never be perceived as one of  national significance, especially because local newspapers tend to focus on the local consequences, rather than on the nation-wide impact of the issue as a whole. The lack of national coverage and the total disregard for the unstable framework that municipalities must work within indicates that we have chosen to accept this problematic situation instead of attempting to resolve it—a fact that has already been pointed out by the State Comptroller.

A real change will only occur once the media decides to address the municipalities' instability as a structural flaw in our governance system. As part of such an endeavor, the media should also pay particular attention to those politicians who initiate serious political processes between the national and local governments that have clear, rational and widely accepted guidelines, and that define the proper relation between the two systems. Once the media begins to discuss this issue as one of national importance, more politicians will become interested in initiating reform, knowing that it entails the media's—and the public's—attention. Municipalities will perhaps start working as they should, becoming more focused and structured, which could eventually result in greater public trust in local, and even national, politics.