Beit Shemesh Municipal Elections: Emergence of Revolution in Governance?

As we see Israel beginning on the road to new national elections, it is important to note that these elections will take place sometime in February, 2009, whereas regularly scheduled municipal elections will take place throughout Israel on 11 November.

Municipal elections will choose Mayors and city councils in all of the major localities in Israel.

But nowhere else will these municipal elections impact on governing mindset as in the Beit Shemesh elections where Shalom Lerner and Moshe Abutbul knock heads with incumbent Mayor Dani Vaknin while a host of parties vie for representation on the 19 man Beit Shemesh city council. In this author’s humble opinion, Beit Shemesh faces a unique opportunity to be on the ground floor auguring in an era of governmental morality, efficiency, sensitivity and integrity by setting an example for all of Israel.

This blog will deal with the Mayoralty election now and deal with the City Council race in a later post.

The analysis below is anything but complete, and by admission, anything but totally by-partisan.

The Mayoralty Candidates;

The Incumbent Mayor: Dani Vaknin

Vaknin is running for a 4th successive 5 year term as Mayor, the last 10 years of which have been marked by immense population growth — over double and the evolution of Beit Shemesh from status of a small aging, dilapidated town to an urban center attracting large numbers of Olim Chadashim.

However, during these 10 years, 9 years of which this author has resided either in Beit Shemesh or Ramat Beit Shemesh, it seems (to this author) as if the incumbent Mayor has engaged in large-scale nepotism, playing one segment of the population against another, as well as possible accumulation of personal wealth, aggrandizement and power.

Employee incompetence, lack of qualification, massive absenteeism at all levels fueled by personal friendships and political deals as well as impertinence, indifference and obliviousness to the needs of Beit Shemesh residents at senior departmental levels such as chinoch or city planning as well as massive arnona tax increases, particularly to Ramat Beit Shemesh residents, are seen as characterizing Vaknin’s tenure.

Fortunately, in recent years, there have been go-to people on city council who have advocated on behalf of individual residents and have facilitated problem resolution in spite of the mayor’s office.

One of the prime examples of playing segments of the population against each other was related to me by “someone in the know” regarding allocation of the controversial Plot 425.

Plot 425 is located behind Ramat Neria and a block away from the Orot School. That plot of land had been promised to several other (moderate) chareidi elements, for school/shul purposes.

But at a fateful city council meeting earlier this year, the mayor sat back and watched a circus go on which led to the approval of giving 425 to the Bnos Yerushalayim School, comprising members of a violent and destructive segment of the Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet chareidi population.

During this meeting, Vaknin is said to have pulled off a Beit Shemesh-scale “stinking maneuver” against his deputy mayor Shalom Lerner who was was unable to attend the particular council meeting because of his mother’s azkara. Lerner very honestly and honorably pleaded with the mayor not to raise the issue at this meeting.

For the record, Bnos Yerushalayim’s population lives on the other side of Yarden and the plot of land in the Yarden vicinity would be much more appropriate for them.

Nonetheless the mayor allowed the issue to be raised, and then watched as it turned into a circus of screaming and shouting. He could have put down the gavel and insisted that the topic not be discussed, but he very conspicuously didn’t. In the end, even a dati leumi Likud member of the city council, voted for the extremist Bnos Yerushalayim position – strongly supporting the thesis that Dani Vaknin had in fact orchestrated the whole thing, though he would pretend to officially oppose it. It appears very much as if the mayor manipulated this entire affair knowing that the issue was a tinderbox for violence trouble.

Many letters of protest were then written up and gathered and brought to the engineering office, but it’s not clear whether there is any way to turn around this stupid and damaging decision.

All of what is described above is symtomatic of an out-of-control ego which rejects any idea or measure which does not emanate from the mayor, or which does not attribute credit of kavod to the mayor to the absence of anyone else.

The office of Mayor is a large and important job in any city, but it is made more doable when the mayor surrounds himself with professionals and qualified experts on all subjects. One must therefore wonder what measures and what actions have been facilitated and put into action by this mayor as a result of consultations and advise of professionals and qualified experts in their respective fields?

There are many other issues that have festered during this mayor’s tenure — sewage problems, sports facilities in utter disrepair, problems of littering and regular trash pick-ups as well as curfew violations, drug trafficking and gangs (from outside of RBS) in Ayalon park. There is also that allegedly bogus higher degree for which the mayor may face court.

There is one more issue which needs to be addressed in an election context. That is: Dani Vaknin and the Likud referendum a year before the expulsion of Jews from Gush Katif. Vaknin, as this author recollects, allegedly threatened city employees on peril of loss of their jobs if they worked on behalf of the defeat of the referendum. Later in this analysis, Vaknin’s actions will be contrasted with those of his opponent Shalom Lerner. But his alleged actions of intimidation regarding the expulsion have lent themselves to rumors of alleged rampant intimidation and threats of Beit Shemesh’s Ethiopian population resulting in the large number of Vaknin banners in Ethiopian neighborhoods.

All told, 15 years of Dani Vaknin has been Bad News — Beit Shemesh needs a change.

Moshe Abutbul

Abutbul, apparently the product and benefactor of a larger national deal between Shas and Agudas Yisrael, is running for mayor under the banner of the Shas party. The main points of this agreement pledge the two parties to increased cooperation in a number ofareas, including the monthly child allowance issue.

As Abutbul was the first of the three candidates to declare, two other individuals; Meir Ba’alaish representing the Dor Acher party and Richard Peretz of Labor quickly signed on with Abutbul, apparently in effort to rid Beit Shemesh of Vaknin. To their credit, they stuck by their agreement of support for Abutbul.

However Moshe Abutbul, a Beit Shemesh resident since the mid-1980s, with his strength seemingly increasing in the polls, is alleged to have expressed desire for an all-chareidi exclusive Beit Shemesh which has driven Yeshivish, Dati and Chiloni sectors crazy.

He has allegedly injected himself into the controversy over Plot 425 (see above) and is seen by many as siding with the violent and destructive group residing in Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet.

Unfortunately, little is known regarding Moshe Abutbul’s experience and qualifications for the office of Mayor.

Shalom Lerner

There is a huge body of information about Shalom Lerner’s background, experiences and competency for the office of Mayor reflected in his campaign website. The site is well worth viewing and an important tool for voters to make and educated, informed decision as to their vote for Mayor on 11 November.

He’s a man who has put heart, soul, neshama into Beit Shemesh. He’s a man who, by nature, gives of himself to help others. This author can personally attest to Shalom’s good offices helping to promote countless trips to Yesha, to Hevron and more for Beit Shemesh residents as well as helping to facilitate busing of RBS residents to Hachnasat Sifrei Torah events.

Here are a few excerpts from Shalom’s campaign website;

After spending four years in London (where his wife, Evelyn, was born), in 1989 Shalom and family moved to Bet Shemesh. Since his arrival in Bet Shemesh, Shalom has been instrumental in the growth of the city. He founded Lerner Realty which assisted thousands to choose and settle in Bet Shemesh.

Shalom was always active in public affairs. This started with his being Gabbai and then president of Simchat Aliyahu (now called Netzach Menashe).

Shalom is a visionary and was a pioneer in establishing a branch of Keren Klita in Bet Shemesh – the only branch outside of Yerushalayim. This facilitated the physical and spiritual absorption of thousands of Russian olim in Bet Shemesh. He also founded and headed the “Mateh Bet Shemesh for Eretz Yisrael” which organized mass rallies, demonstrations and visits to settlements and holy sites and mobilizing moral and financial assistance for our settlements and settlers.

Schools, shuls, youth movements, building and neighborhood leaders, chesed organizations and more have benefited from Shalom’s care. No matter what the background or philosophy of the person or group, Shalom is there to assist in any way he can,

As a city councilman, Shalom has held the portfolio of Moreshet Yisrael which involves itself in assisting all local cultural events and the portfolio of Tourism. The Shemesh Festival and other similar events were arranged through the office of tourism. Shalom is also Chairman of the Acquisitions Committee which has made him a tested and experienced leader in dealing with Israeli bureaucracy.

In May 2005 Shalom assumed the position of Deputy Mayor of Bet Shemesh. In this role, Shalom had clear exposure to all of the strengths and weaknesses of the city. This inner perspective from within City Hall led Shalom to the conclusion that it is time for Bet Shemesh to reach its true potential under new leadership.

Regarding the expulsion from Gush Katif, contrast Shalom Lerner’s actions with Mayor Vaknin; Shalom who gought tooth-to-nail against the government expelling his fellow Jews — Shalom who attempted to enter Gush Katif in the hours just before the expulsion began with the Mayor’s support for expelling Jews.

In this author’s humble opinion and endorsement; Shalom Lerner is easily, and by far, the most experienced, competent, the most professional and possessed of principles and moral integrity of the candidates for Beit Shemesh Mayor. Shalom is the only candidate who, if elected, is positioned to bring about unity amongst all of the various sectors of the Beit Shemesh population. Unlike his opponent Moshe Abutbul, Shalom believes in a city, with all of its various sectors and neighborhoods, living in unity rather than in sectorial exclusivity. This author has every confidence that with Shalom’s ascendence as Mayor of Beit Shemesh, we would see the beginning of an era of clean, moral, Jewish governance which B’Ezrat Hashem will spread to other municipalities and to the National Government as well.

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