Structure of Local Government
The law defines three types of local authorities: municipalities, local councils and regional councils. Municipalities administer urban towns, generally with a population of over 20,000. In 1995, the number of such municipalities totaled 51. The three largest cities are Jerusalem, the capital (population 670,000), Tel Aviv (population 359,000) and Haifa (population 272,000). There are nine medium-sized municipalities of 110,000 to 160,000 residents, while most municipalities have a population of about 20,000 to 80,000.
Smaller urban towns and large rural settlements are governed by local councils, with powers similar to those of a municipality. More than 70 out of 150 local councils serve a population of more than 5,000.
The regional councils are in fact two-tier local authorities. The lower tier is the settlements, which are mostly agricultural; they are authorized to elect a local committee for providing municipal services. The upper tier is the regional council, which includes candidates from each settlement in the council's jurisdiction. It possesses the powers of a local council.
Municipal federations of adjacent local authorities are a single-purpose local authority, providing certain services such as fire-fighting, working together mainly because of economies of scale. The federation has a separate budgetary framework and may sign contracts, legislate by-laws, levy taxes and so forth.
The local authority provides its residents, commercial firms, and other institutions within its area of jurisdiction with a wide range of services. It develops its physical infrastructure, road system, water supply, refuse collection and disposal system, sewage system, and parks. It is responsible for environmental protection (public health, nuisances, cleanliness, etc.) and, with the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport, the education system. The local authority builds schools and provides for their equipment and maintenance. Pre-kindergartens and secondary education institutions are established and administered by the local authority, but some of these facilities may be owned by non-profit organizations with aid given by the local authority. Local authorities also promote and financially assist cultural and sports activities (libraries, museums, youth clubs, etc.) and some maintain orchestras, choirs, theaters and similar enterprises.
The local authority provides social welfare services, with its social workers taking care of families in need, as well as special groups such as the elderly, retarded children, drug addicts and the like.
The local council has an important role in town planning. The Planning and Building Law, 5725-1965, sets forth the principles according to which town planning is undertaken, as well as planning institutions that must act at the local, district, and countrywide geographic and administrative levels. The law grants the local planning commission considerable independence, while also expanding the regional and countrywide dimensions in planning. The local planning commission is comprised of members of the local council. The law gives the local planning commission responsibility for day-to-day management and on-site compliance with regulations.
The district planning commission is a joint state-local authority comprised of representatives of those government ministries whose field of action is relevant to the issues of planning, and of representatives of the local authorities in the region. The district commission approves detailed local plans and also acts as a forum for handling appeals of decisions made by local commissions. The local council is authorized to issue by-laws in every area in which it has jurisdiction. It has the power to enforce those by-laws as well as the laws and regulations applicable to its functions.
The local authorities are empowered to levy local taxes and imposts and collect various payments for services and concessions. In general, they have the powers and means to manage their finances. The prepare their own budgets, which then must be approved by the Ministry of the Interior. Each municipality must employ an auditor to check its activities.
The Union of Local Authorities is a voluntary organization of municipalities and local councils. The regional councils are organized separately in the Organization of Regional Councils, since they have special problems which differ from other local authorities. Both organizations have a central goal, to further the mutual interests of the local authorities in their relations with government ministries and the Knesset (parliament). The Union represents the local authorities in negotiations for collective wage agreements and it signs such agreements together with the Histadrut (New General Federation of Labor) and the government. It also hosts various associations of key local officials such as the Association of Town Clerks and the Association of Local Treasurers.
The Municipal Corporations Ordinance dates from 1934 when Great Britain held the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine. This law essentially established the legal basis for the present system of local government in Israel. The State of Israel enacted the Municipal Corporations Ordinance (new version) 5724-1964, which serves, along with other legal frameworks, as the basis for local government structure and its relations with government ministries.
The local authorities are legal entities and are able to perform a wide range of services in the physical, educational-cultural and social welfare arenas. Their competencies and areas of jurisdiction are spelled out by ministerial orders (mainly from the Ministry of the Interior), as authorized by law. As a legal entity, the local authority can only do what the law permits it to do. Consequently, there are detailed laws regulating the activities of the local authority.
The general powers of the local authorities are in six basic areas: legislation; taxation; financial management; joint activities with other bodies; and various general powers. While not completely independent in any of these areas, a local authority is able to act on behalf of local interests within each of them according to the wishes of the elected representatives of the local constituency.
The income in the ordinary budget of local authorities comes from three sources: locally-generated income, government participation and loans for balancing the ordinary budget. From the early 1970s to the mid-1980s, locally-generated income was low and government participation was high; from then on the proportions were reversed.
Government financial participation includes two categories: the general grant and earmarked participation. The general grant is provided to the local authorities without being tied to any specific expenditure, since it is meant to be a supplement to local taxes for those authorities with a low collection potential.
Most of the earmarked income originates in the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport and the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare. The former covers the salaries of some educational personnel, as well as full or partial coverage of other projects operated by the local authority. The Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare finances 75 percent or more of local authority welfare activities according to standards set by the Ministry. As most local authorities exceed these standards, actual government participation amounts to 60-66 percent of local welfare expenditures.
Government ministries provide grants and loans to finance development projects such as educational and cultural facilities, roads, water and sewage systems, as well as general development grants for projects selected by local preference. Occasionally loans have been granted to balance the authorities' regular budgets and reduce deficits.
The State Commission on Local Government, which was appointed by a decision of the central government, presented its final report in 1981. Its main recommendations related to new financial relations with the central government and to the minimizing of central supervision over local authorities. Thus, in the 1980s and 1990s, some additional functions and responsibilities were given to local government in physical, social and educational arenas. Studies show that local authorities generally succeed in fulfilling their duties and in completing projects which they initiate, even though many approvals are involved in the process. The influence of the local authority is relatively wide in many areas, even when the central government controls the purse strings or other factors.
Relations with Government Ministries
State services, principally in the areas of education and welfare, comprise more than half the local budget and an even higher proportion of the personnel employed by local authorities. They constitute the major arena of interaction between local and state authorities.
For the most part, the Ministry of Education is responsible for the curriculum and the professional qualifications of teachers, while the local authority is responsible for the provision and maintenance of school buildings and physical equipment. Employees in the elementary and intermediate schools are employees of the Ministry of Education, while maintenance personnel, school secretaries, assistant kindergarten teachers and secondary school teachers are employed by the local authority.
Formally, the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare is the authority which sets policy regarding welfare services and the local authority acts as the agent to execute that policy. However, the professional staff (the social workers) and services are managed by the local welfare bureau. Over the years, the local authorities have developed projects and services beyond the formal requirements set by the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare.
The Ministry of the Interior supervises the activities of the local authorities and is primarily responsible in the following areas: the establishment of local authorities, approval of their budgets, provision of a suitable legal framework to fit their needs, examination of their by-laws, and assurance that physical planning and development projects conform to national and regional outline schemes. The Ministry distributes grants based upon specific criteria to local authorities with low potential income, to enable them to meet minimal service standards. The Ministry of the Interior also represents the local authorities in negotiations with the government (namely, the Finance Ministry).
The local authorities are headed by councils whose members are elected every five years on the basis of the proportional representation of their political parties. The number of seats in the councils is determined by the size of their population; between 9 and 31 seats for municipalities and between 5 and 21 for local councils. Mayors (including the chairpersons of local and regional councils) are elected directly by the voters. In many cases no single party controls the majority of seats on the councils and the mayor has to form a coalition to achieve a working majority. Agreements are made among the parties for this purpose, involving the distribution of powers and functions among the coalition partners.
When elections for the Knesset and the local authorities have been held at the same time, voter turnout in the local elections was between 73 and 83 percent, while in the case of separate election dates, turnout has averaged around 60 percent. Voter turnout for local elections in the Arab sector has traditionally been much higher than that in the Jewish sector.
According to the local election financing law, each party list in the local authority is entitled to receive financing based on the number of council seats it wins. The State Comptroller's positive report on the financial management of the election campaign for each faction represented on the council entitles the faction to receive its allocation as determined by the formula.
The courts deal with cases of persons charged with a breach of the law. Charges are brought up by citizens against other citizens, by the state against citizens, and even by citizens against the state.
The sessions of the courts of law are usually public, unless it is decided to hold closed hearings under special circumstances. When more than one judge is presiding, and the judges do not agree on a verdict, the opinion of the majority is decisive. Israel does not have trials by jury.
The cases brought to the courts are of two types: criminal cases and civil cases. A criminal case is one involving a transgression of the social order, and its intention is to punish the offender, if his guilt has been proven. In a civil case the plaintiff is a private person or association and the defendant is a private person or association. The subject of the trial is the demand that a contract signed between the parties be fulfilled, a debt be returned or compensation be paid for damages caused. In a civil trial there is no punishment, but a duty to pay financial or other compensations.
There are three instances in the regular courts: magistrate courts, which have the authority to try light and intermediate offences, or civil cases in which the sum claimed is no higher than million shekels (approximately U.S. $300,000); district courts, which try serious offenses, and civil cases in which the sum claimed is over million shekels (approximately U.S. $300,000); and the Supreme Court, which sits in Jerusalem. The number of judges serving on the Supreme Court is determined by the Knesset. The judges elect a permanent President of the Supreme Court and a deputy from amongst themselves.
The Supreme Court is involved in two realms: The first is to hear appeals for verdicts given by district courts. In this capacity it is called the Supreme Court of Appeals. The verdict of the Supreme Court of Appeals is final. The second is to hear appeals by persons who feel that they have been wronged by one of the State authorities or statutory bodies. In this capacity the court is called the High Court of Justice. The High Court of Justice functions by means of orders.
The Organization of Courts of Law is managed by The Directorate of Courts, headed by the Director of Courts. The system is headed by the President of the Supreme Court of Law, and the Minister of Justice.
The organization of the Courts of Law in Israel includes all the Courts of Law in Israel:
- The Supreme Court
- The District Courts of Law
- The Magistrates Courts (the first instance) - and in general, the Court of Traffic Offenses, Family Courts and Juvenile Courts
- National Labor Court
- Regional Labor Courts
In addition, the organization also includes the Bailiff Office that works, according to the law, linked to the Magistrates Court and the Center for Collection of unpaid fees and expenses. The latter is an administrative unit within the Directorate of Courts in charge of collecting fines and other debts as sentenced by the Courts of Law. The Courts of Law are deployed in some 50 regions, throughout Israel and are organized into six districts.
In addition to the ordinary courts there are special courts, which are authorized to deal with specific matters only. The most important amongst these are the military courts and the religious courts. There are religious courts of the four main religious denominations: Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Druze. Each religious court can only try cases applying to members of its own religious community who are citizens of the State or permanent residents. Since matters of personal status in Israel are usually decided on the basis of religious laws, the religious courts deal with them.