Comptroller: Israel-Argentina game flagged ticketing malpractice

The much-anticipated friendly soccer match between Israel and Argentina may have been cancelled, but it drew attention to a wider practice of unfair and discriminatory sales and distributions of tickets to shows and events, which the Ashdod municipality was rapped for in the State Comptroller‘s report on local authorities released Monday.

The office of State Comptroller Yosef Shapira has in the past warned of the phenomenon of giving tickets to public officials causing feelings of discrimination and inequality among normative citizens who have to pay for their tickets.

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Between the years 2014-2017, more than 1,000 events and performances were held in different properties of the Ashdod municipality and its two municipal corporations, for which 15,700 free tickets were distributed, totaling NIS 1 million, the report says.

The Municipality of Ashdod and its two municipal corporations acted in this regard, according to flawed proceedings, lacking equality and transparency, contrary to the rules of proper administration and directives of the Ministry of the Interior, and in some cases even raised suspicions of bias, the comptroller said.

"The municipality was negligent in its role, which led to the illegal distribution of tickets, among other things, to employees of the municipality and of the two municipal corporations, members of the municipal council and the media," the comptroller continues. It also states that during its audit, the employees of the State Comptroller‘s Office were given partial, inaccurate and partly unreliable information about the distribution of tickets, in violation of proper administrative procedures.

The Ashdod municipality said in response that it had already implemented the comptroller‘s main comments on the need to improve the registration process and to better its related procedures.

Renovation of Rehovot’s cultural center

The Rehovot municipality was also among the roughly dozen municipalities and local regional councils criticized in the report, the former scolded over a renovation of its Cultural House which it began in 2011. According to the plan, the work was set to be completed by March 2012 but over six years later, the renovation had still not been completed while the budget for the project had grown from 6 million NIS to 11 million NIS.

The State Comptroller slammed the "irresponsible behavior" of the municipality, mayor, members of the city council and of the HLR Company for the Development of Rehovot.

The renovation, he charged, is fraught with failures in many areas, is "characterized by feet dragging" and "shows contempt for their duty to uphold the law and for the public coffers."

"This conduct harms equality, has an indirect effect on the laws of tenders, and it erodes public confidence in the government system," Shapira said.

The Rehovot municipality responded by saying that the cultural center is in its final stages and an inauguration ceremony is scheduled for August 13.

"It is important to note all parties involved in the project acted in good faith, in view of the public interest, inter alia [among other things] in order to avoid additional expenses and construction delays due to litigation," it said in a statement.

"The long process of renovation is an exceptional case. The faults surrounding it – to our great sorrow – do not reflect at all the extensive activity of the HLR company in the field of construction, which in recent years has built hundreds of classrooms, and educational and public buildings for the municipality," the Rehovot statement said.

"We are talking about the renovation of an old building of about 50 years, and projects of this kind are very complex. During the execution of the work, many other jobs were discovered, while adapting them to new standards. With time, additional contractors were added to implement them. Naturally, the adjustments, changes and additions to the original plan led to a deviation in the time frame and an increase in the project budget," the statement added. The municipality also noted that it had a long time ago adopted and implemented the State Comptroller‘s recommendations, such as to establish a senior professional team to review all aspects of the process.

Land transaction in Rishon Lezion

The Rishon Lezion municipality was called out over a land transaction it made in Lake Park.

Since 2006, the comptroller said the Municipality of Rishon LeZion  and the local council worked to distribute the land, without the owners‘ consent, and to grant building permits to a private entrepreneur to build a complex for conferences, events and commerce.

In 2010, the municipality leased to the entrepreneur, without a tender, 8,387 square meters of land, and five years later sold him the land, again without a tender.

"There were severe flaws in actions taken by the municipality and the local planning and building committee in Rishon Letzion in connection with the agreement of the sale of the municipality‘s rights on land adjacent to the Lake Park to a private entrepreneur,” the comptroller said.

Shapira said these actions violated the law and "gave substantial benefits to the entrepreneur at the expense of the public in a manner that is not consistent with their duty to hold and manage the municipality‘s assets and affairs as a trustee of the public." City Hall, he said, gave priority to advancing the private interests of the developer at the expense of the public interest, while undermining the principle of equality and severely harming the public‘s trust.

The mayor, he remarked, knew the entrepreneur before, which placed him in a situation of a conflict of interests, but nonetheless he was involved in the decision making process and in internal dialogue about the sale, which was made to him without any tender process..

Dov Tzur has served as mayor and chairman of the local committee since November 2008. Former Coalition Chairman and Likud MK David Bitan served as Deputy Mayor of Rishon Lezion between 2004-2015. Bitan resigned the Knesset in December 2017 over police investigations surrounding his tenure as deputy mayor of Rishon Lezion

The Rishon Lezion municipality rejected the report‘s conclusions, accusing the comptroller of making a "serious mistake" both in the facts and in their interpretation.

"It would have been appropriate for the comptroller to praise the municipality for acting resolutely to correct a mistake that had been made and damaged the public coffers. The Rishon Lezion municipality reopened a contract it has signed with the entrepreneur, even though five years have passed since it was signed, in an unprecedented manner, and gained another NIS 9 million for the public coffers !!! In addition to the NIS 4 million originally gained,” the municipality said in a statement.

A spokesman for the municipality explained that the entrepreneur had changed his mind and decided that instead of using some of the land for a hotel, he wanted to use all of the land for commercial purposes, which is more expensive.

"This addition would not have been accepted without the resolute intervention of the mayor, who set up a team that worked to correct the distortion in favor of the public fund and the welfare of Rishon Lezion residents" the municipality´s statement continued.

It also tackled the charges of a conflict of interests surrounding the relationship between Mayor Dov Tzur and the entrepreneur. "The claim ignores with complete disregard the facts presented to the State Comptroller regarding the severing of relations between the mayor and the entrepreneur in question when handling the sale of the property,” the municipality said. “Moreover, the comptroller ignores in his conclusions from the fact that the mayor voluntarily chose not to participate at all in the discussions of the city council and the city administration on the matter, and therefore there was no flaw in the conduct of the municipality or its bodies."