Consolidation of Municipalities:
Savings or Spoilage
Daniel J. Elazar
Once again Israel is demonstrating that it is twenty years or more behind the times among the world's democracies. This time the issue is consolidation of municipal governments. In the rest of the Western world the interest in consolidation was strong from the 1950s through the 1970s. Then, after a number of disastrous experiences in different countries, it waned dramatically and now is hardly heard of.
In Israel the Sanbar Commission (formally the State Commission on Local Government) of the late 1970s, of which I was a member, considered the issue thoroughly. We concluded that, based on Israel's situation and the experience of consolidationist efforts in other countries it was neither warranted nor desired here.
The truth is that, with only a few minor exceptions worldwide, consolidation has only taken place where it has been imposed on local authorities from the top. Wherever the voters have had a say in the matter, that is to say, whenever the decision has been a democratic rather than a hierarchic one, consolidation programs have been resoundly rejected. The result is that most of Western Europe and countries such as Canada have seen their municipal systems reshaped by consolidation imposed by the state or provincial governments while the United States and Switzerland, where the people decide for themselves on such matters, have both escaped such drastic changes.
Almost all students of municipal government will immediately agree that it is in the latter two countries that local government continues to thrive, whereas in the countries that underwent consolidation, local government has become increasingly subordinate to higher levels of government, increasingly restricted in its powers, and increasingly without the ability to evoke citizen interest in its functions. Not only that, but the consolidations that were sold on the grounds that they would be more efficient and save money as well, have ended up costing more in virtually every case with no noticeable improvements in efficiency, indeed, in many cases a decline in the kind of efficiency that citizens want from their municipalities.
This was brought home to the Sanbar Commission in a particularly poignant way. While the commission was doing its work I had the honor to take its chairman, Moshe Sanbar, former Governor of the Bank of Israel and most recently Chairman of the Board of Bank Leumi, and the late Chaim Kubersky, then Director General of the Ministry of Interior, to site visit local governments in the United States and Great Britain to see examples of other countries famous for successful local government institutions and to learn from them. Quite frankly, I was not interested in having my colleagues visit the United States since I had earlier discovered what had happened to the British system after the consolidationist wave had hit the United Kingdom. Kubersky, something of an Anglophile, wanted to see how the fabled British municipal system worked, especially after consolidation, so we included both countries in our tour. In the United States my colleagues were greatly impressed with the vitality and energy of local government especially in quite unprepossessing cities and towns of the size of those in Israel such as Pueblo, Colorado, and St. Louis Park, Minnesota, outside of the major cities which were themselves products of earlier consolidation movements. When we reached Britain we had a meeting with Sir John Garlick, then the Permanent Undersecretary of the Department of the Environment, the British ministry responsible for overseeing urban affairs. Sir John and I had met on an earlier occasion at a Ditchley House conference in Oxfordshire when the consolidations were being contemplated and he and I had crossed swords in a friendly way over the virtues or likely negative impacts of consolidation, he strongly supporting the consolidationist effort.
This time when we met he began by stating emphatically to us his confession that consolidation had been a great mistake, that none of the goals they had hoped to achieve had been achieved. Consolidation eliminated civic spirit as citizens found themselves connected with large jurisdictions in which they had no civic role nor any civic identification. The larger jurisdictions required professionals to operate them. Local government ceased to rely upon the citizenry and came to rely almost exclusively on bureaucrats. The costs of implementing consolidation forced municipal budgets upward and then the bureaucratization of the new municipalities required even greater expenditures so that the expected cost savings evaporated or were never realized. Moreover, the new bureaucratized governments were able to respond even less efficiently than the old ones to civic and citizen needs. He concluded by saying that could he begin again, he would definitely would not undertake such a consolidation. The openness, frankness, and clarity of Sir John's statement greatly weakened the interest of my Israeli colleagues in pursuing consolidation for Israel. Hence the Sanbar Commission, originally appointed with consolidation in mind as its goal, came out for other forms of intermunicipal cooperation but rejected consolidation as a tactic.
The commission did look at specific cases to see whether or not they should be exceptions to the rule. We visited Kiryat Ekron, then quite a depressed locality, which conventional wisdom suggested should be consolidated with neighboring Rehovot. Our site visit revealed that the equivalent neighborhoods on the peripheries of Rehovot that had been consolidated with the larger city sometime earlier continued to suffer from all of the problems that plagued Kiryat Ekron with none of the civic benefits of self-government that their independent neighboring community had, so we rejected consolidation as a means of improving Kiryat Ekron's lot, leaving that city intact to some years later become the success that it has now become.
We also visited Kiryat Ekron's next door neighbor, Mazkeret Batya, presented to us as a town too small to maintain an independent existence. In an effort to fight the consolidationist bid, the then mayor, Rafi Suissa, and the town gave us a royal welcome and showed us how they were rehabilitating Mazkeret Batya on their own and how it functioned as a real community. We were quite impressed that consolidation could only destroy the community-like character of that town and, once again, we abandoned the idea with, as we now see, quite beneficial results. Much the same was true in the Galil when we looked at Yesod Hamaalah and Kfar Tabor. And so it went. Setting aside the conventional wisdom and actually visiting sights, in every case honest investigation showed that consolidation was not in order.
Now a new generation has picked up on the consolidationist impulse once again, again with the same lack of serious consideration for what has happened in the rest of the world, but with a mantra-like repetition of the old myths: money will be saved, services will be rendered more efficiently, etc., etc. When the Sanbar Commission discovered the truth, the great European consolidations were only a decade or two old. Now, with two more decades behind us, enabling us to measure the damage, it is not a sign of sophistication that Israel's authorities are once again pursuing the consolidationist will-o-the-wisp. If we are lucky, Israel's democracy will prevent us from making the same mistakes that others did decades ago, but it will be no thanks to our authorities who still don't seem to want to learn.