Peter Hynes, Chief Executive of Mayo County Council. Pic: Alison Laredo
THE Chief Executive of Mayo County Council has denied that a ‘gagging order’ circular preventing councillors discussing planning issues was written at his behest.
Peter Hynes was speaking yesterday, at the end of a special meeting of Mayo County Council that was called to discuss a motion to ‘reinstate planning as an item on the agenda for each municipal district as heretofore’.
Last March, officials in the Department of Housing issued a memo stating that councillors are no longer allowed to discuss live planning applications during the municipal district meetings. Prior to the memo, such discussions had been common practice in Mayo, even though they were not permitted elsewhere.
A year previously, at a monthly West Mayo Municipal District held in March 2017, long-running tensions between Mayo County Council’s planning department and West Mayo Municipal District councillors had boiled over. Head of Planning, Iain Douglas, attended the meeting and told the councillors present that members of his planning staff had come in for ‘unacceptable’ criticism from them when the staff’s decisions were being discussed.
“No other section of the council gets such abuse and criticism. I have never heard such aggression applied to any of the other departments … Why planning? I’ll tell you why, because everybody thinks they are a planner,” he said. Mr Douglas went on to point out that planners are professionally trained, with a primary degree and up to masters degree level.
“If people want to criticise planners, let them come with the same education and qualifications,” he said. He went on to warn the Mayo councillors that they ‘get an opportunity that other councillors don’t get’ in being able to discuss live planning applications at municipal meetings. “I suggest that perhaps in light of the fact that we are giving councillors an opportunity that nobody else gets, you shouldn’t abuse the process,” he said.
Mr Douglas’s comments sparked a furious response from several of the councillors, and resulted in Cllrs Brendan Mulroy, Paul McNamara and Michael Holmes walking out of the meeting.
A recent article, published in the Irish edition of The Times on July 11, 2018, claimed that the ‘gagging order’ memo issued by the Department of Housing came about after Mr Hynes raised concerns about the impact that planning discussions were having on his staff.
It was claimed that Mr Hynes contacted the department ‘a couple of times’ seeking action, and that he played a key role in drafting the memo.
The councillors then called the special meeting to discuss reintroducing planning discussions. Some referred to the Times article, saying it had angered them. At the end of the meeting, which was adjourned for legal reasons, Mr Hynes said he wished to clarify matters regarding the Times article.
“The suggestion or reading that some people are taking from the article which was published is that the quote-unquote ‘gagging order’ circular that was issued was in response to the situation which had arisen in Mayo and on my behest. That is absolutely not the case,” he told the councillors.
Mr Hynes said he has been the chairman of the National Committee of the County and City Management Association and that the issue of discussing planning matters in council meeting was something their Land Use and Transportation [LUTS] committee have been discussing for some time.
“The discussion of what was appropriate to be discussed in a public forum on live planning applications has been a topic with the LUTS committee since June 2017. We had a workshop with the officials of the department on the national planning framework and in the plenary session … it was indicated to us that the department would be issuing guidance on what is appropriate to discuss in a public forum nationally, so there will be consistency and clarity. The department is charged with giving us guidance of what is appropriate and inappropriate.
“All I would say is I’m not sure if I should be more amused or flattered by those who think I have that level of influence with the department. I wish I had, and believe me things would be a lot better in my opinion along the west coast [if I did],” he said.
Mr Hynes added that he was not contacted prior to the publication of the article and suggested that it was ‘not outside the bounds of possibility’ that the matter could end up in ‘another forum’.
At the start of the special meeting yesterday, councillors were issued with a communication that Mayo County Council had received from senior counsel Patrick Butler. His opinion was that even if the councillors’ motion were passed, the councillors have neither the legal power nor legal authority to implement it, and so cannot legally reinstate planning as an agenda item for municipal district meetings.
A compromise was suggested by councillors Michael Smyth and Michael Kilcoyne, whereby they would seek their own legal advice but a workshop would also be set up to find common ground between councillors and planning officials on dealing with applications into the future. This was supported by all the councillors, but many also criticised any suggestion they had abused planning officials when discussing planning issues.
Mr Hynes welcomed the idea of a workshop, stating that he hoped it would ‘bring more light than heat’ and was a ‘step in the right direction’.