Applying some structure

Speaker's Corner
“The unstructured and meandering way in which it (the budget) is debated in Áras an Chondae is of benefit to no one”

Michael Duffy

THESE are busy times for the 31 elected representatives on Mayo County Council. The beginning of each calendar year sees the county councillors spending a lot of time in Áras an Chondae in Castlebar, mulling over the draft budget plan put forward each year by County Manager, Des Mahon.
Mr Mahon is now one of the most experienced and respected managers in the country and he has overseen a period of considerable change in County Mayo with great authority. He commands great respect, both among the elected representatives and his fellow officials.
In recent years, however, many elected representatives have begun to express concern at what they feel is the development of a worrying trend in local government. Councillors across the country feel that the pendulum of power on local authorities has swung in the direction of the executive, and the phrase ‘erosion of power’ has been used on more than one occasion. So when they get the chance to voice their opinions, they certainly try and do so for as long as possible!
Last Monday week, the councillors treated the four media representatives present to a marathon session of talk, with the budget meeting getting under way shortly after 2pm and continuing, wanderingly, until some time after 6.30pm, with the statutory monthly meeting getting under way around 7pm.
The budget is probably the most important document of the Council year, as it maps out what will and won’t be done in the 12 months ahead. But the unstructured and meandering way in which it is debated in Áras an Chondae is of benefit to no one.
The budget document itself was circulated by the manager a full week before the meeting and before the debate began Cllr Gerry Coyle informed us that just two speakers from each party would be allowed to talk on each programme. This made great sense, in theory, but after a 30-minute presentation by Director of Services, Mr Peter Hynes on the housing programme, the two-speaker rule was soon forgotten and it wasn’t long before every councillor was trying to get in on the act.
Now, no one disputes the right of every councillor to dissect and comment on aspects of the County Manager’s recommendations in the budget, as they are the ones who will ultimately strike the rate at the end of the process, one of the few truly important decisions on which they still have the final say. But getting through just two out of the eight programmes in four-and-a-half hours is surely a waste of officials’, councillors’ and media time.
Now, I am not privy to what preparation the respective parties put in before attending at the monthly or budget meetings, but would it not make sense for each party to nominate just one person to speak on each programme, raising the salient points which the elected members of that party have with the programme? The matter could then be dealt with expeditiously and the whole process would likely make a lot more sense to everyone. After all, both Cllr Paddy McGuinness and Cllr Michael Holmes stated at last Monday week’s meeting that the councillors are essentially the ‘amateurs’ in the process as the full-time executive members are the ones with the degrees and the knowledge which leads to the production of a complex document like the Council budget.
Another way of speeding up the process – and giving it more cohesion – would be to limit each speaker to three or five minutes when they take to their feet in the chamber. A couple of years go, I was lucky enough to attend at the sessions of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, where a two-minute clock is put on each speaker and their microphone is simply cut on the expiry of that time. Such draconian measures may not be needed in the case of our elected representatives, but certainly it would be in the interests of everyone if there was a template by which every meeting could be run.
It’s merely an observation, but if all monthly and budget meetings were conducted in an orderly, succinct and structured way, everyone would benefit: the councillors would get their points across, the media would get their stories and the eight or nine high-ranking officials present would not spend half of their working day as observers at a rambling gathering.