When Ballina refused to back down

County View

County View
John Healy

When it came to fractious relations in administrative affairs, there was nothing to match the frosty interactions between Ballina Urban Council and the senior body, Mayo County Council, over half a century ago.
The first of two major standoffs began on an innocuous note but, by the time it reached a conclusion 18 months later, it had almost caused the abolition of the Ballina body.
The saga began when the Ballina councillors declared that, before they would agree to strike the rate for 1957, Mayo County Council must provide them with the details of expenses paid to each County Councillor for attending meetings over the past three years. (Unlike today, councillors’ individual expense payments were not published.)
Considerable umbrage was taken by the county councillors when the demand reached the chamber in Castlebar. The then chairman of Mayo County Council, Mr Cafferkey, opined that the request for information had been made out of ‘jealousy, spite and vindictiveness’, with the purpose of ‘having a crack’ at the north Mayo members of Mayo County Council.
An offer to provide an overall figure for expenses was rebuffed by the Ballina men, who again demanded the individual amounts. And then, to raise the bar further, they let it be known that if the required figures were not forthcoming, they would refuse to strike a rate for the year, even if that meant the risk of abolition.
The County Council, however, was not for turning, and the tension was not eased by that body’s decision to mark the Ballina request as simply ‘read’, and the chairman’s pronouncement that the matter should be treated as a joke.
An appeal by the Ballina council to the relevant minister fell on deaf ears, the latter pleading he had no power to intervene, while the County Manager explained that, if it was the wish of the 31 members of Mayo County Council not to release the data, he would have to abide by that decision.
The deadlock was finally broken at the eleventh hour when, not for the first time, the County Manager pointed out that it was the entitlement of any ratepayer to visit the Council offices and to ask for, and be given, the information. By then, Cafferkey had been forced to dismiss eight Ballina Council workmen because of the failure to strike the rate, required to fund the mens’ wages.
The solution was obvious, but both sides had now dug their heels in deeply. The result was that John Mears, a member of the UDC, travelled to Castlebar in a private capacity, and was given the information, which in turn allowed his colleagues to lift the embargo on striking the rate.
The expenses controversy was not the only issue in which the Ballina Council was embroiled. A decision to award the annual scavenging contract to a local man whose tender was not the lowest received, and against the express advice of the County Manager, led to a high-profile jury trial in the Circuit Court.
When six of the nine councillors voted to award the contract to Mr O’Donnell, whose tender was £150 higher than that of the runner-up, they were warned that they could be personally liable for surcharge. But when Mr O’Donnell wrote to the Council offering to ‘indemnify all councillors supporting my tender against any threatened surcharge that might apply’, he was prosecuted under the Corrupt Practices Act for offering an inducement.
The trial went to a jury which, after two days of hearing, took only ten minutes to find the scavenging contractor not guilty of any wrongdoing.