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Power to the people

HEART OF THE MATTER
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Power to the people

ROLE OF MAYORS
Michael Duffy

OVER the past fortnight the local political scene has been dominated by the yearly ritual of the election of mayors for the four local authorities operating within the county. There can be no doubting that the elevation to the position of the first citizen of the county, or the first citizen of one of Mayo’s three most populous towns, is an honour which most local politicians crave, and all four newly-elected mayors in the county seem immensely proud of their achievement.
However, the system for the election of mayors right across the country has come under increasing scrutiny, as have the powers of the mayor. Mayors Chain
Currently, it is the elected representatives in our town and county councils that decide who is going to be their public face for the calendar year. As a result, ultimately it is the political make-up of the authority that will be the deciding factor. Given the opportunity, any party with a majority on a particular council is going to monopolise the mayoral position, and probably the deputy mayor’s position, for the five-year term of the council.
Fine Gael currently enjoy the majority on Mayo County Council and as a result ten of their 16 representatives will fill the mayoral and deputy mayoral positions over the five-year term of the present Mayo County Council.
However, on the smaller authorities, no party currently enjoys the comfort of a majority. Indeed, most of the major political parties are represented by our 27 town councillors. Fianna Fail (11), Fine Gael (8), Sinn Féin (3), Independent (3), Labour (2) and PD (1) all hold seats between the three authorities, but none holds a majority so this is where the wheeling and dealing begins with regard to pacts, agreements and promises.
The main parties on Westport Town Council have, for a number of terms, enjoyed general agreement with regard to the position of mayor. They have left party politics behind them for the ‘good of the town’ and representatives outside the ‘big two’ have been given their turn. Independent Martin Keane was leas cathaoirleach last year and this year Sinn Féin’s representative Dave Keating secured that position with the help of a vote from a Labour and a Fianna Fáil councillor.
This term of Castlebar Town Council has also seen the ‘good of the town’ theory put forward, although Sinn Féin councillor Noel Campbell believes a pact between the other parties on the Council clearly had the intention of isolating him. And after last week’s happenings in Ballina, it seems fair to assume that ‘party politics’ is not a deciding factor.
Even the most impartial commentator would have to admit that the current process is far from ‘transparent’ and calls for an alternative method have increased in volume in recent times,
One councillor who has been very vocal on this issue has been Labour’s Keith Martin, who was elected as an Independent to Westport Town Council, but joined Pat Rabbitte’s Labour charges earlier this year. He has described the current process as a ‘muggings turn’ system allowing parties in power to agree a rota and carve up the office each year among themselves. He feels directly-elected mayors are the way forward.
“Currently, irrespective of their titles, such as the Cathaoirleach, the Mayor, the Méara or the Chairman, they each have identical roles. They are the ceremonial heads of their councils, they chair the meetings and that is about it and in my opinion it is time for us to have directly-elected mayors with real power - not just ceremonial duties and photo opportunities. A directly-elected Mayor should set out the objectives of the council for each term and make the executive decisions on the day to day running of the council through a system that is more democratic and accountable.”
Cllr Martin feels there are a great many advantages to having a directly-elected mayors with real powers.
“Directly-elected mayors are not about taking power away from councillors, they are about putting the power back in the hands of the people, about giving each town leadership and making local government relevant and democratic in the 21st century.”
It should be remembered that back in 2001, the then Minister, Noel Dempsey, did provide for the direct election of chairpersons and mayors of local councils in the Local Government Bill 2000, the Bill which was successful in ending the dual mandate. But his proposal met with fierce opposition behind the scenes in the Dáil and eventually his successor Martin Cullen removed the proposal from the Bill. Vincent Browne feels this was ultimately done because of a reluctance by central Government to release any real power to local authorities.
The outspoken editor of Village magazine and Irish Times columnist feels the current system is nothing but a ‘farce’ which provides opportunities for the ‘puffing of egos and profiles’.
“The direct election of mayors could have been interesting. Had that happened, the emasculation of local government could hardly have persisted. Yes, there were problems with direct elections - or at least there could have been problems if local authorities had any real  powers - for the mayor might well be from outside the majority group on the council. But it would have led to pressures to increase the powers of local authorities, perhaps reverting to a power to impose taxation of some sort.”
The system of local taxation is one that has worked with great success in other EU countries like Sweden and Mr Browne feels putting more power in the hands of local authorities could redress some of the problems which have blighted Irish politics in recent decades.
“The periodic hand-wringing over electoral apathy might be replaced by consideration of measures that would involve the citizenry more in their own government. One such means is to devolve powers to local councils on transport, policing and infra-structural development and to provide for a direct say by the citizen on some of these issues. This makes far more sense than the ‘airhead’ decentralisation policies which are being persisted with.”
The devolution of some worthwhile power to local authorities is an issue which most of the electorate could do with raising when the candidates come knocking next year.