City manager stands firm on decision to privatise refuse service
By Martina Nee
Embattled city manager Brendan McGrath is standing firm in his decision to privatise the council refuse service stressing that he “cannot and will not stop the bidding process” because of his responsibility to protect the local authority’s finances and gives the best option for protecting the remaining customers.
Despite only being in his current role since June, Mr McGrath wasted no time in implementing plans to discontinue the direct provision of household waste management services, after a recent refuse review report concluded that it was not financially sustainable. However, he came under fire at Monday’s council meeting, with elected members criticising him for only giving them notice of one working day, by email last Friday, that the tendering would commence this week (Tuesday). In fact, while councillors were still discussing the issue, at length, on Monday evening, letters informing customers of the plans had already been posted.
“It beggers belief,” said a clearly angered Cllr Colette Connolly who called on the council executive to defer its decision to privatise the refuse service until it can be debated more fully and a full detailed report be prepared. However, Mr McGrath replied that he had “an obligation to protect the council” and that he could not comply with the first part of the motion. “The process has commenced this week. I said I wouldn’t do as Dublin and Cork has done, I said I would have an open, transparant, accountable, bidding process. There is a danger that the haemorrhage of customers will accelerate. I have to accelerate the process to protect the council.”
“If you wanted to work with the elected members surely engagement should have taken place before now,” replied Cllr Connolly, who then informed the chamber that she would be submitting her motion as part of the Section 140 of the Local Government Act 2001, which gives power to the elected members to request that an executive decision not be proceeded with, and requires only three signatures. Noting that elected members would be in their right to submit such a motion, Mr McGrath added that seven days notice must be given in writing. He added that he would still be issuing the bidding process in parallel.
“I think the manager has shown contempt for the elected members around this table putting out a report on Friday by email. This is not the way to do business,” said Cllr Connolly.
Her views were echoed by Cllr Ollie Crowe who said it was “hugely disappointing”. “We deserve more respect as elected members. You’re treating us with contempt,” said Cllr Crowe who added: “It’s a difficult day for staff here. A dark day for this local authority. It’s a further erosion of local authority powers, along with the water.” Cllr Crowe was also concerned that privatisation will lead to an increase in illegal dumping through the city.
“I am a customer of this service which is unparalled,” said Cllr Peter Keane who added: “It’s not a proposal, it’s a decision already made. Your competitors are licking their lips this evening, and in a year’s time the price won’t be as competitive. I wholeheartedly support the motion under Section 140”. Addressing the city manager directly, Cllr Keane said: “You are totally disingenuous. You gave us this one working day before we are expected to endorse it.”
Also airing her dissatisfaction was Cllr Catherine Connolly said it is “appalling” that elected members should hear about these plans “through rumours”. “I will not be supporting it. This is an essential public service that we should be treasuring,” she said.
While the majority of councillors criticised the council executive, it was Cllr Michael Crowe who spoke up and commended the city manager for taking a hard decision that had to be made. “In my opinion, we had no difficulty when there was no competition. We’re no longer able to compete. The manager has been criticised, but let me put on the record he has a lot more back bone than a lot of lads before him. Ultimately, it’s the truth,” he said.
After a debate lasting up to four hours, the city manager concluded by saying: “I would rather do this in a different way. I’m trying to protect the council. I will stand over every single part of the document. I’m trying to lever the best outcome and best result. The gap will continue to widen and the loss continue to worsen. I decided we needed to act now, while we still have value left in the business”. He said that while he will take account of all the 123 points made by the councillors, he could not comply with the Section 140 motion.
The motion under Section 140 of the Local Government Act 2001 is due to be discussed at a meeting next Monday, September 16, at 4pm. However, it is understood that the city manager does not have to comply when there are financial implications for the council.