Why Galway needs a directly-elected mayor

Could Galway ever get a mayor like London’s Boris Johnson?

Could Galway ever get a mayor like London’s Boris Johnson?

With the prospect of a directly-elected mayor for Dublin still a possibility - Environment Minister Phil Hogan said there will be no plebiscite in May but the four Dublin councils can reconsider the issue after the Local Elections - Insider contemplates what such a role could bring to Galway city.

The first question which needs to be asked though, is, does Galway need a directly-elected mayor when the 15 (soon to be 18 ) elected councillors select a first citizen at City Hall on a yearly basis? Secondly, how would this new role benefit Galway, and thirdly, who would be eligible for the position?

In the Forbes Top 20 list of cities in which to do business, a directly-elected mayor with a cabinet is directly answerable to the city’s citizens. So instead of relying on a pact situation, where a couple of political parties hand out the spoils over a five year period, the public would vote for their choice of mayor.

The successful candidate would choose a cabinet comprising politicians and non- politicians, opening up the possibility of experts in certainfieldsbeing appointed,with responsibility for a wide range of areas including the transfer of powers from some State agencies and Government departments to a newly created mayor’s office.

The Dublin situation

The plan to have a directly-elected mayor for Dublin has experienced a major setback with Fingal County Council voting against the proposal for a directly-elected mayor for Dublin City. Minister Hogan had insisted all four Dublin councils must approve the proposal. As it was widely expected that Fingal would vote against the proposal, it is not a major surprise this option failed, and concerns were expressed that the area could be marginalised by a directly-elected mayor.

However many people, including Dublin Lord Mayor Oisin Quinn, are calling for a public plebiscite, as planned, on May 23. If Minister Hogan is serious about a directly- elected mayor, he should put the issue to a public vote. Given that Dublin City Council, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, and South Dublin County Council passed the motion by an overwhelming majority to vote on this new role, then surely that is more than representative of the Dublin public. It is only fair the public have their say, otherwise the question has to be asked: “Is the Government afraid a directly-elected mayor would upset the political status quo?”

The powers of such a mayor

Insider believes a directly-electedmayor would provide the people of Galway with the opportunity of voting for their first citizen, thereby de-politicising the office. There is a sense of sharing the spoils of office when parties combine to form a pact at council level.

There is no anticipation of who will be elected mayor as deals are done behind closed doors to dole out the roles of mayor, deputy mayor, chairs of committees, and membership of committees for a five year period. Therefore the best or most able councillors do not always ascend to the positions they may occupy in a cabinet selected by a candidate who is not reliant on their support.

A directly-elected mayor would have wider powers than the current first citizen, with a more prominent role to play in promoting Galway, as well as more input into transport, policing, tourism, and business planning. The new office holder would champion Galway city and provide a vision for its further development as a major city.

Mayors of major cities like New York and London have definitely increased their profile and provide a focal point for areas such as tourism and development there. The mayor of the City of New York is head of the executive branch of New York City’s government. The office administers all city services, public property, police and fire protection, most public agencies, and enforces all city and state laws within New York City. The profile of recent mayors, such as Michael Bloomberg, Rudi Giuliani, and Ed Koch, is worldwide.

Ken Livingstone was the first directly-elected mayor in London in 2000 and Boris Johnson is constantly championing our neighbour’s capital as a world city. We should not be content to compete for business with Dublin, Cork, Limerick, etc, but aim to compete with other top cities such as Barcelona, Copenhagen, Paris, etc. A directly- elected mayor would provide the focal point of leadership with real executive powers so Galway can compete more favourably with other cities.

Ken Livingstone, or Red Kenashewasknownina previous incarnation, recently spoke of directly- elected mayors having too much power and the huge potential for corruption. He favoured the maximum devolution of power from government to London, but to the council. In reply to this, Oisin Quinn argued that checks and balances

would have to be put in place to ensure the accountability of the mayor and his/her cabinet. A two thirds majority of councillors could remove the mayor and there would be monthly questioning in the council chamber.

In fairness, if the public felt this way about corruption then nobody would be elected to any office and nothing would ever change. The provision of a directly-elected Mayor gives the people the choice of who to put into office and engage more fully in the process.

Who would be eligible?

So who would be eligible to go forward for the position of directly-elected mayor in Galway? The position offers the opportunity for a high- profile non-politician to parachute into the political system with an approved budget and executive powers. The candidates could be from the world of business with proven track records; public servants such as city or county managers; politicians, including Government ministers have been mentioned; previous holders of the mayoral office, people with vision and proposal; and individuals from various walks of life with their own ideas for raising the profile and future development of Galway.

There would have to be a nomination system where candidates could be nominated as with the Presidency of Ireland. In a draft report re a directly- elected mayor for Dublin the suggestion was of nomination by collecting 1,000 signatures from people on the electoral register in Dublin or through a registered political party.

In summary, Insider believes a directly-elected executive mayor creates “a strong focal point for effective and accountable decision making” and also identifies “scope for savings and efficiencies” in consolidating all of the issues that affect Galway city and county under one office.

Imagine the interest and debate it would generate if we had an election for a directly-elected mayor, and the possibility of a different type of candidate that might be attracted to the challenge? Insider believes the public at the very least should be providedwiththe opportunity to vote on this matter.

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