INSIDER HAS observed the workings of many Galway city councils over the decades. It is an interesting, if not enlightening experience, to visit City Hall and sit in the public gallery to watch the mechanics of a council meeting.
What can be more enlightening are the contributions from some of our esteemed elected representatives. If you have not been, go up the hill on College Road some Monday evening, you will come away with an informed view and with all sorts of impressions.
It is fair to say the number three on its own is a small number. However add three to 15 and it has far more impact. That is what the last local government review decided to do with Galway City Council. It recommended council membership be increased by three, from 15 councillors, to 18. While most councils in the State were been reduced - and some were even closed down - a handful got an increase.
The number of councillors representing a local authority area was to be based on population as opposed to the size of the geographical area. The government of the day had to pass legislation through the Dáil to enact this new system. It got it through easily, and without much debate, because it was politically popular at the time. Separately, Insider thinks the recent published report which proposes to merge Galway city and county councils will not get through as easily. Senior politicians have more pressing issues on their desk. Time will tell.
Meanwhile back to the number three. Insider believes this increase has had a significant negative impact on the workings in City Hall. This has directly resulted in all items taking much longer to discuss, decide, and ultimately deal with. Meetings are now going on for hours longer than in the past. In previous times, diversity in opinions around the council table was rare, but good to hear. Nowadays, this diversity seems to simply get repeated rather than a new view emerging. After all, there can only be a limited number of opinions on any one topic.
For example, on occasion the minutes alone, which used to be relatively straightforward, have taken over an hour and a half to deal with. Last Monday afternoon, at the outset of the meeting, city council chief executive Brendan McGrath let some of his staff go home because, it was agreed by all, many items on the agenda would not be dealt with. Not even the minutes of the meeting were dealt with on that day.
It is Insider's informed belief, that this increase in numbers has not resulted in what might be described as vast fountains of knowledge. To the contrary, it often appears as if there is a competition for which councillor can come across as the most outrageous. It has been a close run on many a night!
However, the reality is that the public do not pay a lot of heed to the council meetings. They do not pay a lot of heed to councillors in general. In order to improve our city, this needs to change. When decisions are made that impact on our daily live it is worth sitting up and paying some attention to the people who make these decisions.
Insider says this because most people are not sitting up at the moment and some councillors are what you might describe as “getting away with it”. Sure, some of the public listen a bit to “Keith” the morning after a council meeting or throw their eye over an odd report in the paper, but that’s it. Insider truly believes that if the public took more of an interest in what goes on at the meetings, and examined the goings on and input from some elected members, they would be genuinely taken aback.
It is commonly accepted that many people approach voting in a general election far differently to how they approach a local election. In the former, for many voters, deep thought goes into who they are going to vote for. Their vote is valued. There are a number of ways people do this, one primarily being: Has the candidate I am going to vote for the wherewithal to represent our area, and possibly country at the highest level? Yet, people would never ask this question at a local election. Is the vote less valuable? And yet local government, via the delivery of all its services and setting of charges, has far more impact on most people’s lives than the Dáil.
People need to realise that a more serious approach to voting is required in a local election, now more than ever, because local government is becoming more and more responsible for more and more services over time. Rates for local business, property tax for every home, the local enterprise office, the ongoing challenges of traffic, the seriousness of our housing problems, and on and on the list goes.
Insider will put it like this - candidates at election time are applying to the public for a job. It is a serious role requiring serious people with a clear understanding of this city's problems. The public's attitude towards assessing all candidates needs to change. A new approach on who we vote for needs to be taken. If we would not vote for them to represent us in the Dáil, then we should not vote for them to represent us in City Hall. To do the former and not the latter makes no sense.
Ultimately, we deserve the politicians we get. Our city deserves more care by us in who we vote for in the future. If we apply the aforementioned rules to the next local election at least half and probably more of our current councillors will not be there next time. If you think this is harsh, go take that walk up College Road sometime.