A case of political pastures familiar was most evident within the surrounds of the Athlone-Moate Municipal District Chamber on Monday afternoon as Cllr. Aengus O’Rourke was elected Mayor.
The Fianna Fáil public representative received the esteemed chain of office from outgoing Municipal District Mayor, Cllr. Frankie Keena, as his two year term as first citizen culminated. Donning the Mayoral chain will be of most familiarity to Cllr. O’Rourke having fulfilled the role in 2018.
Addressing the Chamber upon the conclusion of formalities, Cllr. O’Rourke, noted with pride his return to the role of Municipal District Mayor and the continuous support afforded to him by family members unable to attend the occasion due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“We are living in extraordinary times. As Mayor of this District I would like to express my condolences to the families of those Irish people bereaved in recent months at the hands of COVID-19
“We have witnessed frontline workers across numerous agencies make huge personal sacrifices. Older persons have been confined to their homes for weeks, while so many people have lost jobs, livelihoods and their businesses.
“There have been glimmers of hope for the future. Communities rallied in unison, ensuring cohesive plans were implemented to provide essential provisions with team spirit much to the fore.
“We pray that the worst is behind us. It is not until the fog lifts completely that we will know what we are faced with on a national and local basis.
“Local authority finances will be impacted. There will be tough decisions ahead in terms of budgets, services and funding. It will be a time for working and innovating together to minimise impact to our services.
“There is an opportunity now for this local authority to progress, embracing the opportunities that technology presents and streamlining what we do and how we do it.
“We need to develop a Digital Transformation Strategy for this Council which sees our services reach people more conveniently, no matter their location within the District.
“Our constituents should be able use appropriate technology in a secure manner to make an application, view a file, submit documents, book an appointment and meet a member of staff by video.
“There must be buy-in and belief from our executive and I fear that this is where most persuasion will be needed. Such a streamlining of services would mean huge efficiencies for all concerned.
“I can hear some say, ‘not everybody can use a computer’ and I understand that. Obviously, a manual service will always be there for those who wish to go the traditional route.
“This is the way life is going. Numerous public services provide an online, real-time offering. I hope to get your support to push for a thorough modernisation of how we do our business,” Cllr. O’Rourke asserted.
The Municipal District Mayor noted a number of pertinent issues which necessitate much focus during his term of office, namely the finalisation of flood defences, advancement of urban and rural regeneration schemes, development of the Railway Field project, progression of the Brawny Housing Project, additional cycleway developments, consideration of the County Development Plan, with further projects due for consideration in future times.
“The Old Tech Building on Northgate Street is a perennial issue which MUST be afforded due recognition. It is my intention to bring the stakeholders together to discuss the future of this building. The building is currently the responsibility of Athlone IT who have a six year lease on the property.
“Westmeath County Council should immediately seek to take the building back under our control, secure it and explore the many uses for it. It is a building with historical significance and yet it sits in our town centre, idle and abandoned.
“Social Housing, forever problematic, is an issue which needs our focus. Government have failed to respond to the problem in a meaningful way. We are only preparing to allocate keys to those on our housing list for the housing development in Arcadia some five years after the development was presented to us.
I urge the new Government to take a more pro-active role in fast-tracking the construction of social housing where possible. We need to engage with private investors, deal with all the dereliction around the country and CPO abandoned, idle properties.
I will continually remind the authorities of the extent of this housing emergency in Athlone and push for action at a local and national level,” Cllr. O’Rourke stressed.
Cllr. O’Rourke noted the detrimental impact the removal of Town Council status from Athlone has had upon the National Planning Framework 2040 regional growth centre.
“I have requested that the Fianna Fail Government negotiating team include the restoration of Town Councils to population bases of 15,000 or more.
“I have further called for the new Government to undertake a root and branch review of our Defence Forces, examining pay and conditions, recruitment drive and the reinstatement of the 4th Western Brigade and will work to ensure our local business sector as they strive to recover from such unprecedented times,” Cllr. O’Rourke emphasised.
Despite the forthcoming challenges, the Town Mayor reflected upon the positives pertaining to his native town.
“Athlone is easily accessible with good infrastructure, boasts a core of which to be proud and we have a great employment base. Our town also has a vibrant sense of community obvious for all to see during the pandemic,” Cllr. O’Rourke enthused.
Cllr. O’Rourke will be assisted in his official duties by Green Party Councillor, Louise Heavin, who will fulfil the role of Deputy Mayor.