Local democracy? It’s just a myth

Grassroots - An inside look at local politics – from the pens of the politicians themselves

Hildegarde Naughton and Ollie Crowe - Insider believes both are in for long political careers. Now can they make sure the council gets through each month’s agenda?

Hildegarde Naughton and Ollie Crowe - Insider believes both are in for long political careers. Now can they make sure the council gets through each month’s agenda?

“The problem of power is how to achieve its responsible use rather than its irresponsible and indulgent use - of how to get men of power to live for the public rather than off the public - Robert F Kennedy

It is said that politicians have large egos and with that being the case it is understandable that there is constant friction at Galway City Council meetings in City Hall. Indeed when you examine how the real power is distributed in local government you realise that much of this grandstanding can just be theatrics.

For the most part, local authorities like the Galway City Council and the Galway County Council are funded by central government. When a local authority fails to balance its budget it can be disbanded by the Department of the Environment.

Legislation passed in 1997 was supposed to give councillors more power but is has not worked that way. The 14 ministers at national level have the real say. They decide what projects get through and where the money will be spent.

If the majority of city councillors feel a certain project is a good idea a city or county manager does not have to follow their advice. S/he can say there is no money for it or refer it to a sub-committee - in other words bury it.

Managers are the people with the real power so we should not be fooled into thinking that the councillor you voted to represent you can work miracles. Local democracy is a myth, it will not happen until councillors are members of the Executive, by that Insider means, until they can have their hands on the purse strings.

City/county managers are appointed by an independent body mostly made up of civil servants. His/her job demands that s/he has no political affiliations. S/he is responsible for the day to day running of the city/county like rubbish collection, water distribution, housing, transport and infrastructure, planning, and the award and signing of contracts. The buck stops with the manager and s/he can delegate this work through the directors of services.

Councillors who get on with officials are able to get work in their area done without too much hassle. On the other hand councillors who do not get on with officials could find that the needs of their electorate will be hard fought for. This is just the way human nature works, but can creates imbalances.

Councillors and officials

Looking at this from a Galway perspective, Insider argues that if you drive through South Mayo you will find that every townland has its own community centre and playing pitches. In Galway city you have no community centre or playing pitches on the Headford Road where there are 11 housing estates.

They are to get a community centre soon but that will be under the Rapid Scheme, which is not very rapid since the plans are there for the last 10 years and not a stone laid yet!

What is going on? Is it not part of the council’s responsibility to insure that every large estate has a community centre? They should not have to beg for it.

Insider must also say this though - you constantly hear of such-and-such a councillor who “got me an affordable house” or “got me the waiver for my rubbish collection”.

This is not true because if it were the case it would not be right. You should have got your affordable house because you, as a tax payer, had every right to it and you ticked the box which made you entitled to it. You got the waiver for your bin collection because you qualified for it and your financial circumstances demanded it.

The politician may have helped you to articulate your needs, for that you can thank him/her.

What you have to watch out for is how your politicians vote on issues that are of concern to you and the good of the city. Where is our city park and school of music which both the politicians and public have looked for years?

Instead the city manager of the time went for a remake of Eyre Square which cost millions. How many millions? We will never know.

Independent councillor Catherine Conneely does not give up asking for a run down on the costs but to no avail. Again if you were to ask the public how their local politicians voted in relation to taking away the roundabouts on the N6 very few would be able to give you the right answer.

The councillors - an assessment

On Galway City Council we have 15 councillors - five Labour, three Fine Gael, three Fianna Fáil, and four Independents (three of whom are ex-PDs ).

Cllr Connolly is a left wing politician who for the most part would be in agreement with her former Labour colleagues, but she is not averse to giving them a dig over their sudden change to middle of the road politics since they have gone into power with Fine Gael. This produces some red faces.

Councillors Terry O’Flaherty and Declan McDonnell are shrewd and work tirelessly for their core vote. Cllr O’Flaherty knows that to get elected you need a strong core vote. Cllr McDonnell has Mervue sewn up and it must be said that it is one of the best kept housing estates in the city.

Cllr Donal Lyons works hard for Knocknacarra but does not like his sincerity questioned - this nearly cost Cllr Hildegarde Naughton her shot at being mayor. He does not make long speeches and is usually sharp and to the point but can be touchy at times when provoked.

Cllr Colette Connolly is always spot on when it comes to planning issues but does not have the confidence to see when she has directors of services on the back foot. Watered down good motions are usually sent to sub committees and forgotten about.

Cllr Niall McNelis does not like to challenge the Executive and is prepared to compromise when he would gain more ground in sticking to his original position.

Mayor Naughton has a strong personality and it looks like she will go on to be a TD, for not alone does she take a good photo but she is not fazed by the present director of services for transport and infrastructure. She is not afraid to fight and lose, an essential trait in a person who intends to stick with politics.

Cllr Billy Cameron is usually a reasonable man to deal with but once he makes up his mind on something he is not for changing.

Councillors Frank Fahy and Nuala Nolan are only there since March - time will tell if they will make their mark. Both have strong personalities and they are not overawed by the old stalwarts.

Insider believes Cllr Peter Keane has his eye on a Dáil seat but Fianna Fáil is not popular so he could have a long wait. He is a personable fellow but has he the patience to wait for an FF comeback?

The two councillors Crowe - Mike and Ollie - are in the same position a Cllr Keane. Ollie seems the jollier of the two. He will have more staying power and for that reason Insider thinks he will be a member of City Hall as long as he want to be. He does not hold on to grudges or take things too personally which makes him a probable mediator.

Mike seems to have a short fuse of late. It must have been hard for him to see his hope of being a TD dashed by the unpopularity of his party and Labour’s Derek Nolan walking away with a seat with great ease and comfort.

Cllr Tom Costello brings to mind the saying “an old dog for the road and a pup for the path”. Cllr Costello is a survivor who works hard behind the scenes in Ballybane and in his own patch in Ballindooley. He will try to work a compromise rather than make enemies.

Lastly Cllr Pádraig Conneely talks his mind and berates the city manager and directors of services at every opportunity. He asks the difficult questions but gets no answers. If he were to seek more support from other council members maybe more answers would be forthcoming.

Now take this mixed bag of personalities and add in city manager Joe O’Neill and his four directors of services and you are bound to have divisiveness. However it is nothing that a good chairperson sticking stringently to a tight agenda could not sort out. A strict time limit on meetings and subsequent discussions would ensure more was done in less time.


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