Galway could see up to 12 new councillors elected in 2014 as part of local authorities to be run by a chief executive, and which will have the power to collect property taxes, under the Government’s new local government reform programme.
The Galway county and city councils have been spared from the mergers planned for Waterford, Tipperary, and Limerick’s local authorities, but the new programme, Putting People First, still entails major changes for how the city and county is run.
Under the plan, announced on Tuesday, the number of elected councillors in the State drops from 1,627 to 950. However Putting People First has stressed that each council should have a minimum of 18 seats. The Galway City Council currently has 15 seats, meaning another three will be required.
Speculation now rests on how and where the three seats will be distributed. Currently the city has three electoral wards - West, Centre, and East - which may require adding one seat to each ward.
However, a boundary commission is currently studying the local authority wards and according to Labour city councillor Niall McNelis, there are strong indications the city could be revamped into two wards of nine seats each, especially with the population growth occurring in the west in Knocknacarra and in the east in Doughiska.
There are also indications that the population growth in the county could require the county council to have nine extra councillors, raising its number to 39.
“Under these reforms, county councillor numbers will be rebalanced in accordance with their county’s true population,” said Cllr McNelis. “The way in which local government has been operating is out of step with Irish demographics. Galway has seen a spike in its population and will now see its councillor numbers rise.”
A more drastic change for County Galway is the abolition of all town councils in the State, including those in Ballinasloe, Loughrea, and Tuam, resulting in mixed to hostile reaction.
“I am not sure if these reforms are the answer. I am just not sure if all of the people will now be represented,” the Fine Gael Mayor of Loughrea, Geraldine Bane, was quoted as saying. The Mayor of Ballinasloe, Independent councillor Carmel Grealey, described it as “a death knell to local democracy”.
However the town councils and ‘area reps’ will be replaced with municipal districts, to be based around towns and their hinterlands, thereby giving them further reach than the old town councils. Also, all councillors elected in county areas at the 2014 elections will be simultaneously elected to both the municipal district and the county council. The idea is that a councillor can tackle local problems on the ground and ensure this gets fed back to County Buildings.
The document states that more power will be devolved to local level, with a substantial range of ‘reserved’ functions at municipal district level.
It has yet to be decided how to organise municipal districts but it is thought they will follow the electoral wards. As such there is a possibility of a Connemara Municipal District, Oranmore Municipal District, Tuam Municipal District, etc.
Under Putting People First, councillors may also see their powers eroded. Elected members will no longer be able to overturn the decisions of planning officials and the public will be able to raise issues for themselves through www.fixyou rstreet.ie. However Cllr McNelis disagrees feels councillors’ powers are not threatened by the new programme.
“We still have the power to set rates and to draw up the development plan,” he said. “People still want to know they can contact their councillor who can make an appointment for them to see officials and lobby on their behalf. I feel this programme will allow councillors look after the local stuff and let TDs get on with the national work. I think councillors’ workload will actually increase.”
The power of the local authorities themselves is being increased. The Galway local authorities will in time be given powers to set their own property tax rates to generate funds to support services in the city and county.
Cllr McNelis admits the plan is “very aspirational” and needs to be backed up by legislation and a new Local Government Act.
“There is a lot of work to be done before June 2014,” he says. “There will be a lot of legal and inheritance issues to be sorted out, with people having left lands or a building to a town council that is to be abolished. Other aspects of the plan need more detail.”
One such area is that local authority managers are to be replaced by chief executives, as the function of this new entity has yet to be defined.