Last February, a motion was put before the Galway City Council that would see rowdy councillors punished for unruly behaviour by stopping their pay and withdrawing services.
While the measures stopped short of spanking councillors and withholding money for sweets, they seemed more appropriate for disciplining hormonal teenagers than democratically elected representatives.
If adopted, Fianna Fáil councillor Peter Keane’s proposal would have provided for members to be stripped of their democratic mandate at the whim of the mayor, who would assume the disciplinary role of a leather-suited dominatrix rather than the chair of the council.
Ironically, it might have been Cllr Keane’s party colleague, Cllr Mike Crowe, who could have been the first subject of the disciplinary measures after he confronted Independent Cllr Catherine Connolly during sharp exchanges at the last council meeting over his rental property portfolio.
Having taken offence to a remark by Cllr Connolly on the matter, Cllr Crowe circled the chamber and whispered comments to the Independent councillor which prompted her to say that, in her 14 years as a member, never had she been confronted in such a manner.
Cllr Keane is a respected practising solicitor who is well versed in the law. Yet it was the great legal minds of councillors Nuala Nolan and Tom Costello who spotted that there were likely to be difficulties with the lawfulness of what was being proposed.
Neither the legal eagle Nolan, nor the bald eagle Costello, have the benefit of a background in the law but they nonetheless identified that Keane’s motion to stop councillors’ pay and withdraw local authority services would hit a glitch.
Sure enough, at the end of March, councillors received a letter from soon-to-be city manager emeritus Joe O’Neill stating that legal opinion obtained by the council indicated that the motion would be unlawful.
The council’s solicitors found the local authority had no statutory power to withdraw services or remuneration from elected representatives, and it was likely the proposal would interfere with their constitutional right to earn a living and their democratic mandate.
In sum, the motion was illegal under the Local Government Act, the Constitution, and “outside the permitted scope of standing orders which can be made by the Council”, confirming what the able sages Nolan and Costello had feared.
It seems that this was less obvious to Cllr Keane but – as in any good legal drama – the motive is as enthralling and the deed.
Pádraig Conneely for mayor?
Next month, the governing pact between Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and the former PDs is due to elect Cllr Pádraig Conneely as mayor following the agreed mayoralties of Declan McDonnell, Hildegarde Naughton, Mike Crowe, and Terry O’Flaherty.
It will be the final mayoral term under the pact before the local elections in 2014 and rumours abound that certain councillors are harbouring ambitions of prising the chains from Cllr Conneely with nothing to lose before the dissolution of the current council.
Accordingly, Cllr Keane issued a warning in the local media that the mayoral pact was “in difficulty”, sparking speculation that Cllr Conneely would lack sufficient support within the mayoral pact to be elected in June.
Cllr Keane would require one other councillor to defect from the pact in order scupper Cllr Conneely’s hopes and pave the way for Keano to present himself as a compromise candidate.
With a deputy mayoralty on offer, he could likely secure the support of Labour councillors, among whom Cllr Billy Cameron would relish the opportunity to throw a spanner in the works for his great rival, Pádraig Conneely.
Perhaps it was with this in mind that Keano made a stand on the issue of “unruly behaviour” by councillors – none less so than Cllr Conneely – and proposed the motion to clamp down on such practices.
The issue had the potential to call upon members of the pact to question whether it was popular or appropriate to support Cllr Conneely for the mayoralty given the controversy about unruly behaviour in the council chamber.
The dismissal of the proposal by the council’s legal representatives was a slap in the face for the ambitious Cllr Keane, however, and it would appear that the ship has been steadied again in advance of the mayoral election in June.
Cllr Keane has left the issue of unruly behaviour unresolved. He may also have left the council with a legal bill for going to the trouble of seeking expert opinion – a bill they could have avoided had they listened to the wisdom of Nuala Nolan and Tom Costello.
It is understood the cost of obtaining the legal advice on whether it was possible for the cash-strapped council to withdraw services and stop remuneration for councillors ran into thousands of euro.
This proved a costly and, ultimately, pointless exercise as it appears it will have no impact on conduct at meetings and – to Keano’s disappointment – no impact on the identity of the next mayor.