City councillors to seek independent legal advice as bin row continues

Independent legal advice is being sought by city councillors who continue to plead with city manager Brendan McGrath not to continue with plans to privatise the household waste collection service.

At a special meeting of Galway City Council on Monday evening, a motion proposed by Cllr Colette Connolly was passed with eight votes for and five against calling for independent legal opinion regarding the invoking of a Section 140 motion by elected members and the consequences of elected members directing the city manager to retain the refuse service. However, remaining firm with his plans to privatise, Mr McGrath warned that the bidding process to find a private provider will continue and “run in parallel” while the second legal opinion is being sought.

This came following an often heated debate on the privatisation plans and the Section 140 motion. It is calling for the consideration of the following: That the council continues to provide a waste collection service and that the city manager engage in immediate consultation process with all stakeholders; further that he provide a detailed report outlining enforcement costs over the last five years, costs of illegal dumping over the last five years, and the estimated costs of illegal dumping for 2014 to Galway City Council; and finally an examination of economic viability should a national waiver be introduced and that a strategy be put in place to tackle refuse arrears.

Mr McGrath told councillors that information sought in relation to enforcement costs, illegal dumping and its estimated costs for 2014, is already being compiled and will be made available whether the Section 140 motion is passed or not. He added that that the council will be examining economic viability and coming up with a strategy if a national waiver is introduced. A letter giving details of the legal advice received from Blake & Kenny Solicitors (dated September 12, 2013 ) in relation to Section 140 of the Local Government Act 2001 was then circulated to councillors. It clearly states that “elected members do not have the authority to rescind” the city manager’s decision “invoking Section 140 of the Act”. Earlier on Monday, the city manager called a whips’ meeting in which he informed party whips of this legal opinion.

“Shame on you for calling a whips’ meeting today that I knew nothing about,” said Cllr Catherine Connolly, who added that she was “not impressed”. Cllr Colette Connolly then accused the manager of once again treating “us with utter contempt by not circulating this [the legal opinion letter] prior to this meeting”. These sentiments were echoed by Cllr Ollie Crowe, who said he was “frustrated that legal advice was received last Thursday and yet we are treated with contempt. It’s not acceptable”.

“You felt we weren’t worthy of receiving this letter,” said an equally angered Cllr Frank Fahy who added: “It’s not good enough for you to leave it to the last minute. If this is how you are starting your tenure in Galway city I’m not impressed.”

Cllr Billy Cameron accused the city manager of dismissing not only the councillors but also the unions who have plans that could bring about savings. “But because you stormed ahead without giving due process to us and the union that was not done. Savings of €600,000 can be achieved. I want you to sit down with the representatives of the workers and test the viability of the plan they are going to put forward,” he said.

Noting that only six private operators have so far come forward with expressions of interest, Cllr Peter Keane asked why they would enter a deal which will see them paying out €390,000 for bins and €450,000 for waiver customers. He also asked: “What are the chances this bidding process fails and if it fails are you going to have to continue with the services. What are the ramifications for us for supporting the Section 140 motion?”

In response, director of services Joe O’Neill said that “there is no assumption that the waiver liability is going to continue”. He explained that the €450,000 will not be an on-going cost for the council as the new company will have to make provision for the waiver customers and it will be part of the consideration during the bidding process. Mr O’Neill maintained that unions were invited by letter to make submissions by September 9 but “as of now we have not received any proposals”. However, this was refuted by Cllr Ollie Crowe who insisted that the unions have responded. Senior engineer Kevin Swift confirmed that so far there have been six expressions of interest and the council is confident there will be more and a private provider will be found.

A number of councillors also expressed concerns for the future of the Carrowbrowne composting facility and the possibility of an increase of illegal dumping. Mr O’Neill responded that composting is costed separately from the waste collection services and that there will be a review of the service will be undertaken. Mr Swift further explained that since those operating in the market are obliged to divert food waste there are indications that the Carrowbrowne facility has a future.

Referring back to the issue of the Section 140 motion, Cllr Ollie Crowe pointed out that “under legislation elected members are entitled to get their own legal opinion, and we wish to enforce that”. The meeting then adjourned for a second time and when it resumed the motion to seek a second opinion was passed. The issue will be discussed again at the October meeting.

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