“We didn’t feel we were equal partners,” was how one community representative member of the Planning, Economic Development and Emergency Services Strategic Policy Committee of Mayo County Council described her time on the committee over the past number of years.
At February’s meeting of the committee, two of the non-elected members of the group expressed their disappointment with the committee and the SPC structure in general and called for overhauls to be made to them in the future.
John O’Donnell, the IFA representative on the committee, kicked things off at the meeting saying: “My experience of this committee as a member has been very, very poor, I’m afraid to say. I don’t know if it’s the structure of the committee or the framework of how things are done, but it’s been an ongoing problem for the past few years.”
Mr O’Donnell was speaking after he had questioned the absence of a representative from Eirgrid at the meeting as had been requested at the previous meeting of the committee. Director of services Martin Keating informed the meeting that, with significant changes having happened to that project since the last meeting, it would not be beneficial to have a representative attend as the plans could change dramatically.
Mary Muldoon, the environmental pillar representative on the committee, weighed in behind Mr O’Donnell with her own criticism: “I have to agree, as one of those who weren’t elected and are on the committee, it wasn’t what I had hoped it would be.”
She added: “There have been times, if I’m being honest, that we have felt we were left out of things. I know we’ve not been elected but we are here to represent a number of different bodies.”
She also pointed out that, while the committee had broad nature, it was restrictive in some areas. “I’m a representative from the environmental pillar and yes, planning is something we have a big interest in, but there are other issues that I would like to raise from our concerns, but they are not for this committee. I would hope that whenever the new committees are formed after the elections whoever decides the headings will have a proper look at what’s together.”
A number of elected members of the committee expressed their disappointment that this was some members’ experience. Sinn Féin councillor Gerry Murray expressed his concern that some of the members felt like this, saying: “The rationale of bringing in the SPCs in the first place was to give non-govermental agencies and lobby groups a voice when decisions and policies were being made by local authorities, to have their say before it was drafted. It would concern me that people felt like that, and maybe there is a need for them to be more focused in the areas they cover going into the next council.”
Fianna Fáil councillor Al McDonnell said: “I wouldn’t agree, as far as I’m concerned everybody on this committee is on the same footing, be they elected councillors or not. We never have everyone agreeing on everything, but you have the same rights as everyone on this committee to have your say.”
Fine Gael councillor Michael Burke said: “I’m very disappointed to hear that, maybe there is a greater spread of information to councillors than to the other members, due to different topics being discussed at full council meetings and area meetings that the other members aren’t at. But the work and policies adopted by these committees are about 90 per cent of the time adopted by the full council.”
Director of services Martin Keating agreed that what was covered by the SPCs could be an area to be looked at in the future, but also warned that the scope for decisions made by the committees could be limited, saying: “The title strategic policy committee may be a bit misleading for some people, in that we don’t make much strategic policy, a lot of what we do is working within the constraints that have been laid down by Government policy, which we have to follow