Local Government is often the butt of many jokes: from the depiction of gombeen councillors in RTE’s Hall’s Pictorial Weekly through to Pat Shortt’s more recent comic creation of Councillor Maurice Hickey there has been quite a lot of comic material emanating from local council chambers.
This is a shame given the fact that local government is the one part of the democratic process which is supposed to be closest to the citizen and the community. The common stereotype that ‘the council’ is a closeted existence bolstered by the “jobs for life” culture is a bit of a lazy and somewhat unfair stereotype, but sadly in truth there is some justification for people holding these views. While we do many things well on Mayo County Council, the school report would truthfully read: “Must try harder.”
The main problem with local government in Ireland, is that ultimately, executive functions are exercised by persons who are unaccountable to the people. The first change I would make is to get rid of the current county manager system. I have nothing personal against the current incumbents in Mayo, but they are not accountable to the people of Mayo, not to the elected councillors; not to anyone. Could you imagine the furore if the chief executive of a private company was not accountable to the board of directors or to the shareholders?
The county manager system is a relic of the era of the Irish RM. It vests an incredible array of powers in an unelected person much like a colonial viceroy. Under my system the executive powers of the manager would pass to the cathaoirleach or town mayor which would see an accountable person driving the policy platform and work programme of the council in co-operation with the other elected representatives. People talk about change at election time, but we all know that although the faces at the front change, the people in the background, the permanent council, remains the same. Not under my system. The first job of the new cathaoirleach would be to appoint a team of directors. Currently Mayo has seven directors of service, covering every aspect of the authority’ss work, from roads, to environment, planning to community and enterprise. They work under the manager. Of the seven directors currently employed, I think the county could manage fine with five – again most in the know will admit this. At town council level, town engineer and town clerk would form the core of the appointments.
Citizens are alienated
The second issue I would tackle is the question of reform. You could cover the roads of Mayo with report after report on how local government should be reformed. Reforming local government is the preserve of the Minister for Environment and Local Government John Gormley, a man more committed to changing light bulbs than changing the local government system. The principal reform I would like to see happen is that functions that effect the daily lives of people in Mayo are devolved to Mayo County Council.
Education, health, policing, transport, and industrial development are all functions that ought to be devolved to the local authority. We have a National Roads Authority and Railway Procurement Agency making decisions on Mayo transport projects that no one in Mayo has a real say in, that is wrong. We have a Health Service Executive which is arguably the worst form of unaccountable authority since absentee landlords roamed Connacht in the 19th century, the recent decision to end cancer services at Mayo General Hospital was made by faceless bureaucrats in Dublin and not in a council chamber in Castlebar, and people wonder why citizens are alienated from the political process.
The bottom line is that if it is a local issue, the decision should be made in Mayo, if it is a national issue, the decision should be made in Dublin
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly in these times of economic uncertainty, there would have to be an argument for re-assessing whether or not we could be more efficient in how local government is operated. Are 31 members on the county council excessive, when you consider that Kildare has 25 members, and a much greater population. Mayo could in all likelihood be run by 15 councillors. Likewise the town councils could work effectively with five representatives. The quality of elected representative also has to improve dramatically. I would suggest that if the job becomes more responsible, with critical decisions to be made, people of quality will be attracted.
What I would like to achieve, is a change in the culture of local government. End the wasting money; if you mess up, and waste money, you get fired. We all know that that is not happening at present. When you have heads at the top rolling every five years, they will demand excellence further down the food chain; otherwise they will be signing on after the election. So no more breast feeding shovels, or sending out a JCB, two pick up trucks, and five men to open a water table. Councillors’ conferences would also get the chop; can anyone tell me what public good is being served by sending a few councillors in a car on a 350-mile round trip to learn about tourism in Kenmare? Do they report back on these conferences, or spend the weekend in the hotel bar sculling pints?
Finally, the people of Mayo should be allowed to participate directly in decision-making. The US system of municipal plebiscites ought to be encouraged more. Local plebiscites on key local issues should be encouraged in order to encourage citizens to take part in decision-making. There is some lip service paid to this idea under the Local Government Acts, but a lot more needs to be done to encourage local decision-making.
There is a lot wrong with our councils. There are, however, a few of our representatives who, despite the limitations of their role, do a good job for us. And they need to be appreciated. Some of them would support the shake up I’ve outlined, because it would be good for Mayo, and that’s what is important to them. Perhaps if some of these people make it into national office, these changes will happen.
What we have to do next June is decide who these people are, and then give them our vote.