City is Set to Land Directly Elected Mayor

Eoghan Dalton Reports

News that Waterford may get a directly elected Mayor has been greeted with a mixed response from current and previous Mayors. It comes after South Kilkenny based Minster of State John Paul Phelan (FG) announced that the Government agreed in principle to holding a vote on whether Waterford, Cork, Limerick and Galway would potentially gain Mayors with executive functions, such as greater control over budgets and transport.The plebiscites, to be held aforementioned area, are to be held at the same time as the Local Government Elections in May 2019. Currently Mayors are chosen through the pact system, whereby political parties and independents form alliances to create a majority on the Council.

The Programme for Government included a section calling on the Government and the Oireachtas to seek potential measures to boost local government leadership and to consider directly elected mayors for cities. The paper outlines two main options for the enhancement of the role of local authority mayors, namely: directly elected Mayors, without additional functions but based on the current role performed by Cathaoirligh/Mayors/Lord Mayors of local authorities; Executive Mayors, whose functions would include both existing Cathaoirleach/Mayor functions and executive functions currently residing with the chief executives of local authorities, and who could be either elected directly by the electorate or indirectly from among the elected members of the Council; Further detailed proposals on the plebiscites and the questions to be put to the electorate, as well as the specific powers to be given to Executive Mayors, are to be brought to Government in the coming months.

City & County Mayour Declan Doocey(FG) pictured with Jo Creegan (WDN Committee) at the Official Opening of Waterford Disability Networks at New Street

City & County Mayour Declan Doocey(FG) pictured with Jo Creegan (WDN Committee) at the Official Opening of Waterford Disability Networks at New Street

The news was welcomed by Minster Phelan’s party colleague, Cllr John Cummins, who has served as Mayor of Waterford on more than one occasion. Speaking on social media, he said it would give a chance for everyone to voice their opinion, while noting that the office would need “significant executive power and budget” to work correctly. Waterford currently has an overall Mayor of Waterford, introduced as part of the 2014 amalgamation, while Waterford City and its environs has a Metropolitan Mayor. The latter is a continuation of the previous Mayor of Waterford City title and has lead to controversy as many City Councillors believe it has been derided in favour of the overall Mayoral title. Cllr Cummins believes a directly elected Mayor would put a stop to the confusion surrounding the positions.

Former Metropolitan Mayor Cllr John Hearne (SF) is also in favour of Minster Phelan’s move. In a statement, he said he has long been in favour of a directly elected Mayor with executive powers ahead of the current Council Chief Executives. He added: “Who is afraid of democracy? Who would not like to have a Mayor directly elected with executive powers with a budget to match and the freedom to make decisions to improve the wellbeing of all the citizens who elected you and who can fire you? “The pact system is a disgrace, for too long Councillors have been electing their friends, cousins and party members. Let’s for once let the people decide. Cllr Davy Welsh (Workers Party), who gave sterling service for 40 years, was never elected Mayor because of the pact system. [He] might have been elected by the people, let’s find out and let the people vote.”

The decision was, however, disputed by a number of Councillors, including another former Metropolitan Mayor, Cllr Eamon Quinlan (FF). He said he is “supportive of it in principle” but believes it needs to avoid becoming a “popularity contest of no substance” by providing the Mayor with strong executive powers. The current Metropolitan Mayor Cllr Joe Kelly (Ind) feels there needs to be greater detail of the term length the new Mayor could serve, such as whether they would be in office for one year as they are now, or if they could serve for the full five years a Council sits. “I can’t give a more detailed answer until the full details are set out,” he told The Munster Express.Cllr Joe Conway (Ind) was more cutting. “I can’t even begin to speculate what planet this Junior Minister inhabits,” he said, adding that the “proposals are undercooked, probably not even quarter-baked”.

He said WCCC has “not yet got to grips with the organisational convulsions” caused by former Minister for Local Government Phil Hogan’s reforms earlier this decade and that the problem of a directly elected Mayor would lie with funding:“My take on it is, it’s more about self-promotion than Waterford promotion, and smacks heavily of dilettantism.
“But – if you examine the rubrics of directly-elected Mayors in other areas of Europe – the unerring fundamental is that their success all depends on funding – in other words, it all comes down to dough.“There is much evidence to indicate that this will always be in short order in Irish local government.”

The issue of directly elected mayors for Dublin, meanwhile is to be referred for more detailed consideration and citizen engagement to a Dublin Citizens’ Assembly to be specially convened in 2019. This is due to the Dublin area being made up of four Councils, while a merger in 2021 is expected to take place with Galway’s two Councils in the city and county.

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