While there is broad political agreement on the prospect of a directly elected Mayor in Waterford, the initial details of the position as revealed by Government last week have been met with a decidedly mixed reaction locally. On Wednesday last, the Cabinet reached agreement on the holding of plebiscites in Waterford, Cork and Limerick cities, coinciding with the Local and European Elections on May 24th, to seek approval for creating an enhanced Mayoralty.
Minister of State John Paul Phelan, pictured at WIT's Applied Technology Building on Friday last. "It's critically important now that the electorate understand what is proposed and turn out in big numbers to vote," he said in relation to the directly elected mayor proposal. 	 	| Photos: Leo Murphy
While further details on the new executive functions of such an office are due to be disclosed “in the coming days”, Metropolitan Mayor Joe Kelly said the proposed €130,000 salary for the post “was too high”. He added: “This entire proposal feels a bit too rushed, in my view.” ): Speaking to The Munster Express, Mayor Kelly feels voters may not have sufficient time to fully digest the mayoral proposition that will be put before them on May 24th.
“Between now and the plebiscite, I just feel there isn’t going to be enough time to have an in-depth debate on this, be it from the perspective of politics or among the general public. We could find ourselves in a default Brexit-type position after this vote, for want of a better comparison. But when you look at the fallout of the Brexit vote, I think it’s fair to say that a lot of people voted in ignorance on that proposal in that they didn’t know what the outcome would be or what the pitfalls would be as a result of a ‘Leave’ vote and I’m afraid that people might fall into the same trap here.”
Mayor Kelly added: “If the vote is passed, the Government will be committed to introducing a directly elected mayor and we may not necessarily see the fall-out of it immediately. Some of the key fall-outs I’ve already identified include a direct conflict between the Council CEO and the role of the new mayor as outlined by the Minister (of State, John Paul Phelan). You also have a predominantly divisive chamber as in you’ll have Independent councillors, Fianna Fáil councillors, Fine Gael, Labour, Sinn Féin and so on. But a directly elected mayor, trying to bring through an agreed programme, which is what the Minister wants, that’s going to be a difficult feat across a divided chamber. Anyone in the chamber that are not operating directly in the interests of the people, and there is obviously going to be politics involved in this, they will oppose that mayor, whatever the proposals are, because who would want to be seen to be giving someone you could well be ideologically opposed to, any kind legislative leg-up when the typical approach up to now has been to drag down someone in that kind of position, so that has to be considered.”
So what would a directly elected Mayor, who would serve a five-year term, get to do? In terms of what’s already been disclosed, the new Mayor would take up his/her position by 2022 and would “exercise a significant amount of the executive functions currently performed by local authority chief executives, prepare and oversee delivery of a programme of office, be responsible for ensuring that the chief executive carried out the functions of the local authority in accordance with the policies of the mayor and the elected council, be an ex-officio member and cathaoirleach of the elected council, and perform their existing reserved functions, and represent the entire local area”.
As stated in a Department of Housing statement on Thursday last, the precise wording of the question that will feature on the ballot paper will be agreed by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, in consultation with the Department of the Taoiseach and the Office of the Attorney General.
Regarding the proposed €130,000 salary, Mayor Kelly said the figure “was well beyond where it needs to be”. He continued: “I think promoting that sort of salary is a suggestion which is simply out of touch with ordinary people. People who are on high salaries will naturally feel that such salaries are justified, they might well feel they should be on even more, and sure most of us by that measure probably feel we should be on more money. But my view is that the Mayor, either directly or by the existing means, has to maintain a relationship with the people they represent. And a salary of between €2,000 and €3,000 a week is not in line with what most people are personally acquainted with.”
Defending the suggested salary, Tánaiste Simon Coveney (FG) stated: “The salary is at that rate because it needs to be. This will be a serious, full-time job that will require a lot of energy, a lot of drive, 14-hour days.”
His colleague John Paul Phelan stated: “Voters in Cork City, Limerick and Waterford will have their say on a directly elected mayor with executive functions. It’s critically important now that the electorate understand what is proposed and turn out in big numbers to vote.”
Speaking on WLR’s ‘Deise Today’ on Friday last, the Ferrybank-based TD said talk of a lack of information on the proposal “was just a complete red herring”. He added: “When I came in here a month ago, I spoke about full executive powers: everything that the City and County Manager has bar hiring and firing, the HR element and individual planning decisions but everything else will be led by the directly elected mayor if it’s approved by the people.” His party colleague and current City & County Mayor Declan Doocey told Damien Tiernan that the “general public knew very little about this” proposal. The Mayor claimed: “It’s an awful insult to myself and my four previous Plenary Mayors in the city and county since the amalgamation. I chair the meetings and I’m also involved in the management; if it’s a ceremonial position, I don’t see it in those terms…it’s a serious position and it’s a terrible insult altogether to the current County Manager…to me, it’s premature and unnecessary and an expense that the county can’t afford”.
A prominent Waterford Fine Gael figure who spoke to this newspaper over the weekend suggested that the proposal in its current guise “may not fly” with many colleagues and members throughout the county.
Minister Phelan told Damien Tiernan that no insult of any kind had been intended on his behalf to either Mayor Doocey nor to any of his predecessors or Council Chief Executive Michael Walsh. “It’s not insulting. It’s just a new direction for local government.”