A former mayor of Waterford, who used to work in Bell Lines and was a port director of long standing, believes elected representatives must retain a significant say in the management of harbour authorities, rather than surrendering all control to ‘so-called experts’.
Fine Gael Senator Maurice Cummins, speaking during Wednesday’s debate on the new Harbours (Amendment) Bill, decried the attempt to reduce the number of councillors on such bodies from next year as ‘an attack on local democracy’.
“It is local authority members who ensure transparency and ask pertinent questions. They ask the awkward questions which need to be asked on many occasions on the harbour boards. That is the reason officials and so-called experts want local authority members removed”, he declared.
Senator Cummins worked in Waterford port for more than two decades until Bell Lines was wound up by the High Court with the loss of 160 Irish jobs twelve years ago. He also served on the Waterford Harbour commissioners from 1979, including a term as chairman, and subsequently the board of the new Port of Waterford Company, which was ‘correctly’ downsized from 26 to a dozen members on becoming a commercial State entity in 1996.
Each PoW director is currently appointed by the Minister with responsibility for the Marine and the local authority nominees are normally put forward in accordance with party pacts. The present board was appointed for a five-year term in spring 2004. It includes 3 councillors: one from the city (Tom Cunningham) and the others from counties Waterford (Lola O’Sullivan) and Kilkenny (Dick Dowling); all members of Fine Gael, coincidentally.
Favours dual mandate
Having had to give up the dual mandate following his election to the Seanad in 2002, Mr Cummins says: “I do not understand why local authority members are being precluded from serving on such boards. People should be appointed on the basis of ability. There are many local authority members who are well qualified and have the necessary experience to make a valuable contribution.”
Though he does agree with the proposal to reduce from 12 to eight or nine the number of serving members, “why make the local authority members the scapegoats?” he asks.
Senator Cummins noted that the Bill refers to the fact that the Minister ‘may’, not ‘shall’, appoint one member of a local authority to the boards. But even if he does, which side of the river will that councillor be from in Waterford Port’s case?
Further defending the input of elected representatives, Mr Cummins, who served as a member of Waterford Corporation/City Council for 23 years from 1979, urged the Minister of State to examine the attendance records of port directors. “I would bet my bottom dollar that councillors have a better attendance record and are making a more significant contribution than some of the other so-called experts serving on the boards”, he said.
And, he insisted, “Their good attendance is not due to them receiving expenses, lest anyone should make that suggestion, but because they have an interest in port affairs in their local communities.”
Remarking that “There appears to be a common thread running through all types of legislation coming before the House lately whereby local authority members are precluded from serving on various boards and bodies.” Senator Cummins said: “Such members were elected by the people to represent them locally but the legislation is suggesting that they are not good enough.
“Ports are the heart and soul of areas like Waterford city”, he stressed, “and to preclude local representatives would be a retrograde step. I urge the Minister of State to rethink this matter. The idea is obviously coming from officials. Going from a situation where there are three local authority members on the boards to the possibility of only one being appointed is not good enough.”
Senator Cummins continued: “It must be the same crowd of experts compiling these reports for every Department recommending local authority members to be excluded from various boards. The workers’ representatives on these boards will also be reduced [to one]. Who better to represent the workers than the actual workers and their local representatives?”
Believing this aspect of the proposed legislation should be blocked when its voted upon by the Oireachtas, he surmised: “It would be like turkeys voting for Christmas if Senators, who depend on councillors’ votes, went against local authority members’ interests.
“There has been much debate about fairness recently with the medical cards for those over 70 and so on. There is no fairness in a section that will exclude local authority members. I am calling for fair play for local authority members”, he demanded.