AN IMPORTANT chapter of history comes to a close this week as the first ever Mayor of Waterford City & County Council prepares to end his tenure.
Since its formation last year, the amalgamated body known as Waterford City & County Council has come under close scrutiny.
For many, the jury is still deliberating on whether or not the controversial amalgamation has been beneficial.
However, something which seems to be universally agreed upon is the exceptional performance of the man who had the honour of being the first Mayor of the combined Waterford City and County Councils
Mayor James Tobin described the past year as enjoyable but very busy.
“The distance from the city was one of the drawbacks, but of course I knew that distance was there when I took the job,” said the Tallow man.
“A lot of the things that had to be done were in the city and there is a very high expectation of the mayor in the city.”
The Fianna Fáil councillor admitted that taking the job was quite a daunting task.
Reflecting on his time, he said he would never forget the first day he began his new role.
“It was a tough day. What should have been a pleasant occasion wasn’t as pleasant as I thought it would be, but afterwards the year turned out to be very successful.”
Among his highlights were the many job creation announcements at which he was present.
He also specifically mentioned the opening of a photographic exhibition by members of the travelling community as a highlight, along with the Civic Receptions afforded to members of the High Hopes choir and rugby star Niamh Briggs.
“Regrets, I have a few. I’m like Frank Sinatra,” he laughed.
“One of the things I mentioned in my inaugural speech was the importance of university status for WIT. The issue probably hasn’t got any further than it had in the past. I hope that nobody will use this issue as an election platform again. My own party and the present two government parties have played politics with the university issue and it’s my wish that nobody will use it again.”
He also expressed his disappointment at not having had an opportunity to participate in the controversial TV3 show ‘The People’s Debate with Vincent Brown’ when it was filmed in Waterford.
Mayor Tobin was in American with a delegation from Waterford at the time.
“My family recorded the programme for me. The Waterford which I was selling in America wasn’t the Waterford I saw on that programme when I came back. We went out there quietly to sell Waterford. The negativity of that show did us an awful lot of harm,” he said.
On a positive note, he praised the council executive and all of his fellow councillors for their co-operation throughout the year.
“The 31 councillors are genuinely interested in Waterford city and county,” he said.
“People out these might criticise councillors, but I have to say that the 31 councillors and myself plus the executive all have the city and county at heart. I’ve been very lucky to work with a progressive CEO in Michael Walsh. Waterford is in safe hands with him.”
Another of Mayor Tobin’s aims during his Mayoralty was to break down the barriers which have traditionally existed between Waterford city and county.
So, after one year of the newly amalgamated local authority, has the city and county finally been unified?
“It hasn’t bedded down yet. It might take a full council,” he said.
He believes the sense of unification can continue if the councillor holding the position of Mayor hails from the city and the councillor acting as Deputy is from the county, or vice versa.
“I was very lucky to have Cllr Jason Murphy as my Deputy. He was fantastic,” said Mayor Tobin.
“We also worked very well with Cllr Lola O’Sullivan as Metropolitan Mayor and Cllr John Carey as her Deputy.”
Deputy Mayor of Waterford City & County Council Jason Murphy praised the performance of his Fianna Fáil colleague.
“The plenary body was a new entity. I came in as a new councillor, so it was probably easier for me,” said the city native.
“The first meeting was difficult for us all, particularly for James. The first meeting is traditionally a celebration for everybody, and it was spoilt a bit on James,” he said.
“From my own perspective as a new councillor I was lucky that James took me on board. He has been a fantastic Mayor. The feedback from other councillors across the political divide, is how fair James is. He was always very fair at council meetings – even sometimes to the detriment of Fianna Fáil! He doesn’t have favourites and he made that one of his planks when he came in, going to give everybody time to talk, particularly remember the budget meeting. He was adamant he would give everyone chance to speak on the budget.”
He continued: “James said at the start of his tenure that he would bring together city and county. It’s easy to say that but actions are harder. First he organised a trip around the city for councillors. A lot of councillors from the west of the county may not have realised all that was going on in Waterford City. Then we went on a tour of the Dungarvan-Lismore electoral area and city councillors got a feel for what was going on in the county. This week, we’re going on a fact finding trip in the Comeragh area. Even though we’re a small county, there is a lot of diversity and I don’t think people in the city realise the issues which exist in the county and vice versa.”
He praised the integrity of Mayor Tobin and said they became very good friends throughout the past year.
Due to a bereavement in Mayor Tobin’s family, he chaired the June plenary meeting of the council.
“I was apprehensive about it but it was a great honour,” he said.
“That was a massive highlight for me and it made me appreciate the work which James had to do. I’ve been very lucky to have somebody like James as a mentor. The past year has been a fantastic learning experience for me.”
Among his many others highlights were the community related events which he attended, including those associated with the Ballybeg Brick by Brick campaign.
“It was fantastic to see how the community in Ballybeg reacted to the acts of vandalism and to see all the goodness which exists in the community,” he said.
So, after one year, what’s the overall assessment of the amalgamation from the two men?
“I was against the amalgamation but we’ve worked with it as best we could and I think we now have a greater appreciation of issues regarding Waterford, rather than talking about Waterford city and Waterford count,” said Deputy Mayor Murphy.
“We’ve come a long way in the first year, but we still have a long way to go,” said Jason.
Mayor Tobin added: “It is my wish that the amalgamation works. We have a great city and county and my wish is that the amalgamation works. I would like to see less politics in the council chamber and more work for the city and county.”
The enthusiastic duo have certainly set the standard for all those who will hold the prestigious positions in the future.