Elected mayor plans for Limerick could see beefing up of councillor powers

Nick Rabbitts

Reporter:

Nick Rabbitts

 Public expected to vote on powerful first citizen job on same day as local elections

 Public expected to vote on powerful first citizen job on same day as local elections

PLANS for an executive mayor in Limerick could also bring increased powers for fellow councillors, it’s been claimed.

In a Dail statement on the creation of a directly elected first citizen, the Minister of State for Local Government John Paul Phelan said he wants to see the strengthening of strategic policy committees (SPC).

“My intention would be to create a Cabinet style system, where the chairs of the various SPCs would form the mayor’s cabinet, replacing the Corporate Policy Group,” the Carlow-Kilkenny TD told Dail Eireann.

Former metropolitan mayor Cllr Jerry O’Dea has, in principle, welcomed the move, which could swing the power decisively away from the executive and into the hands of council members – in a similar fashion to the way things are in Britain and across Europe.

But he added: “​We would need all the proper structures in place. While in terms of democratic responsibility and powers, it’s all very well to have a directly elected mayor, but we need a proper system in place. We need to evolve along these lines, but i’d be very careful to rush into it. It would have to be well researched and well set-up. We need to make sure the new powers are used appropriately and not open to any kind of abuse.”

While a referendum is expected to be held on May 24 in Limerick – the same day as the local election – it has not been formally signed off on by government.

Mr Phelan believes the proposed office of directly elected mayor should bridge the gap between the two categories of functions.

“It is my view that, subject to some exceptions, responsibility for executive functions could be transferred to the directly elected mayor. This would encompass a civic and representational role, here the mayor would act as the ‘face of the local authority both domestically and internationally,” he said.

The Junior Minister said the role would need to be supported by a chief executive officer, who at the moment, is considered to hold far more power than the first citizen.

Senior politicians from across Limerick have also had their say on the reforms – which are also being proposed in Galway and Cork.

Sinn Fein TD Maurice Quinlivan said: “These mayors will provide for a new type of leadership in our main cities and it will allow candidates from every party and none to set out their ambition and vision for our cities. This is vitally important in my own city, where a mayor could set out their goals for regeneration areas, economic development, boosting tourism and creating a targetted response to try and  address the unemployment blackspots.”

Mr Quinlivan believes key functions related to transport, infrastructure, economic development, waste management and tourism must be vested in the mayor’s office.

Former Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan said far more information needs to be put out there – comparing the paucity of this with the unfolding drama over Brexit.

“Across the water and north of the border, we see from the Brexit negotiations the damage that can be done if a major change is proposed and the public does not know what it’s about. The British a public learned a lot about what Brexit is since it decided in favour of it, but it should really have been before it voted. This is an example of putting something to the public without having the necessary broad conversation is dangerous,” she warned.

She admitted there are fears not having a debate could lead to “the wrong kind of person” being elected, perhaps a “celebrity mayor.”

”We need somebody who can take the responsibility, it’s not just about powers, it’s about responsibility,” she added.

Senator Kieran O’Donnell said: “A directly elected mayor would be of huge benefit to the development of Limerick. The county is growing and developing and we want to ensure this is done properly and with accountability. A directly-elected mayor who would work in tandem with what government is trying to do under Project Ireland 2040, to ensure proper balanced regional development across the country.”