1 Put some­one in charge

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - Olivia Kelly Dublin Cor­re­spon­dent

There’s a clas­sic trope in hor­ror films where the pro­tag­o­nist sets aside the norms of ra­tio­nal be­hav­iour and goes down into an un­lit cel­lar, or gets into a car with an ob­vi­ously un­hinged stranger, while the au­di­ence can see the ter­ri­ble event about to un­fold and are will­ing the vic­tim to re­treat.

It’s a feel­ing that will be fa­mil­iar to any long-time ob­server of Dublin lo­cal au­thor­ity pro­ceed­ings. Im­pend­ing dis­as­ter is painfully ap­par­ent and yet, time and again, coun­cil­lors will­ingly and wil­fully hurl them­selves lem­ming-like over cliffs to lose their limited pow­ers in the ravine at the bot­tom.

In 2001, coun­cil­lors – all coun­cil­lors not just Dublin ones – lost their pow­ers over waste col­lec­tion and dis­posal, fol­low­ing their fail­ure to rat­ify plans for waste dis­posal fa­cil­i­ties, or any form of waste charg­ing.

As a re­sult this power was trans­ferred to coun­cil man­age­ment, hugely un­pop­u­lar bin charges were in­tro­duced, and the Pool­beg in­cin­er­a­tor, which all par­ties op­posed, was built.

More re­cently, the fail­ure to agree a route for the Lif­fey cy­cle path, which had been six years in the plan­ning, re­sulted in the scheme be­ing re­moved from the con­trol of Dublin City Coun­cil and handed over to the Na­tional Trans­port Au­thor­ity.

In this case it wasn’t just the coun­cil­lors (who couldn’t agree traf­fic di­ver­sions past their con­stituents’ houses) who were to blame, but also coun­cil of­fi­cials, who pro­duced end­less it­er­a­tions of the scheme, one of which saw dou­ble-decker buses rerouted through an ex­ist­ing apart­ment block.

The most re­cent, and one of the most damn­ing fail­ures or of­fi­cial­dom to get to grips with de­ci­sion mak­ing, is the Col­lege Green plaza re­fusal farce.

The coun­cil tip-toed around the is­sue for a decade, tin­ker­ing with se­lec­tive traf­fic re­stric­tions, mus­ing over foun­tains and stat­u­ary, but never re­ally grasp­ing the prob­lem, which re­quired get­ting buy-in from Dublin Bus be­fore the project went to An Bord Pleanála for ap­proval – a step which it­self should have been taken years be­fore.

Surely there’s a bet­ter way of get­ting things done in the city. Could this dither­ing, bot­tling, buck-pass­ing and pro­cras­ti­na­tion be solved by Dublin hav­ing a di­rectly elected mayor?

“The cen­tral power, the most im­por­tant point, of hav­ing a di­rectly elected mayor, is that they have a ‘bully pul­pit’,” Dr Deiric Ó Broin, DIT aca­demic and co-au­thor of the up­com­ing book May­oral Gov­er­nance

in Dublin, ar­gues. “The elected role gives them the au­thor­ity to ar­gue for more in­vest­ment in the city, for keep­ing a more ap­pro­pri­ate share of the money gen­er­ated in Dublin. And they have to de­liver; their job is on the line. If they don’t de­liver they may not be re-elected. That con­cen­trates minds.”

How­ever, the con­cept of a mayor is one thing, the re­al­ity of the role and its func­tions is quite an­other, Ó Broin says.

“The big is­sue is what pow­ers the mayor would have and where would they come from. There is no point if the mayor is just a lord mayor, as in they have sig­nif­i­cant cer­e­mo­nial but mi­nor func­tional role, but who lasts for a five-year term.”

Dublin city chief ex­ec­u­tive Owen Kee­gan agrees. “If it is to be suc­cess­ful the di­rectly elected mayor has to have real pow­ers, but he or she can only have real pow­ers where the pow­ers are taken from some­where else. This no­tion that there’s some un­al­lo­cated power that you can give to the mayor has no ba­sis in re­al­ity – all power is al­ready al­lo­cated.”

And there isn’t much power within the hands of the coun­cil to give to a new mayor, Kee­gan says. “Since lo­cal govern­ment is weak here, the power and func­tions would have to come from cen­tral govern­ment, and that is a real is­sue be­cause if there’s a di­rectly elected mayor who is re­spon­si­ble for en­ergy, and com­mu­ni­ca­tions and trans­port in Dublin it doesn’t leave very much for the cen­tral govern­ment to do.”

An­other vex­ing is­sue is what phys­i­cal area would be gov­erned by the mayor. “Cul­tur­ally and po­lit­i­cally we are ob­sessed with coun­ties and county bound­aries. I could see an ar­gu­ment for a city-only di­rectly elected mayor and that gets away from that prob­lem, but I don’t see how a city-based mayor could have re­spon­si­bil­ity for trans­port in Dublin, which crosses lo­cal au­thor­ity bound­aries,” Ó Broin says.

Col­lapse

This is­sue of bound­aries played a large part in the col­lapse of the last may­oral plan. In 2013, then min­is­ter for the en­vi­ron­ment Phil Ho­gan de­cided, de­spite there be­ing no le­gal re­quire­ment, that the coun­cil­lors in all four Dublin lo­cal au­thor­i­ties would have to be in favour be­fore Dublin­ers would get a chance to vote in a plebiscite on whether or not to have a mayor.

The fol­low­ing year Dublin City, Dún Laoghaire-Rath­down, and South Dublin voted over­whelm­ingly in favour of the pro­posal but it was ve­toed by Fin­gal, whose coun­cil­lors felt they would be the poor coun­try cousins, largely ig­nored by a city-fo­cused mayor who would only be af­ter their air­port.

Gerry McGuire, a Labour coun­cil­lor at the time, said there would be “no chance of get­ting a pot­hole fixed in ru­ral Fin­gal”.

Ho­gan show­ing great for­ti­tude in keep­ing a straight face said he was “dis­ap­pointed” as he was “the great­est pro­po­nent of de­vo­lu­tion prob­a­bly in the his­tory of the State”.

Last year the Govern­ment re­vived the may­oral pro­posal, mak­ing pro­vi­sion for a plebiscite this year, but it has re­cently kicked the can down the road, and kicked it out of the cap­i­tal, deter­min­ing that re­gional cities would vote at next year’s lo­cal elec­tions on whether to have a mayor, but in Dublin it would first be re­ferred to a cit­i­zens’ as­sem­bly for the cap­i­tal.

It seems like an­other un­nec­es­sary hur­dle given that a sim­i­lar fo­rum spent five months for­mu­lat­ing pro­pos­als for the mayor’s role in 2013, and, at that time sur­veys showed pub­lic sup­port for a Dublin mayor was up to 80 per cent.

Even if Dublin does get a mayor, what the Govern­ment ap­pears to be propos­ing is a tooth­less role, ei­ther a mayor with the same pow­ers as the cur­rent lord mayor, ex­cept elected, or an “ex­ec­u­tive mayor” who would take on some of the func­tions of the coun­cil chief ex­ec­u­tive.

Labour coun­cil­lor Der­mot Lacey, a for­mer lord mayor, be­lieves there is lit­tle chance of Dublin be­ing al­lowed have a mayor with any real power.

“Se­nior civil ser­vants will move might and main to en­sure Dublin does not get a di­rectly elected mayor. The depart­ment [of Hous­ing and Lo­cal Govern­ment] is hos­tile to re­form. Civil ser­vants and politi­cians have done ev­ery­thing be­hind the scenes to de­rail this idea.”

A plebiscite to de­cide whether there should be a mayor is un­nec­es­sary, Lacey says. “If the Govern­ment is se­ri­ous about mak­ing progress let them leg­is­late for it now. There is no need for a plebiscite. Suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments never sought per­mis­sion as they sys­tem­at­i­cally dis­man­tled lo­cal govern­ment in the past, so let them just re­pair it.”

How­ever, Lacey does not be­lieve it’s nec­es­sary that the mayor would be all-pow­er­ful from the out­set. “Call­ing for the full range of pow­ers to be set out in ad­vance is mis­guided. This is a po­si­tion and a role that needs to be es­tab­lished and then given space to evolve.”

Re­spon­si­bil­ity

But he says he can see par­tic­u­lar ar­eas where a mayor could make achieve­ments straight away which might seem mi­nor, but would be sig­nif­i­cant.

“A mayor could ini­tially have re­spon­si­bil­ity for nat­u­ral re­sources. For ex­am­ple there isn’t much point in Dublin City Coun­cil clean­ing the river Dod­der in Don­ny­brook, if it’s not be­ing cleaned first in Tal­laght. Or sports cap­i­tal grants – it makes no sense for a civil ser­vant sit­ting in an of­fice in Kerry to de­cide what lo­cal sports or­gan­i­sa­tion in Dublin gets a grant.”

Then, he sug­gests, other pow­ers could be added such as waste and traf­fic pol­icy, which should be “brought back un­der con­trol of the coun­cil any­way”, he said.

Ó Broin cites the sys­tem in Copen­hagen as one where the mayor hav­ing con­trol of these ser­vices works well. “The mayor has re­spon­si­bil­ity for ed­u­ca­tion, wel­fare, labour ser­vices, wel­fare, cli­mate change and a range of mu­nic­i­pal ser­vices – Den­mark, and Scan­di­na­vian coun­tries in gen­eral, have very good, em­pow­ered lo­cal govern­ment.”

Fur­ther afield, Bos­ton and Toronto are recog­nised as good ex­am­ples of mayor-led cities, he says. Not that it’s al­ways per­fect: some British cities, in­clud­ing Stoke-on-Trent, have scrapped the of­fice.

The Lon­don model, Lacey be­lieves, is not the sys­tem that should be copied in Dublin.

“I don’t think the Lon­don model is a good one, with an all pow­er­ful mayor and a fairly tooth­less as­sem­bly. I’d like to a see a mayor work­ing in part­ner­ship with a much smaller coun­cil – 24 or even 18 coun­cil­lors. We should re­duce the four coun­cils to a man­age­able size, and give them more re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

Kee­gan thinks the Lon­don model has worked well, par­tic­u­larly in re­la­tion to the mayor’s trans­port and polic­ing su­per­vi­sory func­tions, but he is with Lacey on re­duc­ing the num­ber of coun­cil­lors from the cur­rent 63 in the city.

“I am im­pressed by cities that have a small num­ber of full-time coun­cil­lors. In many cases they have ex­ec­u­tive func­tions. I think these coun­cils, with a large num­ber of coun­cil­lors, make ev­ery­thing very dif­fi­cult. Dublin City Coun­cil is too large. We are twinned with San Jose, where there’s a mayor, and I think they have eight or nine coun­cil mem­bers.”

Kee­gan, how­ever, re­mains un­con­vinced of the mer­its of hav­ing a mayor in Dublin. “I am a lit­tle bit con­cerned that the next ‘big idea’ is the di­rectly elected mayor, and we’ll all lorry into that with great en­thu­si­asm, but I have seen very lit­tle con­vinc­ing anal­y­sis as to why this is such a good idea.

“It’s been pre­sented as a panacea to ev­ery­thing that’s wrong in Dublin, that will au­to­mat­i­cally be made right the day af­ter we have a di­rectly elected mayor.”

Dublin doesn’t get credit for its suc­cess he says. “I don’t ac­cept the no­tion that Dublin is a bas­ket case. On many pa­ram­e­ters Dublin is a very suc­cess­ful city. A good lit­mus test is the multi­na­tion­als. They come here be­cause they can at­tract peo­ple to live here.

“Of course it has prob­lems with trans­port and hous­ing but these are prob­lems of suc­cess. There was no hous­ing af­ford­abil­ity prob­lem when we were in the depths of re­ces­sion.”

The “mad rush” to­wards the di­rectly elected mayor idea re­minds him of the “mad rush” to set up Ir­ish Wa­ter. “Wa­ter sup­ply was and is a ma­jor chal­lenge but there was a no­tion that if you set up a sep­a­rate util­ity ev­ery­thing would be hunky dory, but its im­ple­men­ta­tion left a lot to be de­sired.”

If the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the mayor is poor, Dublin could find it­self los­ing more than it gains, Kee­gan says.“There are strong ar­gu­ments for a di­rectly elected mayor, and I’m not say­ing there isn’t scope for im­prove­ment in the city’s gov­er­nance, but there is a dan­ger if we rush into this it won’t achieve any of its ob­jec­tives, we’ll lose the things that work, and we’ll be worse off.”

IL­LUS­TRA­TION: FUCHSIA MACAREE

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