MICHAEL WOLSEY: The last thing we need is directly-elected mayors
IF there is one thing Ireland doesn’t need it is directly-elected mayors for our cities.
If there is one thing it needs even less, it is directly-elected mayors for our towns. And if there is one piece of flaithulach nonsense to top those two, it is directly-elected leaders for every local authority in the land.
Local Government Minister John Paul Phelan plans to inflict all three upon us, thus adding another level of bureaucracy to our councils and further costs to our local government system, the price of which has grown over the years in a manner that makes the national children’s hospital look like a model of restraint.
Mr Phelan proposes paying these mayors salaries at junior minister level, around €130,000 a year. But the Carlow-Kilkenny TD is getting tough with rank-and-file councillors. He is reported to have “shot down” suggestions their salaries should be raised to €35,000.
They won’t lose too much sleep, I suspect. Many of them are comfortably topping that total.
A survey conducted three years ago revealed that, while their basic pay was a little over €16,000, on average city and county councillors were taking home €31,600 and some were earning more than €80,000.
If I had my way, they wouldn’t be paid at all: revenge for hours I spent covering their meetings in my first newspaper job.
They were marathons of boredom where pompous windbags droned on interminably about their pet subjects. Even the councillors themselves looked bored with the proceedings, slouched in their chairs, waiting for the chance to rise and bore everyone else.
One exception seemed to be Andy, a newsagent and grocer who was partially deaf. He would adjust his hearing aid at the start of each meeting and smile happily through it all. I always suspected he just turned off the device but years later, when I had left the local paper and Andy had left local government, he admitted to a more interesting deceit.
This was the late Sixties, the age of the mini skirt, the mini car and the mini radio. Small transistor radios were a new craze and Andy had one in his jacket pocket with an ear piece indistinguishable from the one on his hearing aid. While his council colleagues bored for Ireland, Andy enjoyed his favourite music programme, paying just enough attention to the proceedings to know when it was his turn to speak.
Andy and his pals weren’t paid for their services. Indeed, I’m pretty sure that, had they been asked, some would personally have paid for the privilege of speaking.
Then councillors started to get expenses, a travel allowance and a phone allowance and, since 2002, a ‘representational payment’ – money for turning up. They are paid for chairing committees and for holding such offices as mayor.
That survey of their incomes was conducted in 2016, two years after after local government reforms had reduced the number of councillors from from 1,627 to 949. John Crowe, who was then president of the Association of Irish Local Government, said the reduction meant the amount of work councillors were doing was unbelievable. “Any problem in the area, the first person you would go to is your county councillor,” he told a Newstalk radio..
Really? I have lived in several parts of the country. I have lived under city councils, town councils, rural councils and county councils. Yet other than at election times, or in the course of newspaper work, I have never once spoken to a councillor.
If they’ve been performing stalwart deeds on my behalf, they’ve kept them very quiet. I couldn’t name most of my councillors, never could, and I bet most of you would say the same.
A country with a population less than that of greater London does not need 949 councillors. And a country that is already groaning under the weight of bureaucracy does not need expensive, directly-elected mayors.
*To contact Michael, email: firstname.lastname@example.org