The Local Government Reform Act 2014 has received little media attention or public scrutiny in Ireland. However, the one issue to get pulses racing – at least in one part of the country – is the proposal to have a directly elected mayor for Dublin. This is not a new issue in Ireland. The Local Government Act, 2001 proposed that direct mayoral elections would take place in 2004 but the Government repealed the decision through legislation in 2003. A Green Paper in 2008 again recommended directly elected mayors but the initiative never saw the legislative light of day during the remaining life-time of that Government. Enter Phil Hogan, Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, who provided for a directly elected mayor for the Dublin metropolitan area in Part 11 of the 2014 Reform Act.
The legislation proposed the holding of a Dublin plebiscite on the issue on the same day as the 2014 local elections – Friday 23 May. Controversially however the Minister included a provision that each of the four local authorities which constitute the Dublin metropolitan area – Dublin City Council, Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, Fingal County Council, and South Dublin County Council – would firstly have to individually adopt a resolution in favour of holding the plebiscite.
The insertion of this veto power for any one of the four Dublin local authorities was a curious move by the Minister and always had the potential to open up the proverbial can of worms. And so it proved. Three of the four Dublin local authorities comfortably adopted resolutions in favour of the plebiscite but, critically, the other local authority did not. The process begun on Monday 24 March when Dublin City Council approved with 50 votes in favour and none against. One week later, Monday 31 March, the remaining three councils met to decide the fate of the mayoral plebiscite. The vote in South Dublin County Council was 19 in favour with 3 against; in Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, the elected members voted decisively in favour by 23 to zero.
The sting in the tail however was spectacularly delivered by the members of Fingal County Council who voted against the holding of the plebiscite by 16 votes to 6. Accordingly, as things stand, the proposal is dead in the water and will not be going before the people of Dublin on 23 May. Advocates of the directly elected mayor idea are appalled by the fact that the plebiscite has been blocked despite the overwhelming majority of councillors in Dublin voting in favour. The combined total vote was 98-19 and yet the minority of councillors against the proposal have successfully rejected it.
Minister Hogan is firmly in the spotlight. Surely the decision to have a directly elected mayor should have been put in the hands of the citizens of Dublin? Placing an extra unnecessary obstacle into the process suggests that the Minister’s commitment to the concept is half-hearted, at best. While I am in favour of a plebiscite by the citizens, I think it would be wrong to scapegoat the elected members of Fingal County Council. Councillor Gerry McGuire of the Labour Party was one of those who voted against; he argued that any directly elected mayor would be based in the city and would ignore rural Dublin, including the residents of Fingal. He added that the Local Government Reform Act 2014 did not provide enough detail about the role and powers of the mayor and so people would not know precisely what they were voting on. I think this latter point is valid and deserves some attention.
The 2014 act is light on details in terms of the precise role of the directly elected mayor for Dublin. There are many different models of directly elected mayors and the powers and influence of the Italian mayor are different from the English mayor and the Greek mayor. Nobody can honestly say that the UK experiment with directly elected mayors has been a success, in light of the fact that the majority of cities which held referendums voted against having mayors. The respected academic, Kevin Orr, has claimed that mayoral referendums and elections have not raised the visibility of local government, except in ‘faintly embarrassing ways’. Having elected H’Angus the Monkey as their mayor in 2002, the citizens of Hartlepool decided 10 years later to drop the directly elected mayor model. In America more and more cities, counties and towns are also shifting to the council-manager model.
Ultimately, as Councillor McGuire suggested, it does come down to vital details such as the power and responsibilities of the directly elected mayor and the relationship between the mayor and the local legislature, i.e. the council(s). Directly elected mayors with executive powers can make quicker decisions and cut through much of the traditional internal local government bureaucracy – the flip side is that there is a grave danger in placing too much power in the hands of one individual.
In 2006, I remember interviewing the Mayor of Schenectady (New York), Brian Stratton, who made a very persuasive case to me for directly elected mayors. He said that when he was elected mayor he inherited a fiscal train wreck but was able to turn things around because he had immense executive powers. What he failed to mention though was that the fiscal train wreck had been caused by the previous directly elected mayor who had bankrupted the city with a massive deficit and a rock-bottom credit rating.
Many directly elected mayors in America have veto power over the council and are all powerful. When I asked the mayor of Albany, Gerald Jennings, about his relationship with his council, he laughed and said, ‘I’m not obliged to go to council meetings, thank God.’
In terms of Ireland what we need first and foremost is a proper debate on the concept of directly elected mayors and we need to know the precise details of the model that is being proposed. At that point an informed decision can be made.
For now the proposal is scrapped and has been dragged down at the first hurdle by Fingal County Council. It will appear again however in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, we have an opportunity to work out the details so that we can all know what we are talking about.
Dr Aodh Quinlivan is a lecturer in politics at the Department of Government in University College Cork where he specialises in local government – email@example.com; @AodhQuinlivan.