A directly elected mayor should be a “Minister for Cork” with a salary, staff, and powers to go with it, according to the Cork Mayor Campaign.
The cross-party group has held its first town hall meeting to discuss the plebiscite, a vote on whether to create the position of a directly elected mayor. It will be held in May alongside the local and European elections and a referendum to liberalise divorce.
However, there has been scant detail on what the proposed role will be, despite polling day being less than 80 days away.
That’s why the Cork Mayor Campaign was founded: to do the work that the Government has yet to do.
The goal of the meeting was for members of the public and political parties — the Green Party, Labour, the Social Democrats, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and Sinn Féin are all backing the campaign — to meet up and tease out the specifics of how a directly elected mayor might work in Cork.
The organisers intend to draft up a list of recommendations, which will be submitted to Minister for Local Government John Paul Phelan.
The group is broadly in favour of introducing direct elections but believes that more information needs to be given to the public, or the plebiscite will fail.
What little is known about the role so far, based on leaks, Dáil speeches, and interviews, is that it would function similar to a Minister-Secretary General relationship in a Government department.
The mayor would have some executive powers and control over strategy, with the exception of planning, while the chief executive would continue to manage the day-to-day operations of City Hall.
A €130,000 salary, matching that of a Junior Minister, has also been mooted, almost triple the €48,000 the current Lord Mayor receives, and each term would last five years. Addressing the meeting, Aodh Quinlivan, head of University College Cork’s Centre for Local and Regional Governance, said that the Government has taken a “warped approach” to the plebiscite by withholding more detailed information.
He said that he is “agnostic” about directly-elected mayors and that they are never a “panacea” to problems in local government, but gave a detailed outline of how they work in other jurisdictions, and what lessons could be learned.
However, he said that it could only be successful if it was part of a wider reform of local government.
“Regrettably, we have a very weak system of local government. Our dwindling number of local authorities have comparatively few functions and powers, especially in areas that would be traditional local authority powers in mainland Europe, for example, transport, tourism, policing, and education,” he said.
He said that, through European treaties and conventions, Ireland is signed up to the principle of subsidiarity, but ignores it in practice.
“Subsidiarity is the concept that as many powers and functions as possible should be devolved to the lowest level, closest to the citizen. Essentially, it is a bottom-up approach to Government,” he said.
However, the European Council warned in a 2013 report, as town councils were being abolished, that Ireland is moving in the wrong direction, and has the second-most centralised system of government in Europe, beaten only by Moldova.
“We are being swamped by a narrative that big is better, big is cheaper, big means improved services, and big is more efficient. Yet international evidence refutes the notion that a smaller number of larger local authorities yields improvements, savings, and efficiencies,” said Mr Quinlivan.
He said that the expansion of the city boundary showed how little central government believes in local government, as Cork City Council will remain at 31 seats despite almost having over 80,000 more people.
That gives an average ratio across the wards of 6,800 people to every one councillor. In many areas across Europe, the number of people per councillor can be in the low hundreds.
Mr Quinlivan concluded that a directly-elected mayor deserved consideration, but would need to be coupled with wider changes.
“Grafting a directly elected mayor onto the current system in Ireland without any meaningful changes to local government responsibilities and financing may not make any appreciable difference,” he said.
That was a view shared by many attendees at the meeting, but there was an acceptance in the room that it would was still a step forward, as people felt that the current system is worse than a power-limited directly-elected mayor.
At present, the council elects a Lord Mayor from its ranks every summer for a one-year term. It a largely ceremonial role, with the real power lying with the chief executive.
Even if local authorities didn’t get any more power, people felt that having a directly-elected mayor taking on some of the chief executive’s duties would still move what little power City Hall does have a bit closer to the people.
Mr Quinlivan made the point that a directly-elected mayor could actually lead the charge for devolution powers down to local authorities, as they would have significant weight and democratic legitimacy.
However, he added that he had not seen evidence of that in any other jurisdiction.
But all of those possibilities are based on the plebiscite succeeding, and that is far from certain yet.
Fianna Fáil councillor Mary Rose Desmond, who is moving from the Ballincollig-Carrigaline area to the Cork City South-East ward following the boundary extension, said that the plebiscite is being set up to fail.
She said that far too little time and effort has been put into this, and it will get lost in the mix with all the other ballot papers people will be dealing with in May.
She said that, from her experience canvassing, people are oblivious to the plebiscite. “It has never come up so far” she said. “Nobody has mentioned it.”
And she added that there is nothing happening behind the scenes either, from what she can see.
“There is no discussion happening on this,” she said. “There is no discussion happening behind any doors on this.
“The information that’s there from the Minister is the information that we all have.”
She believes that the plebiscite should be pushed back until later on in the year, even if it costs more money as polling day would not tie in with any other votes.
“Personally, I would be in favour of having a directly elected mayor, but I think the timing of this plebiscite is all wrong,” she said. “I think it’s set to fail.
“You don’t have enough information to tease out whether you would be for or against.
“People tend to vote against something that they don’t know enough about.”
Mr Quinlivan warned that there is no certainty that the plebiscite would be binding, either.
If it passes in May, an election is expected to be held within two years.
However, he pointed out that there will be a general election before that, so priorities might change.
He also warned that there is a powerful lobby against it from some areas, including chief executives and people based in central government.