THESE are busy times for those planning to vote on May 24. Leaflets are slipping through the letterbox and the doorbell is ringing with canvassers for the local and European elections and the referendum on the regulation of divorce. The people of Cork City’s extended administrative area will also be entitled to vote on the Government’s proposals for a directly elected Lord Mayor with executive functions for their area.
On April 2, the Government published its detailed policy proposals for directly elected Mayors/Lord Mayors with executive functions. On 24 May, you will have a chance to vote on them in a plebiscite (a vote that consults the public on a proposal). On the same day, the people of Limerick and Waterford will vote on identical proposals.
Firstly, it’s important to understand how Cork City Council currently works. The Council has an elected council of 31 councillors, one of whom is annually elected as Lord Mayor, and a Chief Executive. The councillors oversee the Council’s strategy and operations and adopt policies, as well as performing ‘reserved functions’, including: adopting the council’s annual budget (by way of vote) and policies altering the Local Property Tax rate making a City Development Plan The Lord Mayor chairs the Council’s meetings and represents the Council locally, nationally and internationally.
The Chief Executive, who is recruited by open competition through the Public Appointments Service, leads and manages the Council’s staff and administrative structures, and runs the Council on a day-to-basis. The Chief Executive performs ‘executive functions’, which are any functions not explicitly reserved for the elected council, including: preparing policy documents for consideration by the elected council managing staff and delivery of services managing and accounting for the council’s finances delivering a statutory monthly report to the full elected council (council meetings are held in public and in the presence of the media) administering housing schemes and allocating social housing managing infrastructure projects.
Under the Government’s proposals, a directly elected Lord Mayor with executive functions would be elected by Cork City’s electorate for a five-year term and would: be responsible for a significant amount of the executive functions currently the responsibility of the Chief Executive prepare and oversee delivery of a ‘Programme of Office’ (a five-year policy programme), ‘Corporate Plan’ and ‘Annual Service Delivery Plan’ be responsible for ensuring that the Chief Executive implements the Council’s plans effectively lead the Council and represent the Council locally, nationally and internationally.
The Chief Executive would manage the Council’s resources to implement the ‘Programme of Office’ effectively. He or she would also be responsible for practical delivery of the Council’s policy plans, as well as managing its staff and other resources on a day-to-day basis. The Chief Executive would continue to have certain executive functions, including processing individual cases or applications and certain planning functions.
The elected Council would continue to perform its ‘reserved functions’ and oversee the Lord Mayor’s and Chief Executive’s performances.
The Government has proposed a salary of €130,000 for a directly elected Lord Mayor, that of a junior minister. The committee responsible for providing a public information campaign for the plebiscite estimates that the additional annual costs of an office of a directly elected Lord Mayor with executive functions could range from around €313,000 to around €450,000 (including a Lord Mayor’s salary, but not including possible pension-related costs for the Lord Mayor).
It’s important to state that, on May 24, you will not be electing a Lord Mayor but voting on a proposal to be able to directly elect a Lord Mayor in the future. If the proposal is accepted by a majority of voters, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government is required to bring legislative proposals to the Oireachtas within two years for a directly elected Lord Mayor with executive functions for Cork City. The results of the plebiscites in the other administrative areas will have no consequence for Cork City.
If the proposal is not accepted, the current structures in Cork City Council would remain the same.
The Government has indicated that if legislation for a directly elected Lord Mayor were enacted, the first election could take place in 2022. This would be for an initial two-year mayoral term. The first election for a five-year mayoral term could happen in 2024 at the same time as the local elections and be for a full five-year term.
As a report and legislative proposals would be required, the full details and consequences of introducing a directly elected Lord Mayor are not completely clear.
The possible advantages include:
the Lord Mayor would be directly and democratically accountable to the people of Cork City
a mayoral election campaign could raise awareness of and increase public debate on local government policy options in advance of decisions being made
increased visibility of local government and the role of Lord Mayor in Cork City
a directly elected Lord Mayor could advocate for increased functions for Cork City Council.
The possible disadvantages include:
increased power in a single elected individual and their office
negative impact on the powers and standing of existing elected members
increased costs for the council
a more complicated process for the council to make policies and decisions
There may be other possible advantages and disadvantages. I encourage everyone with a vote to get informed. Each household will receive a guide to the plebiscite. If you’re registered to vote in the local elections you can vote in this plebiscite.
Henry Abbott is a retired judge of the High Court and chairperson of the Committee to Oversee the Plebiscite Public Information Campaign. See mayors.gov.ie