A directly elected mayor would've helped spare us all from Croke Park concert saga
THE unseemly saga over the Garth Brooks concerts highlights once again the all-powerful role played by unelected city and county managers and the, by contrast, weak powers of our elected county councillors. It also begs the question as to whether what we really need in Dublin is a directly elected mayor with strong powers that could take charge of the city's reputation and ability to hold big international events like the Brooks concerts.
No disrespect to the current city manager and councillors, but the saga is a result of an old-style dispute about a 'planning decision', with both sides unreasonably dug in.
So perhaps what we really need is a bells-and-whistles mayor who can talk up the city and make sure that all problems to do with such major musical and sporting events are anticipated.
David McWilliams has written here before of how, in a world where cities now compete directly for resources and investment, the notion of a super mayor is a necessary one. A proposal for a directly elected mayor was rejected some months ago, but only narrowly, by one council (Fingal) and there is no reason why a re-tweaked proposal could not get through.
As it is, what we have in the position of city manager is something akin to an all-powerful mayor but without being elected and without the transparency and accountability which goes with elected office. Nor do city managers have to face the electorate on the basis of the often momentous decisions they sign off on.
Dublin's current city manager, Owen Keegan, is a classic case in point. By all accounts Mr Keegan is an able, well-respected and ambitious public servant who served a very active eight years as manager of Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council before he became Dublin city manager only last month, on an annual salary of almost €190,000 And yet until the Garth Brooks controversy, you might never have heard of him. Or, heard from him, indeed.
This is because, unlike an elected politician, he is not obliged to appear in the media to explain his positions and decisions beyond a cursory few remarks. Thus, even on the Brooks controversy which has divided the nation and brought international controversy to Ireland, we have heard very little from the official who ultimately made the decision not to grant the five nights of concerts to Garth Brooks.
And even after the councillors voted to grant the five nights of music, Mr Keegan overruled them and told them the decision could not be changed. But you won't hear him on 'Prime Time' or TV3 explaining why. And it was ever thus.
At Dun Laoghaire council, Mr Keegan left behind one of the largest spending programmes in the country – a surprising legacy given that he has a reputation for 'watching the bottom line'. And this programme included some highly contentious projects. Most famously, he supported a huge new library on Dun Laoghaire seafront which many consider completely over-sized, over-priced at €35m and completely unsuited for the low-rise and long-protected Victorian seafront.
Mr Keegan also approved of a controversial and experimental roundabout system in Killiney Towers that incorporated a cycle lane which, after much confusion, had to be re-built to the tune of almost half a million euro.
Meanwhile, the Dun Laoghaire retail sector is being hit hard by punitively high rates and a public parking policy so strict and business-unfriendly that John Waters even briefly went to jail about it! All of this happened on Mr Keegan's watch.
And now Mr Keegan is bringing the same busy, and potentially expensive, 'hands on' quality to the capital. He was barely in his new post last month when he proposed a radical new traffic system for the city's north quays, which would introduce a two-way cycle track and severely reduce traffic on what is a busy thoroughfare.
Motorists are up in arms, but Mr Keegan remains unmoved.
Mostly, in this country we lament public servants who take the safe option and won't take initiative. But, in the case of Mr Keegan, there seems an uncomfortable amount of initiative. And what really concerns people is that it is done, not by an elected politician whom we can turf out of office, but by a well-paid official whose voice we barely ever hear. If we had a directly elected mayor, we could have both – a hands-on initiator and a directly elected official.
And this way controversies like the one over the Garth Brooks shows could be avoided. Mr Keegan could even go for such a new-style mayor job himself.