Thursday 17 October 2019

Directly elected mayors: major reform or just an exercise in expensive window dressing?


Leader: Jacques Chirac served as mayor of Paris. Photo: REUTERS
Leader: Jacques Chirac served as mayor of Paris. Photo: REUTERS
John Downing

John Downing

Here are the four key things you need to know about Friday's vote on whether to have directly elected mayors.

1. Big reform move or expensive window dressing?

On Friday, voters countrywide will get three ballot papers: one for local elections, a second for the European election, and a third for a referendum on liberalising divorce.

Some 380,000 voters in the cities and counties of Limerick and Waterford, and in the extended area of Cork city, will get a fourth paper.

It will ask them whether they want a mayor directly elected by the people, with a real budget and powers, and serving for five years. Supporters say this is a big positive move towards local democracy. Critics insist it is expensive tokenism which fails to change the most centrally administered country in the EU.

2. Injecting new dynamism or just complicating things?

Currently the councillors elect the mayor to a largely ceremonial job for 12 months. The mayor has no real power and the continued rotation means no continuity.

Backers of change say real powers and longer terms would allow the mayor to lead development and positive change. They point to real leadership shown by Boris Johnson as elected mayor of London and to other big-name mayors such as Jacques Chirac, later the French president.

Critics say it's just another layer of expensive bureaucracy with a suggested €130,000 a year salary plus expenses proposed.

3. Can the professional council CEO and the new mayors live with each other?

Since the 1930s, real local power has been with the city and county managers, now called chief executive officers.

At present, councillors' so-called "reserved functions" include overseeing big-picture policies, like voting the yearly budget and development plans. The CEO is an appointed civil servant who leads council staff and runs day-to-day business, all called "executive functions".

Changes would see the directly elected mayor get more executive functions. CEOs would keep decisions which would directly affect individuals' lives like allocating council houses.

The mayor should ideally have a role in local transport - but where would that leave Transport Infrastructure Ireland?

4. Leading a big campaign for Friday - or just stirring up apathy in hope of failure?

The bigger parties are suspicious of seeing a "big name" from show business or athletics taking power without real experience. There's a dispute over the quality of information campaigns.

Irish Independent

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