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Crying out for council reforms

The comprehensive survey of councillors' remuneration which concludes in this newspaper today has aroused an extraordinary level of public interest. And no wonder.

Most of us are at best only dimly aware of how local government functions. Those who take a mild interest in the subject know that councillors receive salaries during their terms of office and gratuities on retirement. Very few have any conception of the extent of the payments and the real or potential abuses.

And this is not due chiefly to public apathy. It derives in the main from the determination of the political and bureaucratic establishment to reject transparency and keep the people as ill-informed as possible.

Our series has lifted the lid. What lies beneath is not a pretty sight. A councillor's basic salary is €16,700 a year, a modest sum. But various allowances, travel expenses and so forth frequently raise the remuneration to a much more comfortable level.

So does the curious phenomenon of retirement gratuities. These handouts, based on length of service, apply, oddly, to persons obliged to give up their council seats on becoming members of the Dail or Seanad. Sean Kenny, Labour deputy for Dublin North East, received a gratuity of more than €50,000 from Dublin City Council.

But councillors who remain can also do quite well. Those elected as mayors or council chairmen can double their remuneration, and others can profit from appointment to outside bodies.

Councillor David Alcorn (Fianna Fail) of Donegal sits on the boards of Udaras na Gaeltachta (€16,250) and the National Transport Authority (€13,400). He receives €4,020 as chairman of the Irish Central Border Area Network. He is a also a member of the Donegal Vocational Education Committee, which has refused to say how much it paid him in 2011.

These may be trifles by comparison with members of private sector boards but events surrounding co-options to councils are more serious in their way, because they are a distortion of democracy.

Councillors have a practice of unanimously co-opting members of a resigning member's party. Thus, Fine Gael's Jerry Sullivan was elevated to Cork County Council when his colleague Noel Harrington became a member of the Dail last year,

Others, on a similar elevation, choose family members to succeed them. These relations may in time aspire to the Dail themselves.

Local government in Ireland has deeper problems than these. The most cursory glance at a broken system makes one cry out for reform which would bring about efficiency, democracy, accountability and radical new financing methods. But in their way these are all of a piece with the petty tribalism. For local government merely reflects the cronyism which disfigures so much of Irish public life.

Irish Independent