Council merger review ‘tainted’ by officials

The review of proposals to merge Cork city and county councils was “tainted”, with Government officials pushing for amalgamation, it has been claimed.

Documents released under Freedom of Information show senior civil servants repeatedly highlighted the positives of local authority mergers during the 2015 review of Cork’s local government structures.

They also sought to reword parts of the Cork Local Government Review (CLGR) committee’s draft report recommending a merger of Cork’s city and county councils, to highlight the benefits of mergers, and suggested “less negative wording” to minimise “ammunition for critics”.

The details are revealed in a raft of correspondence which has been released to former Cork city lord mayor Chris O’Leary following his repeated Freedom of Information requests made since the CLGR issued its now-shelved report in late 2015.

The documents show that as the Alf Smiddy-chaired committee was engaged in its work:

  • Officials of the then Department of the Environment, Community, and Local Government prepared pro-merger documents to counter public statements by academics who were arguing for a boundary extension;
  • They outlined a post-merger governance model which they said “might be useful” for the committee to reflect on;
  • They asked if there was scope in the report’s emerging narrative to highlight how mergers reduce administrative duplication, and to give greater emphasis to cost savings.

The correspondence also shows that:

  • Mr Smiddy asked IBEC to consult with its members again after it said its members had concerns about a merger;
  • He suggested that work preparing the final report, which he said was likely to recommend a merger, should start in the background even before one of the local authorities had responded to the committee’s requests for additional information.

Sinn Féin councillor Mr O’Leary, who was lord mayor when the report was published, said the documents show how the CLGR process was tainted.

“People thought this process was open and transparent but as the documents show, in the background, it was anything but,” he said.

Mr O’Leary lodged his first FoI request for access to the documents just 10 days after the report was released on September 8, 2015. It has taken two years for the material to be released.

“It has been a frustrating and agonising process. I was denied access to the material at every turn, and had to appeal internally within the department and to the Information Commissioner before the documents were finally released,” he said.

“Everything was thrown at it to prevent disclosure of documents. And I am still convinced that there are other documents which will highlight more blatantly some of the concerns shown by these documents.”

In a statement to the Irish Examiner, the department said it engaged with the committee to answer questions or to highlight relevant policy, and provided the chairman with information from time to time.

“This information was provided to ensure that the chair, whose professional background was outside of the local government system, had as comprehensive an overview as possible of the outcome of previous structural adjustments in Ireland,” it said.

“Provision of information in this manner would be a standard approach in supporting groups of this kind.”

Mr Smiddy insisted that the department never tried to influence the committee’s decision-making process or its final decision.

“The department never once had a fixed position and left it entirely open to the committee members to formulate their own thinking, and expressed this on several occasions,” he said.

He said a merger, and/or boundary extension were both on the cards from day one, and that the department provided reports, reviews, information, clarifications, explanations, and briefings to answer queries raised by committee members as they “considered all options”.

“Ultimately decisions were reached based on the submissions, and the quality and weight of evidence and facts presented, together with the rigour of our analysis, including everyone’s expert knowledge and experience,” he said.

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