Midnight meeting sanctions legal challenge to Cork council merger plan

The government is facing a constitutional challenge over the controversial Cork super-council plan following an historic midnight meeting of the city council.

City councillors voted unanimously in the last hour to move a Section 140 resolution directing the council chief executive, Ann Doherty (pictured below), to seek a judicial review of the actions of the Cork Local Government Review (CLGR) group which published its city and county council merger recommendation two weeks ago.

Cork City council chief executive, Ann Doherty
Cork City council chief executive, Ann Doherty

The Section 140 will also see the city council becoming the first local authority to challenge the constitutionality of government policy on the mergers of local authorities.

The move is likely to delay for several years the implementation of the CLGR recommendation.

Twenty nine of the city's 31 city councillors met at 12.01am to vote on proceeding with the legal action ahead of a Cabinet meeting later today.

They also assured Ms Doherty of their full backing.

During a 45-minute meeting, councillors said the city council has to stand up for itself.

Fianna Fáil Cllr Tim Brosnan said while it appears as if there is bias on the part of the CLGR, it would be difficult to prove.

But he said it appears as if special treatment was afforded to some groups involved in the consultation process that wasn't afforded to others.

Ind Cllr Mick Finn said the programme for government suggested that Cork needed a particular solution for local government reform and not one that has been tried in smaller counties.

"That alone should sound alarm bells in Cabinet," he said.

Workers Party Cllr Ted Tynan said City Hall should take the campaign to the streets and mobilise trade unions.

"I view this as an affront on democracy," he said.

Sinn Fein Cllr Henry Cremin said he has never seen such unity in council.

Fine Gael Cllr John Buttimer described the midnight meeting as momentous and drew parallels between it and city council meetings held after Tomas MacCurtain was shot, and Cork was burned.

He also said the CLGR report had failed to recognise that Cork city and county councils have and continue to work together.

But referring to the unity in city council, he said: "We are one council with one voice for one city for one people."

AAA Cllr Mick Barry said the city should use every means possible to challenge the merger proposal.

AAA Cllr Mick Barry
AAA Cllr Mick Barry

He warned councillors though that they will only win "hearts and minds" if they move away from the politics of austerity.

He also urged trade unions in both local authorities to speak out on the merger proposal which he said was a cover for privatisation, outsourcing, and cuts to services.

Councillors then voted unanimously to move the Section 140.

The CLGR group, which reported to Environment Minister Alan Kelly two weeks ago, was split three to two in favour of merging Cork city and county councils.

 Environment Minister Alan Kelly
Environment Minister Alan Kelly

Earlier yesterday, chief executive of Cork County Council, Tim Lucey, warned that ongoing public statements over the merger proposal could damage Cork’s international reputation and the future for businesses and prospective investment.

Later, county mayor, John Paul O’Shea, wrote to the Lord Mayor, Cllr Chris O’Leary, to ask city councillors to hold off triggering the legal challenge pending talks with the proposed implementation group.

But Cllr O’Leary said the council had flagged its intent last Monday directly with the Taoiseach, the Environment Minister, and the Secretary General of his department.

“It’s disingenuous of the county mayor to advise me or ask me to do something when he has failed to see democracy work in his chamber where the whole thing could be debated in the first place,” he said.

City council chief executive Ann Doherty also broke her silence on the CLGR report and said she felt “reluctantly compelled” to “dispel myths” being put forward by some of those supporting the merger.

“There are simply too many independent voices saying that this report (the CLGR report) and its recommendations come nowhere near to meeting that standard for it to be allowed to remain unchallenged,” she said.

“Cork is too illustrious and too proud a city to sit back and watch its remarkable history of local governance sacrificed on the altar of expediency.”

However, business group Ibec has urged the government to implement the merger and other reforms quickly.

“All the stakeholders now need to work together to ensure the opportunity for reform isn’t lost,” its Cork Regional Executive President Dave Ronayne, CEO of Irish Mainport Holdings, said.

Meanwhile, the Local Authority Members Association (LAMA) plans to put the issue of local government reform on the agenda of every local authority in the country.

It has drafted a motion supporting Cork City Council’s legal challenge which will be tabled first by Sinn Féin councillors on Cork County Council next week — the first time the county has debated the CLGR report.

“Twelve local authorities had, by last night, agreed to debate the resolution next month,” Fianna Fáil Cllr Terry Shannon said.

“I’m very confident that the 30 other councils will debate the issues facing us.

“We want to safeguard local democracy and keep local government at a local level.

“LAMA is concerned at the progress this reform is taking and the way the department of the environment and its officials — the unelected, unknown mandarins who want to centralise control — are handing it.”

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