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Mayoral vote: Everyone eligible to vote in plebiscites should get informed

These are busy times for those planning to vote on May 24. 

Leaflets are slipping through the letterbox and the doorbell is ringing with canvassers for the local and European elections and the referendum on the regulation of divorce.

The people of Cork City, Limerick and Waterford will also be entitled to vote on the Government’s proposals for a directly elected mayor (Lord Mayor in Cork City) with executive functions for their area.

On April 2, the Government published its detailed policy proposals for directly elected mayors with executive functions. 

On May 24, the people in the extended administrative area of Cork City, as well as the administrative areas of Limerick City and County Council, and Waterford City and County Council, will have a chance to vote on these proposals in a plebiscite. 

Firstly, it’s important to understand how councils currently work. 

The council has an elected council of councillors, one of whom is annually elected as mayor and a chief executive.

The councillors oversee the council’s strategy and operations and adopt policies, as well as performing “reserved functions”, including:

  • Adopting the council’s annual budget (by way of vote) and policies;
  • Altering the local property tax rate;
  • Making a city or city and county development plan.

The mayor/lord mayor chairs the council’s meetings and represents the council locally, nationally and internationally.

The chief executive, who is recruited by open competition through the Public Appointments Service, leads and manages the council’s staff and administrative structures, and runs the council on a day-to-basis.

The chief executive performs “executive functions”, which are any functions not explicitly reserved for the elected council, including:

  • Preparing policy documents for consideration by the elected council;
  • Managing staff and delivery of services;
  • Managing and accounting for the council’s finances;
  • Delivering a statutory monthly report to the full elected council (council meetings are held in public and in the presence of the media);
  • Administering housing schemes and allocating social housing;
  • Managing infrastructure projects.

Under the Government’s proposals, a directly elected mayor/lord mayor with executive functions would be elected by a council’s electorate for a five-year term and would:

  • Be responsible for a significant amount of the executive functions currently the responsibility of the chief executive;
  • Prepare and oversee delivery of a programme of office (a five-year policy programme), corporate plan and annual service delivery plan;
  • Be responsible for ensuring that the chief executive implements the council’s plans effectively;
  • Lead the council and represent the council locally, nationally and internationally.

The chief executive would manage the council’s resources to implement the programme of office effectively. 

He or she would also be responsible for practical delivery of the council’s policy plans, as well as managing its staff and other resources on a day-to-day basis.

The chief executive would continue to have certain executive functions, including processing individual cases or applications and certain planning functions.

The elected council would continue to perform its reserved functions and oversee the mayor’s and chief executive’s performances.

The Government has proposed a salary of €130,000 for a directly elected mayor, that of a junior minister.

The committee responsible for providing a public information campaign for the plebiscite estimates that the additional annual costs of an office of a directly elected mayor with executive functions could range from around €313,000 to around €450,000 (including a mayor’s salary, but not including possible pension-related costs).

It’s important to state that, on May 24, the electorates of Cork City, Limerick and Waterford will not be electing a mayor but voting on a proposal to be able to directly elect one in the future.

If the proposal is accepted by a majority of voters in any of those administrative areas, the minister for housing, planning and local government is required to bring legislative proposals to the Oireachtas within two years for a directly elected mayor with executive functions for that area.

The result of the plebiscite in one administrative area will have no consequence on the other administrative areas in question.

If the proposal is not accepted, the current structures in that council would remain the same.

The Government has indicated that if legislation for a directly elected mayor was enacted, the first election could take place in 2022. This would be for an initial two-year mayoral term. 

The first election for a five-year mayoral term could happen in 2024 at the same time as the local elections and be for a full five-year term.

As a report and legislative proposals would be required, the full details and consequences of introducing a directly elected mayor are not completely clear. However, the possible advantages include:

  • The mayor would be directly and democratically accountable to the people of the council;
  • A mayoral election campaign could raise awareness of and increase public debate on local government policy options in advance of decisions being made;
  • Increased visibility of local government and the role of mayor in the administrative area;
  • A directly elected mayor could advocate for increased functions for that council;

The possible disadvantages include:

  • Increased power in a single elected individual and their office;
  • Negative impact on the powers and standing of existing elected members;
  • Increased costs for the council;
  • A more complicated process for the council to make policies and decisions.

There may be other possible advantages and disadvantages.

I encourage everyone eligible to vote in the plebiscites to get informed. Each household in Cork City, Limerick and Waterford will receive a guide to the plebiscite. 

I will chair public meetings in Cork City, Waterford and Limerick on May 14, 15 and 16 respectively. All are welcome.

Details are available at www.mayors.gov.ie. If you’re registered to vote in local elections in one of those administrative areas, you can vote in its plebiscite. 

You can have your say on 24 May.

Henry Abbott is a retired judge of the High Court and chairperson of the Committee to Oversee the Plebiscite Public Information Campaign.

For more information visit mayors.gov.ie

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