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Directly-elected mayors: The case has not been made

If the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the Tánaiste Simon Coveney have about their persons an unassailable case for having directly-elected executive mayors of Cork City, Limerick, and Waterford, it has yet to be heard. Thus far, with only weeks to go before voters have their say on the proposal, there is something to be said for the suspicion, voiced in Cork by Fianna Fáil Cllr Terry Shannon, that the Government is making up its directly-elected mayor policy as it goes along.

Let’s kick off with the basics: the arguments demonstrating the need for change and the prospectus outlining the benefits for our communities. Has the Government tabled them? No. Its 46-page policy document (Directly Elected Mayors with Executive Functions: Detailed Policy Proposals, 20 March 2019) commences with what could be read as a competent summary of the principal case against the reform it is proposing. The proposal’s critics will be happy to see a part of the preamble published in full: “The benefits of a directly-elected mayor in Irish cities may be significant, if not necessarily quantifiable. However, the full consequences of introducing a directly-elected mayor with executive functions are not completely clear. Much could depend on the circumstances and context in which they work, and could also depend on the individual officeholders themselves. Internationally, some directly-elected mayors have been extremely successful in improving the life of their communities; some have gained additional powers for their office by virtue of their dynamism and democratic mandate. In some cases, however, directly-elected mayors have not demonstrated the value of the office; voters have, in some instances, chosen to abolish the office of directly-elected mayor.”

So, the rewards from an unquantifiable change the Government is so determined to bring about might be significant, which implies that they might be insignificant, and that is because, by the Government’s own admission, the consequences of having directly-elected mayors are not completely clear, which is normally business-speak for completely unclear. The Tánaiste says directly-elected mayors have worked “really well in other dynamic cities” across the European Union, but offers no examinable examples. Political and cultural traditions across the EU — and the US — vary.

The extent to which a city can be said to be dynamic, or apathetic, might have everything to do with its directly-elected mayor, or nothing whatsoever to do with the architecture of its local government. But what is it that Cork City, Limerick, and Waterford haven’t been able to achieve with their current government arrangements that would have been the work of a moment with directly-elected mayors?

Where, in Cork’s vision for its future, are the gaps that can be filled only by an executive mayor on a not ungenerous salary of €129,854? That’s roughly what a junior government minister gets and — perspective is always helpful —— just a little south of half the salary received by Germany’s chancellor. The Government’s benchmarking exercise has it, therefore, that running Cork, with its population of approximately 417,000, is equivalent roughly to half the task of governing a country with a population of 82.4m.

Added to the salary, of course, must be the cost of two advisers, pensions, and travel expenses, as the mayor and his aides flit around the Dublin-Brussels-Strasbourg-Berlin-Davos conference circuit. Voters have been told that while the precise total bill is as yet unknown, the additional costs of the office could range from €313,000 to €450,000 a year, lifting the full cost of a five-year term to close to €2.25m. A sizeable chunk of that bill would be paid by Cork City Council. What will taxpayers get in return? Answers come there none. The ‘other dynamic cities have them’ line is back-of-the-fag-packet waffle.

Mr Coveney has, wisely, not overmuch cited England’s experiments with directly-elected mayors, which have, in the main, been fruitless attempts to devolve power to English cities and regions, where mayors are typically undistinguished party placemen, politicians driven by ego and ambition, and clowns. Hartlepool’s first, and only, directly-elected, €58,000-a-year mayor — who campaigned, “for a laugh”, as a monkey — served three terms. Nice work if you can get it, and a man dressed as a monkey got it. His career was closed down by voters, who, in a referendum, chose to terminate the post and revert to the system under which their council was run chiefly by councillors, who, lest it not be forgotten, are also directly-elected. An overlooked downside of the directly-elected executive mayor is that the office reduces the influence and accountability of local councillors. While Aodh Quinlivan, of the Department of Government at UCC, supports the proposed change, he cautions that a direct-mayoral election can “descend into a celebrity contest”.

Voters have been urged by Mr Coveney not to focus on the costs, but to think about the bigger picture of local government reform. Given this Government’s generally dismissive responses to pay demands by public sector workers who make essential and quantifiable contributions to society, it isn’t difficult, however, to imagine how it would reply to a proposal, by rival parties, that would involve keeping, at the public’s expense, yet more full-time politicians in the style to which they felt was their due. This is a proposal that moves the exercise of power in local government from the collegiate to the personal: Cork, Limerick and Waterford have nothing to lose by rejecting it.

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