The official campaign to highlight the issues, the latent possibilities, around the idea of directly-elected mayors for Cork, Limerick, and Waterford begins today. The Government has proposed that directly-elected mayors would assume some or all of the functions which are now the responsibilities of council chief executives. It is proposed that the first elections take place in 2021 allowing the first incumbent two and a half years in office, a term that would be extended to five years from 2024. Voters in the relevant areas will be asked to make a decision on the proposal on May 24, the day local and European elections and the referendum on the revision of divorce legislation will also be decided. Which will, all in all, make for a busy day for local, Irish and European democracy.
Advocating the change when he spoke in Cork last week, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar suggested directly-elected mayors would have a mandate that would give them a very strong hand in negotiations with central government, especially funding. “They will carry weight... when they come to central government... It’s going to be much harder... not to listen to that person, not to do something,” he predicted.
The challenges awaiting Cork’s first publically-elected lord mayor are significant, as the ambitions outlined by Mr Varadkar show: “We want Cork to develop to become a real competitor and counterbalance to Dublin. We want the city to have its population increase by 50% by 2040 and to get that right we need all the investment in transport infrastructure and housing.”
Anyone so inspired by those positive, gung-ho remarks that they might consider offering themselves as a prospective lord mayor might do well to consider today’s report that Mr Varadkar’s Government, at an April 2 meeting, ignored advice from attorney general Seamus Woulfe. Mr Woulfe raised concerns about the legality and the fairness of another deferral of a review of the local property tax (LPT) but that advice was overruled. That review was due on November 1 but it has been deferred for a year. Valuations set in 2013 still apply.
Any sensible candidate would ask if they can expect to have more influence than the attorney general who, after all, sits at cabinet. They should also ask themselves if the LPT is not a dependable revenue stream and if it can be manipulated in ways that can be described as “electioneering” how secure are the funds essential to the evolution of local democracy and the development of local resources.
Government would, of course, deny that an imminent general election, as well as local and European elections, influenced this decision but that is not plausible, especially as it followed the decision to defer a modest increase in carbon taxes. Persistent indecision on how third-level education is funded falls into this not-now category too. Deferring hard decisions is one of the least attractive characteristics of our political culture. It shows poor, compromised leadership and is open to abuse. And, irony of ironies, a party with the gumption to make these decisions would be amazed at how the electorate would reward clear-headed leadership. Let’s hope any directly elected mayors can, if they are allowed, offer that.