Public dispute over merger ‘will damage Cork'

Divisions look set to continue over the controversial proposal to merge Cork’s city and county councils — a plan to be brought to Cabinet tomorrow by Environment Minister Alan Kelly.

Cork County Council chief executive Tim Lucey warns in today’s Irish Examiner about the damage being done by public statements opposing the merger, to Cork’s international reputation and the future for businesses and prospective investment.

However, as he does so, another Government party TD is adding his voice to those expressing reservations about the plan, which emerged from the committee established by Mr Kelly to examine the future of local government in Cork.

The report was not supported by two of the five-member committee.

Fine Gael Cork South Central TD Jerry Buttimer, a brother of a former city lord mayor, said close reading of the report suggests the equivalent of three individual councils, not one.

“Local government is about our communities, but this will put distance between the voice of the people and decision-makers,” he said.

Mr Buttimer said the suggestion that councils meet less frequently and that only some councillors would be involved in strategic policy has the potential to undermine the role of councils to hold officials to account and recommend changes.

His comments follow constituency colleague and Labour TD Ciarán Lynch’s statement last week that a poll he carried out locally shows support for an extended city boundary instead of the unitary authority proposed by the Cork Local Government Review, whose committee was chaired by Alf Smiddy.

Mr Lynch’s position was criticised by Cork’s county mayor, John Paul O’Shea, who said his survey was biased, and he called on all public representatives to allow an implementation group to get on with its work.

Mr Buttimer said the Smiddy plan talks about a lack of specifics, but Mr Lucey says the minister plans to set up an implementation group to create the necessary structures to meet Cork’s governance, economic, infrastructural development, and community needs. He said it seriously concerns him that publicly aired divisions from Cork, and threats to relocate business to Dublin if a merger progresses, are damaging.

“Let me warn readers that such utterances can hinder effective engagement with national and international decision-makers,” said Mr Lucey. “I, for one, do not need commentary such as ‘sure Cork can’t even get its own act together’ when promoting Cork’s case.”

However, the city council at which he was previously top official before his current role, looks set to lodge formal legal proceedings to test the validity of the review group’s plan. The city’s lord mayor, Chris O’Leary, said the process will take a step further at a council meeting that begins a minute after midnight tonight, hours before Mr Kelly is scheduled to bring the merger plan to Cabinet.

Mr O’Leary is seeking records under the Freedom of Information Acts to show correspondence between Mr Kelly’s department and the review group, as well as the committee’s own deliberations and drafts of reports on the process. In an open letter to citizens, the lord mayor said the haste with which the minister had stated his support for the review recommendations and to recommend the councils’ merger to Cabinet gives serious cause for concern.

“Either the minister had knowledge of what the recommendations of the committee would be for quite some time before the supposed deliberation process was completed,” he said. “Or he made his mind up to abolish Cork City Council as an entity almost on receipt of the recommendations.”

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