Elected representatives have been advised they could face legal proceedings, personally, if they debate motions relating to planning applications still at a preliminary stage of the planning process.
Mayor for Cork County Cllr Alan Coleman was forced to remind a councillor, in her first term on the county council, that members could end up in civil proceedings in court if a debate had prejudiced a decision.
And senior officials, it emerged, would not be permitted to remain in the chamber during such debates.
Cllr Rachel McCarthy (SF) had attempted to table a motion asking chamber colleagues “to support the local community in their objections to plans to erect six 131-metre high wind turbines in the townlands of Barnadivane (Kneeves), Lackareagh, Gurranereagh, Lissarda and Terelton” in the greater Macroom area.
A public meeting has been held in recent weeks towards what residents claim is a controversial development.
But the mayor, Cllr Coleman, advised councillors the planning application was currently being processed by the local authority.
He said: “If there was anything said against it and the planning was subsequently turned down it could be construed by the company involved that the debate was prejudicial.”
A number of residents likely to be affected by the development were in the chamber’s public gallery in County Hall, in the hope of a debate taking place.
They have been lobbying councillors for several weeks to support their objections to any windfarm development in the mid-Cork community.
Cllr McCarthy insisted she and other councillors who supported the locals were allowed to debate the issue as she maintained there had been no public consultation on the issue.
But Cllr Coleman insisted it “was a live planning issue” and a protocol had long been established, in the chamber, that councillors did not discuss such issues while officials from the planning department deliberated on such applications.
He said that if the debate went ahead the council could run the risk of having a judicial review taken against it.
The mayor also stated he had been advised the council could face financial implications arising out of any debate. He also told members there could be similar implications for “those involved in the debate”.
“We have to be seen to be impartial on this matter. While I’m very sympathetic to the plight of those residents, I certainly wouldn’t be debating it in open chamber because it might be prejudicial. That’s why I will rule rule this motion out of order,” Cllr Coleman said,
Cllr McCarthy persisted and then changed tack somewhat when she said that councillors should have a debate in general about the location of windfarms.
Council chief executive Tim Lucey warned that if the debate went ahead he would have to excuse himself from the chamber because he would ultimately be the person who signed off on the planning department’s decision.
Again, Cllr McCarthy tried to move her motion, which prompted Cllr Michael Hegarty (FG) to advise the mayor to rule on the matter promptly.
Cllr Coleman decided no debate would take place.