They called last night on Local Government Minister Simon Coveney, who days ago appointed a new advisory group in a bid to break the impasse, to extend the city boundary and to release to the city council all documentation compiled by the Smiddy group whose controversial city and county council merger recommendation issued last year has now been shelved.
They questioned the make-up of the new review group which includes a retired senior planner from Scotland, a British council chief, and a former president of Cork Chamber — a body which supports a council merger.
And they accused business consultant Alf Smiddy, who chaired the Cork Local Government Review Group last year, of issuing “banal soundbites” in the wake of the establishment of the new advisory group.
Mr Coveney has asked Jim Mackinnon CBE, who was, until 2012, chief planner with the Scottish government, John O’Connor, Eirgrid chairperson and former head of An Bord Pleanála, Gillian Keating, a partner at Cork-based law firm, Ronan Daly Jermyn and former president of Cork Chamber, and Paul Martin, the chief executive of Wandsworth Council in England, to review the Smiddy report and make recommendations on the future of Cork’s local government structures.
But FF Cllr Sean Martin said it should be a ministerial decision. “It’s not about committees. We should get a boundary extension — it’s as black and white as that. He knows the area well. He should go away and do the right thing,” he said.
SF Cllr Chris O’Leary, who as Lord Mayor last year led the council’s legal challenge to the Smiddy report, criticised the Department of Environment for refusing council Freedom of Information requests for Smiddy group documents.
FF Cllr Terry Shannon said the release of redacted documents was “like something you’d see from the CIA”.
“We are being stymied by department officials. What have they got to hide?” he said. “Let us see what went on between the former committee and the department. Let’s have transparency.”
Independent Cllr Mick Finn welcomed the change of focus following the appointment of the Mackinnon group. But he accused Mr Smiddy, who claimed in yesterday’s Irish Examiner thathas lost out on major benefits because of the merger delay, of issuing “banal soundbites”.
“There is nothing to back up those claims,” Mr Finn said. “I suppose we can take it that the Smiddy report is now a dead duck. I hope the new group learn lessons from the previous process.”
SF Cllr Thomas Gould said Mr Smiddy should have the dignity to accept that the merger recommendation was wrong.
FG Cllr John Buttimer said the city’s mantra during the Smiddy review was one city, one county. “That’s what we wanted then: it’s what we want now,” he said.
He said the inclusion of two UK experts on the new review group does not inspire confidence given the UK’s poor record on local government.
“They have one of lowest voter turnouts in local elections anywhere, and there has been a practice for some time towards mergers and consolidation. It is not the exemplar we should be aiming for,” he said.
He warned that city councillors will not accept an offer of an office of directly elected mayor as possible compensation for any possible merger proposal.
Council chief executive Ann Doherty said her management team will engage with the new review group and will rely on evidence to make their case for a boundary extension.