Cabinet ministers and the Attorney General privately expressed concerns that €130,000-a-year directly elected mayors in Cork, Limerick, and Waterford could become too powerful, a confidential memo reveals.
Ministers warned that the new positions must be subject to “proper checks and balances” to avoid an over-concentration of control. Last week, ministers approved the holding of plebiscites in the three electoral areas and to create the legal frameworks for such offices, but behind the scenes concerns were raised by ministers about the new roles having too much power.
According to the memorandum, seen by the Irish Examiner, Communications Minister Richard Bruton raised alarm stating “it is important that checks and balances are developed to match the new powers being developed for the elected Mayor and Council”.
Mr Bruton also called on Local Government Minister Eoghan Murphy to consider requiring “more than a simple majority for the council to direct the elected mayor to do a particular act, (or to refrain from acting)”.
The memorandum also reveals that Attorney General Seamus Woulfe made a number of key and lengthy observations about the plan to create the directly elected mayors, warning that the plan “involves the transfer of responsibility, control and direction of the preparation of such plans from officials with expertise in planning to elected persons who may have little or no expertise in this area”.
Mr Woulfe said: “Issues may also arise with complying with proper and sustainable development, e.g. in the context of permitting development of one-off housing in the countryside, and complying with climate change and mitigation requirements.”
Mr Woulfe said the shift of powers to these newly elected mayors could see a “loss of expertise” from the official side.
He added: “The transfer of this executive function to a directly elected mayor, as appears to be implied by the current proposals, reflects a significant shift in the balance of duties and responsibilities and a potential loss of expertise. This is a matter which may bear some further policy consideration in the context of the department’s awareness of the kinds of litigation which has arisen to date.”
He concluded that these risks arise “irrespective of the oversight of planning functions represented by An Bord Pleanála, the Ombudsman, or the Office of the Planning Regulator”.
Mr Woulfe recommended that the wording of the plebiscites should be sent for legal advice as there will be constitutional considerations and European best practice on how the questions being posed in the plebiscites should be framed.
Mr Woulfe also said that while it is a matter of policy it will be recalled that, in addition to the issues which gave rise to the Mahon Tribunal and to the decision to provide that planning applications will be decided by the CEO, “the department is aware that legal issues have arisen where local and planning authorities have not complied with Government policy” in areas such as waste management in the context of providing for and locating landfills, of excessive zoning for housing, and of attempts to sterilise areas from the development of wind farms.
He also said that “care will have to be exercised to ensure that when setting up the directly elected mayor to take over functions formerly carried out by the CEO that the Ethics in Public Office, conflict of interest, lobbying and related provisions that now apply in respect of the CEO will also be applied to the directly elected mayor.”
In response, Mr Murphy said he “welcomed” the response of his colleagues. He said he addressed the issues about the legal advice and spending of public monies in the revised draft that he presented to Cabinet last week.
He said he would also “consider further” the most appropriate arrangements to comply with the judgements in the McKenna/McCrystal cases. Mr Murphy said that Mr Bruton’s concerns will be considered them before the final draft of the legislation is published. Voters will decide on whether to establish the new positions on the same day as the local and European elections on May 24.