You might think that with all the controversy around the Poolbeg waste-to-energy project, and the €5 million some say is missing from the community gain fund, Dublin City Council would be extra conscious of the need to be transparent in its handling of the project.
But last month, when councillors had a full agenda at their Environment Strategic Policy Committee (SPC) meeting, they didn’t manage to get to discussing the report on the waste-to-energy project update. The committee’s chairman, Fine Gael’s Naoise O’Muiri, offered the option of dealing with the matter ahead of an upcoming workshop, and it was unclear whether that meeting would be open to the public and to the press.
Discussing it in a closed meeting would have been a violation of the council’s “standing orders“. After all, there are rules in place for meetings being open to the public and press.
Luckily, on Monday, O’Muiri said that the issue would be discussed at a formal meeting in the council chamber after all, an open meeting. “They were SPC agenda items that hadn’t been taken so we decided under standing orders that they should be addressed in the context of a formal SPC meeting,” he said.
That makes this story a touch less exciting, of course. But also it highlights the ease with which an important issue can slip behind closed doors, out of view of public scrutiny, where things might happen that councillors and officials might not do in front of their constituents and neighbours.
Which is why we have open-meetings rules. Although even Dublin City Council’s open, public meetings can be a little hard for the public to access and understand.
For open meetings to serve the purpose of bringing transparency to government, and helping to make ensure government officials act right, three things need to be in place.
The meetings need to be posted, so that people know when and where they’ll be. They need to be open, so people can attend. And they need to be comprehensible, so attendees can understand what they’re seeing and hearing.
At the moment, Dublin City Council does pretty well on the first point, but not as well on the second point and – although this may soon be changing – third point.
In some jurisdictions, you can just walk into local government meetings to see who’s saying what and how councillors are voting.
Here, though, it’s not a simple walk-in-and-watch-us-do-business. There’s one big meeting you can’t access at all: that’s the Corporate Policy Group, which is like the councillors’ cabinet.
For other meetings – area committee meetings, strategic policy committee meetings, and the full council’s monthly meetings – you can only walk in with some prior planning.
If you’re a member of the public, you need to call up your councillor and ask them to get you in. If you’re a member of the press, you’re allowed in if you can prove your bonafides.
That lack of completely open access would be more of a problem if there wasn’t a webcast. But, at the moment, watching a council meeting online can be baffling.
Take, for example, this Monday’s monthly meeting, when councillors discussed reports on St James’s Hospital and O’Connell Street. Unless you had those documents in front of you, it was difficult to follow some of the debate.
Ideally, you need two types of documents to understand the meetings: the agenda, which lists what’ll be talked about, and the reports, which often contain details on what is being discussed.
Here’s a rundown of how the council and its committees do on making those available.
Agendas and Reports: What’s Up Online Now?
For most area committee meetings – those are the ones when councillors look at what’s going on in different segments of the city – you can also get the agendas.
Right now, the links seem to be broken for the South East area committee’s agenda, and I was unable to find any minutes online.
For strategic policy committees, there’s barely anything available online.
An exception is the Arts Strategic Policy Committee, which loads up everything – agendas, minutes, and reports – here. Gold star for them.
To be fair, if you call up the committees, they’ll put you on a mailing list for the documents that go with their meetings. But it doesn’t say that anywhere on the council’s website.
There’s one major missing piece that also makes it more difficult for those watching through a screen from home to follow exactly what’s going on: the lack of reports.
They’re the documents that give more details, and at the moment the arts committee loads them all up, but the others don’t.
In the Future?
If you’re a government gadfly in training, and wished it was all easier to track, then fear not. This whole system might change soon.
“Dublin City Council will have a new Meetings Site within the next 2 months and this will host all the reports, agenda etc several days before the meetings,” said a spokesperson from Dublin City Council Press Office on Monday.
Get out the popcorn.