Green Party Councillor Patrick Costello still isn’t sure what happened to a motion he put forward in February.
He wanted Dublin City Council to publish a monthly list of all pre-planning meetings that officials were involved in. The motion was seconded by independent Councillor Mannix Flynn, and it passed.
It wasn’t because of any allegations of wrongdoing at the council, said Costello, in the council chamber at the time. “This motion comes from a point of view of simply trying to increase transparency.”
Head of Planning Jim Keogan said at the time that he’d check to see whether or not there is anything in the regulations that would stop the council from doing that. Since then: nothing.
“I’ve had no notification or correspondence from them,” said Costello on Friday.
A spokesperson for Dublin City Council Press Office said on Wednesday that the motion was agreed but “it is not a matter for the elected members to require the publication of the information in question”.
It’s an executive function and as they see it any changes would need new legislation, said the spokesperson. “It is the view of the executive that publishing a monthly list of pre-planning meetings could prejudice the performance of this planning authority’s function in the planning application process.”
Costello’s experience is not a one-off.
At both strategic policy committees and full meetings, councillors pass reams of motions week in, week out. Some grab headlines, some don’t. Some are implemented, but some just seem to evaporate — raising questions about how motions are progressed, and whether an inefficient system is wasting everybody’s time.
“People are always fascinated by, ‘Oh well, so Dublin City Council passed a motion that they are going to send a rocket to the moon, so when are we going to start building Cape Canaveral on the quays?’” said Fine Gael’s Paddy Smyth. “And obviously nothing happens.”
One of the effects of motions slipping through the cracks on Wood Quay is that councillors spend time going over the same ground.
In spring this year, Sinn Fein Councillors Larry O’Toole and Séamas McGrattan put their names to a simple one-line motion that the council “agrees to review the protocol for election postering”.
It was passed, but O’Toole says he’s a bit unclear as to what has happened since. He got a note that it had been sent on to the environment committee to be debated, but then he lost the thread. “It seemed to go off into the ether,” he said.
(The head of the environment committee, Fine Gael’s Naoise O’Muiri, couldn’t be reached to ask if it was debated there.)
But in July this year, the full council again spent time — almost an hour, in fact — on the question of election postering, when Fine Gael’s Paddy Smyth put forward a motion to ban election posters on lamp posts and other street furniture under the control of Dublin City Council.
There were a few amendments and several moments of confusion as councillors discussed whether the changes would be legal, how they would be enforced — the kind of things that you might expect to have been debated at a committee level — before councillors voted on it, and it was sent on to the council’s environment department to determine how it might work.
Not all motions are repeated, though. Some just seem to be forgotten once the news-hook has faded. In February, councillors voted to send a motion on defensive architecture to their international relations and planning committee to be discussed there.
Put forward by Anti-Austerity Alliance Councillor Michael O’Brien and Independents4Change Councillor Pat Dunne around the time that “anti-homeless” bars were put on Gandon House, it sought to change by-laws or planning regulations to ban devices like that.
Head of the International Relations and Planning Strategic Policy Committee Andrew Montague says he can’t remember it being discussed there yet, though.
Where’s the Money?
As Costello of the Green Party sees it, the evaporation of motions that have passed is yet another indicator of where the power lies at the local-government level.
“You achieve a lot more with the right conversation with the right official,” said Costello. “A quiet word when nobody’s looking.”
That has all kinds of implications: it’s not transparent, it’s not democratic, and it favours old-hand councillors over newcomers. “As a new councillor, it can be harder to know who the right official to have the right conversation with is,” said Costello.
It shouldn’t work like this, he said. “The officials need to be like a civil service working for the elected representatives.”
You definitely need buy-in from management to get things done, said Smyth of Fine Gael. “Essentially, unless you have money to pay for it and the buy-in from the management to get on top of this, who in the management is going to take time out of their busy schedule to project-manage this?” he said.
There’s finite money and manpower and expertise, so it’s understandable, especially when it comes to traffic stuff given that engineers are up to their eyeballs with the Luas Cross City and the city-centre transport study, he said. But unless you can get those resources, nothing is going to happen.
That’s what he learnt from two of the high-profile motions he passed to promote cycling in the city. One was for parking-protected cycleways — lanes protected from moving traffic by parked cars — which he thought could be brought in when officials rework the stretch from Leeson Street Bridge to Holles Street.
It seems to be moving forward because he tracked down the right officials and has pushed it, chasing it up through the National Transport Authority.
“Hopefully, we’ll have engineers appointed at the end of this month, and we’ll have a feasibility report by the end of this year,” he said. Then he has to try to find the money to get the project done, he said, although it shouldn’t cost much.
An earlier motion he passed though, for a “green-wave” — a system that would ensure cyclists can sail through rows of green lights if they travel under a certain speed — hit a few roadblocks.
The LED lights cost a bit, and the idea to put them all along the troubled Liffey Cycle Route from Phoenix Park to the Point Depot seemed thwarted by the challenge of running cables across the Luas line, and being unable to stop the Luas on O’Connell Bridge.
At the moment, council engineers have said they’ll test some sequences on a few stretches into town to see where it would work, said Smyth. “But seeing LEDs in the ground anytime soon … it’s probably not within my term in office, anyway.”
Not all motions, it seems, are meant to go anywhere really. For councillors who note their lack of powers, some of the motions that are discussed show a curious disregard for where the local authority’s scope ends.
In autumn 2014, Dublin councillors voted to call on the government to repeal existing legislation and make it an offence to add fluoride to water, even though they don’t have powers in that area. From the sidelines, debates like this can look like a waste of council time and resources.
“I think that’s a fair point,” said Chris Andrews of Sinn Fein, who was one of the councillors to put forward the fluoride motion. But sometimes, he says, it’s about making a point. “It’s highlighting it, advocating it, showing solidarity with a particular point of view,” he said.
With so little time, though, and a city facing significant challenges, some councillors argue that spending time on motions that are out of the council’s powers is a bit of a joke.
“I think they are incredibly pointless, a total waste of time and an affront to local democracy,” says Paddy Smyth of Fine Gael. “I think it’s basically showboating and people just trying to get on the record, people trying to get a name for debating issues that have national significance and zero relevance to the running of the city.”
The council chamber isn’t the place to discuss issues like the 8th Amendment, he says. “We barely have powers over the most basic functions of the city, let alone the female population’s uterus.”
Lots of the stuff they pass is mother-and-apple-pie stuff that condemns the treatment of somebody, or supports a good cause. That could be done by an email petition or something like that, said Smyth. “They don’t need to take up time debating it, and debating it. A lot of the stuff, is, ‘Yeah that’s great.’”
That, though, confuses power and influence, says Labour’s Andrew Montague. “Often our influence goes well beyond our legal powers. Raising issues, talking about issues, bringing them to people’s attention and into people’s consciousness can be an important tool and a political act.”
“I think that that is something that can be frustrating at times, but at the same time it is a political chamber and ideas can be discussed even when powers aren’t there,” he said.
After the debate that condemned the continued imprisonment of Ibrahim Halawa, Montague and others met with the Egyptian ambassador to keep the pressure up. “If nobody was raising the issue of Ibrahim Halawa, his chances of getting out would be a lot slimmer,” he said.
Most of these out-of-remit issues are discussed towards the ends of meetings, during the “topical issues” part of the night, an addition that councillors brought in last year. “It’s almost like we’re literally a high-school debating society,” said Smyth.
He was so convinced it was a waste of time that he put it to management that they should change the protocols so that they could go home when they got to that part, because it doesn’t affect them.
“Funnily enough, the informal feedback I got from them, was, ‘You know what, we actually enjoy that stuff so we’re happy to sit through it,’” he said. “Whether or not they actually like to look at us making fools of ourselves, I don’t know.”
Even those who think debating wider political issues is pointless, though, believe it would be dangerous to bring in concrete measures to confine councillors to talking about, and voting on, motions that fall within their powers.
“You’d have to have the law agent or the manager decide beforehand whether or not something has, something comes under the remit,” said Smyth. That could be contentious if there are grey areas, so it’s best to leave it up to councillors to determine if something is in their remit, he says.
You can easily see that the need for managerial go-ahead for motions would be a problem. One of the first motions that the People Before Profit group put forward after the local elections in 2014 was to set up an unused-properties register to address vacancy.
The idea was to find out more information about which ones might be in probate, which looked like speculation, and how many were local-authority properties, said People Before Profit’s Tina MacVeigh. Those that had been empty a while could be taken over for housing.
The motion passed. “We followed up and we followed up and we were basically told that it is not going to be implemented,” said MacVeigh. She says she wasn’t given a concrete reason for this.
In the meeting minutes, it says that the Chief Executive Owen Keegan said he does not have the powers to do it. MacVeigh said councillors wanted them to try, and see if it was challenged.
Sometimes, councillors struggle to find the time to keep track of motions that they have in, said People Before Profit’s MacVeigh. Many are, after all, juggling their work as a councillor with full-time jobs, and prioritising constituents with pressing needs such as housing.
Many other councillors across parties said the same. “Most of us are part-time and we don’t have the time to chase all this stuff up, and at the same time it also shows the power officials have and Custom House [the national Department of Environment] have,” said Costello of the Green Party.
Some suggest that there should be changes in the system, so that motions don’t just evaporate after they’re passed. “What I probably will suggest is that there should be a tracking thing,” said Sinn Fein’s O’Toole.
So, whoever puts down a motion would get updates as it moves through each stage of the council process: from chamber to debate and vote at a committee, or back to be voted on in the full chamber, or to a council department for a report on whether something is viable.
Take his original motion on election posters: he’s not a member of the environment committee, so he wouldn’t be alerted if it came up to be discussed there. But he’d likely want to stop by and chime in.
Dublin City Council Press Office said that after a motion is passed, the relevant council department is told and they take follow-up action. “The Chief Executive is obliged under section 132 of the Local Government Act 2001 to carry into effect all lawful directions of the elected council,” said a spokesperson.
Sometimes, though, a motion falls within the remit of other government bodies, or is not a “lawful direction”, he said.
[UPDATED on Wednesday 24 August at 12.40 pm with responses from Dublin City Council Press Office.]