At a meeting of Dublin City Council’s arts committee at City Hall on Monday, Labour’s Mary Freehill put forward a motion to give an unspecified amount of money, for an unspecified purpose, to a private charitable organisation: the Little Museum of Dublin.
“I have a proposal that we make a once-off financial contribution to help it grow,” Freehill said. “I really do believe that it’s in the absolute interest of the arts in the city, the cultural activities in the city, and tourism in the city, that we do support the museum.”
From the outside, it all looked a bit cosy.
Freehill is a member of the museum’s board, along with Lord Mayor Brendan Carr (of Labour) and council official Declan Wallace, who is set to become head of the council’s Culture, Recreation and Economic Services Department later this month. Meanwhile, Little Museum of Dublin curator Simon O’Connor sits on the council’s arts committee.
Is it a conflict of interest for a committee that’s so entwined with the Little Museum to decide whether the council should grant the museum a bunch of money?
Freehill says it’s not.
Is This a Conflict of Interest?
The code of conduct for councillors says they should not seek to influence decisions of a local authority in matters in which they have knowledge that they have a pecuniary or other beneficial interest.
“However there may be other private or personal interests (not necessarily involving financial matters) which can also pose a real potential for conflict of interest or damage to public confidence in local government,” the code says.
It’s also not just about avoiding actual impropriety. It’s also about avoiding anything that looks like impropriety, the code says.
Freehill says it wasn’t a conflict of interest for her to put forward the motion. She isn’t paid for sitting on the museum’s board, and she’s up front about her interest in the museum, she says.
“I was appointed to the board by the city council,” Freehill said. “So I am the city council’s representative on the board and my job is to represent the interest of the council on the board.”
“The members knew that I was on the board, as the council nominated me. Also when the Little Museum made their presentation just prior to my proposing the motion they stated that I am a member of the board. So it was all very transparent.”
Most of the councillors on the committee also said they didn’t see this as a conflict of interest. After all, many of them sit on boards as part of their role as public representatives.
There are councillors, or council officials, on a slew of boards, from the Grangegorman Development Agency, to the Royal Irish Academy of Music, to the Axis Community Arts Resource Centre in Ballymun.
That’s the way they can do their job, said Councillor Rebecca Moynihan, of Labour, who points to her position, for example, on the board of the F2 Centre in Rialto and lobbying for operational costs for the centre.
“Even if I wasn’t on the board, I would be doing that because it’s an important community resource in my area,” she said. “It’s kind of our job to do that stuff. (…) If we didn’t do it what are we there for?”
Once-off, for One Museum
For those who debated the motion at the Arts Strategic Policy Committee (SPC) at City Hall on Monday, their criticisms generally lay elsewhere.
Some queried whether it was fair to give any one organisation a once-off payment. That could prompt a series of motions from councillors for once-off payments for other local organisations.
Claire O’Connor of Fianna Fail asked what the criteria is for choosing this project. “Obviously we’re all in unison that it’s a wonderful project, but how do we respond to the next project that wants a once-off payment?” she asked.
O’Connor said that if the committee supported Freehill’s motion, it would make people think they could just ask a councillor for a once-off payment, which is not a direction they want to move in.
Greg Kelly of Sinn Fein also had questions about the motion. “I’m a big St Pat’s supporter in Inchicore. What’s to stop me saying to the SPC, ‘Give a once-off grant to the football club that I support’?”
“Rather than a conflict of interest, it’s more to do with transparency,” he said. “What’s it for? How much? What benefit does Dublin City Council get for giving out grants?”
Instead, as he sees it, there should be some kind of fully-costed scheme that everybody can apply for. “If it’s a one-off payment to museums, every museum should be able to apply,” he said.
Too Little Information
Other councillors said that the lack of information about how much would be given to the museum if they supported Freehill’s motion, and what exactly it was to be used for, meant that it was impossible for them to take a call.
During the meeting, the curator of the Little Museum of Dublin, Simon O’Connor, gave a presentation about just how much the museum has grown. “Visitor growth has been exponential since we opened,” he said.
Last year, they welcomed more than 100,000 visitors to the museum, O’Connor said. “This presents us with a problem,” he said. They’re figuring out how to accommodate visitors without compromising the quality of experience.
“The building that we’re in is simply too small for the success of the operation,” he said. A day earlier, they had turned away 250 people, he said.
Councillors all said they love the museum. But they wanted more information about what they were being asked to support.
“What is the once-off payment for? How will that sustain you?” said Labour Councillor Aine Clancy, at the meeting. “I would like the fine nitty-gritty of the whole thing, before I’d be in favour of any once-off payment for anything.”
Trevor White, director of the Little Museum of Dublin, said the museum would be glad to hand over more details, and they’re grateful for council support so far.
“We’re very happy to meet the request for more information about the once-off contribution to the museum that was discussed at yesterday’s meeting, including audited accounts and any other information requested,” he said, by email.
On Monday, in the end, the councillors agreed to get a report back about the motion, and look at it in more detail at the next meeting.
[Editor’s note, for transparency: The Little Museum of Dublin is one of our stockists, selling Dublin Inquirer’s monthly print edition.]