Major proposals in Dublin City Council are discussed behind closed doors at meetings to which the public and the media are not invited.
We may hear about these decisions at a later stage, when they come before the council’s main committees – the strategic policy committees (SPCs) – or the full council for approval, but we may never know why or how they were reached.
While some councillors say they are open to allowing journalists to attend meetings of subcommittees and working groups, and a council spokesperson says that would be possible with councillors’ consent.
But when journalists are only allowed to see meetings that councillors want them to see, is that really transparency? And, besides, both councillors and the council spokesperson agree that some meetings will continue to be held behind closed doors.
Journalists Welcome …
Several councillors said they think journalists should be allowed to attend some subcommittee and working group meetings.
Green Party Councillor Ciarán Cuffe says he thinks the press should be allowed at these unless there is a specific reason to bar them.
He heads the council’s Transport Strategic Policy Committee, which has two subcommittees, one for walking and cycling, and another to look at public transport. At the moment, reporters are allowed at meetings of the Transport SPC, but not at those of the subcommittees.
It wouldn’t be a problem if they attended, though, Cuffe said. The subcommittees mainly discuss things that end up in the media anyway, like the reopening of the Phoenix Park rail line.
Labour Councillor Andrew Montague, who chairs the Planning SPC, also said he has no problem with journalists attending subcommittee meetings, in general. Councillor Rebecca Moynihan was also supportive of the idea, in some cases.
But they and other councillors had concerns about how having reporters watching might affect the conduct of the subcommittee meetings.
Montague, who chairs the Planning SPC, said that in some cases the presence of journalists might keep the a subcommittee from getting its work done.
“If there is media at a meeting, people are more likely to grandstand rather than get on with the work, so it can reduce the quality of the work being done,” said Montague.
“You are trying to balance the need for transparency … [but] there is a lot of attention seeking that goes on in politics as well,” he said.
Moynihan said she is worried that in some instances having reporters around keep people from honestly and openly discussing the issues on the agenda.
She also said that “It might be premature to have your views reported at such an early stage, when you are still informing yourself and forming your opinions … Would you publish a draft of an article?”
There are often good reasons why the press can’t attend some meetings, said Sinn Fein Councillor Daithí Doolan, who heads the Housing SPC.
“There may be sensitive information such as names and addresses of private individuals being discussed, so it wouldn’t be appropriate to have the press in that instance,” he says.
It’s all down to what issues are being discussed, said independent Councillor Ruairi McGinley, who chairs the Finance SPC.
The Finance SPC doesn’t have any subcommittees, but he was involved in a Housing SPC subcommittee that was looking at data-protection issues.
“In fairness, in that instance, the press shouldn’t be involved,” he says. “But all subcommittees should report back fully to the SPC. Otherwise, it could be a problem for transparency.”
Behind Closed Doors
Cuffe, of the Green Party, heads up the council’s Climate Change Subcommittee.
With technical support from the City of Dublin Energy Management Agency (Codema), this subcommittee recently agreed a climate-change strategy for the four councils in the greater Dublin area.
“Next year, each authority will use that strategy to develop a specific plan for what they are doing to tackle climate change,” says Cuffe.
This working group focuses on advocating for Travellers within the council, and advocating for the delivery of the Traveller Accommodation Programme.
The idea is to identify specific types of litter, and put in place a plan to reduce them, he says. Ó Muirí has identified three such priority areas: cigarette butts, over-flowing bins and multi-storey flats that are not complying with waste by-laws.
Within the Housing SPC, there are working groups examining council housing standards, domestic violence, data-protection issues, and the standards of houses built prior to 1969.
Then there’s the data-protection-issues working group, which was established to examine the problems arising from the fact that the councillors are not allowed to see the housing list anymore, due to data-protection laws.
Under the Arts, Culture, Recreation and Community SPC there is the Arts and Culture Advisory Group, the Commemorations Committee, the Sports Partnership, the Street Performers and Busking Forum, and area-specific parks committees.
Arts SPC members also attend a subcommittee on tourism, with members of the Enterprise and Employment SPC.
By Invitation Only
So can journalists attend the meetings of these subcommittees and working groups, to see what councillors are doing about climate change, council housing standards, and domestic violence?
A spokesperson for Dublin City Council’s press office said that in some cases we can – if we get the consent of the chairperson and the members of that subcommittee.
But some “subcommittees including the Audit Committee and the Corporate Policy Group would not be open to the media,” the spokesperson says.
The spokesperson said SPC meetings and the area committee meetings are open to public and the press, and most of them can also be viewed via webcast.
However, for members of the public who don’t have the time to attend in person, it can be impossible to understand what councillors are talking about at these meetings – or the monthly meetings of the full council, for that matter.
That’s because they’re often referring quickly and obliquely to documents distributed at the meetings, but not available online. More than a year ago, a press office spokesperson said that by December 2015, all documents for council meetings would be up on the website prior to the meetings taking place.