In November, Labour Councillor Mary Freehill kicked off a meeting with a complaint about the amount of food on offer for councillors ahead of the proceedings.
There were only 15 plates of food for 63 people, she said. “This is an ongoing situation here in the council (…). Really and truly, I think this is outrageous.”
Other councillors seemed eager to move on, and leave the issue behind. But what are they offered?
The menu served to councillors before their meetings varies, according to a Freedom Of Information Act (FOI) response from Dublin City Council.
It does not appear to be true that there were only 15 plates of food available before the November meeting of the full 63-member council at City Hall. But there were only about that many salad plates available that night, according to council records.
On the Menu
Before the October monthly council meeting, the council bought 60 sandwiches, 2 quiches, 15 salads, 20 pieces of fruit and 1 gluten-free option. This came to €384.95.
Before the November monthly meeting, the council ordered 63 sandwich platters at €5.50 per person, and 16 salad plates. If you’re curious, they got 6 chicken Caesar salads, 6 smoked salmon, 2 veggie, and 2 goat’s cheese. The price: €473.70.
Before the November protocol committee – when councillors discuss the internal business of the council, like the remit of its committees, or what its standing orders should be – the council spent €50 on a platter for 20 people from Azteca Cafe.
Ahead of the December monthly council meeting, Dublin City Council spent €516.33 including VAT on food from the cafe Tir na nÓg. For that, councillors got 35 salad plates with cutlery, which included 20 chicken Caesar, 11 smoked salmon, and 2 goat’s cheese salads.
There were also sandwich platters with side plates for 33 people, mixed up with a variety on each. Plus a gluten-free, onion-free salad sandwich for one councillor, and a ham sandwich on brown bread for another.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, we requested records that show details of what food councillors are given ahead of Dublin City Council meetings, how much is spent on that food and any records which discuss changes to the food provided.
No discussions about the food offered before meetings have been officially recorded.
“The issue has been raised by a councillor on occasion at the Protocol and City Council meetings but was not included in the minutes of any of these meetings,” said the FOI response.
Councillor Freehill says the issue is now resolved. “They are being a bit more careful now, but sometimes you have to make a big thing of it to get change,” she says.
Although there were sandwiches available before the November meeting, Freehill says she doesn’t eat bread. And by the time she got to the meeting, her healthy colleagues had finished off the 16 salads ordered.
The number of salads was insufficient for the size of the group, she says. The food provided at the December meeting appears to reflect her concerns, as a lot more salads were ordered.
“I base the orders on feedback from councillors,” says Dublin City Council Senior Staff Officer Michael Gallagher, who is in charge of ordering the food.
“I try to ensure a variety of choices, with the salads and sandwiches (chicken, fish, vegetarian) and order accordingly,” Gallagher says.
He tries to respond to what is being eaten, so if sandwiches are left over, he will order more salads the next time, he says.
“Catering for 63 individuals is challenging, but we try to ensure that there is something for everyone,” he says.
How Does DCC Compare?
Freehill says that: “In Tipperary and places like that councillors actually have a hot meal when they go in, so it is very different, it’s attitudinal really.”
She is correct about the hot meals – we asked Tipperary County Council, and a spokesperson confirmed they do provide hot meals, and that this planned for in the budget each year.
“This practice has continued owing to the logistics of the county, the length of time council meetings took and the fact that meetings now rotate between Clonmel and Nenagh, which are located 90km apart,” the spokesperson said.
We asked other county councils what food they provide before meetings. Spokespersons for Kildare and Cork county councils say that they do not supply any food to elected representatives ahead of meetings.
South Dublin County Council say they provide “Tea, coffee and hot water as well as a selection of sandwiches, wraps, currant cake and fruit”.
What Is the Protocol?
Labour’s Dermot Lacey chairs Dublin City Council’s protocol committee, where he says the issue of food has been raised in the past, although he doesn’t think it was raised in November.
“For a lot of councillors, they go to work at 8 am, finish at 5 pm and go straight around to the council meeting for 5:30. They may even have to go to another local meeting afterwards,” says Lacey.
He says they used to get hot dinners, but they have been informed that they can’t anymore, as they already receive payment for the dinner in their allowances. (Councillors can claim a subsistence allowance of up to €2,856.85 per annum, which is around €55 a week.)
“Some people said, ‘Can you not just take a tenner off us then?’ – they were willing to pay to get a dinner,” says Lacey.
For Freehill, the issue of food is part of a bigger picture. “Councillors have to provide their own offices, with light and heat, and there is no allowance for that,” she says. “For the number of hours we actually work, we earn well below the minimum wage.”
Councillors are paid a part-time wage of €16,565 per annum (although many say they spend far more than part-time on their council work). They get thousands more from various allowances, and councillors who chair strategic policy committees get an extra €6,000 a year.
Unlike Freehill, Councillor Andrew Keegan of People Before Profit says the food provided at meetings is usually adequate and the sandwiches are always fresh.
“They do lovely sandwiches and salad,” he says, but “it would be nice if they mixed it up a bit”.