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When the clock struck 8:30pm on Monday at City Hall, councillors began to debate and vote on a lengthy list of pending motions.
After they flew through the first few, some councillors were caught unawares.
“I wasn’t expecting to reach this motion tonight,” says Sinn Féin’s Cathleen Carney Boud. Her motion on council staffing had been number eight in the queue.
Monday’s meeting was atypical. Usually, a councillor might put down a motion “but it would not be reached before next year’s local election”, says independent Councillor Vincent Jackson. “The last five years this has just gone out of hand altogether.”
In 2014, Dublin City Council was expanded to 63 seats – an increase from 52, under Section 15 of the Local Government Reform Act of 2014.
Sixty-three councillors, Jackson says, “is unworkable”. Other councillors however, diagnose the problem differently.
A couple of days before the council’s full monthly meetings, which are held on the first Monday of each month, the “Motions on Notice” are published on Dublin City Council’s website.
There were 31 motions down ahead of its most recent meeting, on 1 October. The top motion – from Fianna Fáil’s Deirdre Heney, seeking to make Dublin a “dementia-friendly city” – has sat on the list since 30 May 2017.
Other motions close to the top included a call by People Before Profit’s Hazel De Nortúin for horse-care facilities near Labre Park in Ballyfermot, which dates from October 2017.
People Before Profit Councillor Andrew Keegan’s motion to call on the council to accept tenders only from construction companies that employ their workers, rather than setting them up as self-employed, is third down. It dates from September 2017.
Every councillor is allowed to have one motion on the agenda, says Éilis Ryan of the Workers’ Party. “I had a motion on the agenda for two years.”
That was her call in July 2016 that all of the homes to be built on the O’Devaney Gardens site be public housing, rather than a split between private, social, and affordable. (Two months after councillors voted it through, they overturned it at a special meeting.)
Motions on notice work on a first-come first-served basis, say the council’s standing orders, which are the rules they agree to govern meetings.
Councillors add their motions to the list and wait their turn. Sometimes that’s months. Sometimes it’s years.
At Monday’s meeting, councillors skipped over a motion from Fianna Fáil’s Frank Kennedy about how members should prepare “in advance of” the EU’s General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) – which came in on 25 May 2018. He had put it down in September 2017.
There is some debate among councillors as to why, exactly, it can take so long for motions to come up for discussion and vote.
There are stacks of other issues ahead of motions on agendas for the monthly meetings, which “get a huge amount of time from whoever is chairing the meeting on any given day”, says Fianna Fáil’s Heney.
Council meetings have five acts.
Councillors’ motions come late in the agenda, after “governance issues”, which get priority, says Ryan of the Workers’ Party. Managers have reports for councillors, which the elected representatives might have to approve, and those dominate the agenda.
If those reports aren’t dealt with before the clock runs down, the meeting isn’t considered done. So, they have to come back another day, says Ryan.
With councillors’ motions, though, only one needs to be discussed for the meeting to be considered completed, with “the rest being carried over to the next meeting”, she says.
So it can take months, even years, for motions to drift up from the bottom of the list and actually be voted on.
The importance of governance issues can be a point of contention. For some, like Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey, these are the bread and butter of the city council.
It is the job of the council, he says, “to run the city, so the formal stuff on the agenda is actually what we’re elected to do”. The formal stuff being the reports brought forward by council executives.
For Lacey, it is at the committees – the smaller group meetings around issues such as transport or housing, or a geographical part of the city – where the important work of the council is actually done.
For others, like Ryan, the priority given to the city council’s managers and executives means that their agendas determine council policy, rather than the visions and ideas of those who were elected.
“The managers are able to kind of drive their agenda because they can put reports down on an issue and those reports have to be debated and heard,” says Ryan.
A Crowded House
There are also simply too many councillors and not enough time to discuss the issues, says Jackson, the independent councillor.
One person from each group should speak on motions but no more, he says. “Some say that’s undemocratic but if you want to get business done, there are 63 of us. I hate saying it, but 63 councillors is unworkable.”
Past reports on local-government reform talk about the need to make sure councils across the country have similar ratios of councillors to constituents, while making sure councils don’t become unwieldy.
Some councillors have workarounds to propel motions along.
If it’s urgent, a councillor can put down an emergency motion, as long as they submit it by the morning by a certain time, says Heney of Fianna Fáil.
It’s up to the lord mayor to decide whether it qualifies to bypass the sluggish slow lane or not.
Heney says this can be abused, which again delays the on-notice motions others have tabled.
Also, if what you want to do lines up with council policy, direct contact with the council manager can see to it that it is included in their report, says Ryan. “That’s what a lot of councillors do.”
It’s when you want policy to change direction that you have to bring it through the full council, she says.
Raising a motion at an area committee meeting can be an effective way of getting it discussed at a city council meeting “if you have the support”, says Jackson.
It can then be raised and voted on at the full council meetings too under the part of the agenda listed as “breviats”, he says.
Heney says she would like to see motions given higher priority, rather than time debating reports. “Better business can be done.”
Lacey of Labour says too much time is spent debating motions about issues that fall outside of the council’s remit. Flying a particular flag over city hall “is hardly the pressing business of the council, and that just leads to a dysfunctional council”, he says.
Others argue that the symbolic weight of gestures such as these is a form of soft power that the council should use.
So, what about more meetings? Being a councillor is a part-time job and there’s only so many reports and meetings many can get to, says Ryan.
Councillors could meet more regularly, she says. But “it’s very difficult to tell them they have another lengthy meeting with a 400 page agenda”.