“This is a bit surreal, but welcome everybody to the South East Area Committee meeting, 29 April,” said Labour Party councillor and chair of the meeting Dermot Lacey via webcast.
Lacey was not in the chair he normally sits in at these meetings in City Hall. He speaks from the left-hand side of the chamber where councillors normally sit, but on this day the two seats to the left of him are empty.
By sitting there he can stay two meters apart from executive planner in the council Kiaran Sweeney. Sweeney was giving a presentation on Cunningham House, a major development in the area.
In the council’s March meeting, only the month previously, councillors sat together typing on tablets and laptops, whispering to the person sitting beside them or checking the clock that hangs at the top of the room.
Back at the meeting, the camera pans around revealing a room of empty chairs and desks.
Lacey wears a blue polo shirt as he speaks into the microphone: “Clearly it [the fact that the meeting is not taking place in-person] is not satisfactory to everybody but I think the best job has been done,” says Lacey as his fellow councillors tune in online from their own homes.
For the past three months online platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams have been the new home to Dublin City council meetings, as City Hall could no longer be used during Covid-19.
This has resulted in limited media access to council meetings, and some meetings not being broadcast at all to the public.
With a number of socially distant in-person council meetings set to take place in the coming weeks, questions regarding what levels of access will be available to the media remain.
Issues With Access
Normally, members of the press are granted access to sit in on public council meetings, such as local area committee meetings, strategic policy committee meetings and monthly council meetings. However, once councillors switched to using video-call platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Team, issues with access arose.
On 3 June the first transport strategic policy committee meeting took place after a four-month hiatus. Councillors discussed council policies around transport at this meeting, such as the Covid-19 mobility programme and an update on the Dodder Bridge.
But it was not available to watch live. Meetings would normally be available to watch live when they were held in City Hall before the Covid-19 pandemic.
Additionally, minutes for this meeting were also not uploaded.
Council meetings are normally uploaded to the Dublin City Council webcast library. Yet many of the strategic policy committees, such as housing and transport, either have not taken place or have not been uploaded yet.
The transport meeting is still not available to watch online two weeks after it took place. However, as of 16 June, the minutes have become available — 13 days after the meeting took place.
“There have been some technical issues in converting to an online system,” a spokesperson for the council said.
No webcast has been uploaded for the North Central Area Committee meeting for the month of May. While the minutes are available to see online, there is no way of hearing the discussion that took place between councillors during this meeting.
On the other side of the city, at a recent South East Area Committee meeting, councillors met on Zoom to view and discuss a presentation on the plans of the former Technological University Dublin site on Kevin’s Street and a presentation on plan for a development near Herbert Park.
A recording of the Kevin Street development presentation is available online, but the Zoom call that took place between councillors has not been uploaded.
A spokesperson for the council says that it is working on a gradual return to normality, following “the onset of the unprecedented global pandemic which is not over yet”, and added that they are concentrating their energies “on the most essential services like homelessness, maintenance, lettings and community support”.
What Do the Public Have Access To?
Councillors have the power to deny media access to council meetings if half of the members at the meeting vote in favour of it, according to Dublin City Council Standing Orders 2019, which are the rules and procedures that govern how council meetings are run.
According to section 38 of the Standing Orders, when members agree that the absence of the public and media is desirable it should “indicate in a general way the reasons for the resolution and those reasons shall be recorded in the minutes of the meeting”.
As for the rules around recording meetings and putting them online, the Standing Orders dictate that: “It is Council policy to webcast, Monthly, SPC and Area Committee Meetings. Members of Committees should be reminded of their obligations in this matter.”
“[S]ome meetings are being held informally and formally online with the formal meetings being recorded and uploaded as soon as possible,” said a spokesperson for the council.
Some councillors feel that it is important for the media to be present at these online council meetings, while others feel allowances should be made while restrictions are in place.
For example, councillors decided the press wouldn’t be invited into the North Central Area Committee meeting in May, said Fianna Fáil Councillor Deirdre Heney last month, who is chair of the council’s protocol committee and also the head of North Central Area Committee.
For this local area meeting, they decided they would hold it on Zoom. “We agreed that we wouldn’t have press at the meeting as it was our first Zoom meeting, and it’s just a difficult situation we’re in,” she said.
“I suppose it was agreed that for yesterday’s meeting, because it was our first meeting we’d see how it went,” she said. “People could be seen in their own homes, it’s a very invasive platform,” Heney said last month.
Local area committee meetings aren’t “statutory meetings”, she says. “So you don’t make statutory decisions at those meetings, we work on a lot of local stuff,”
Meetings that are statutory, such as the monthly meetings of the full council, are not optional and must be held by law with a physical presence under the Local Government Act 2019. These meetings must take place so councillors can vote on important issues such as the council budget or electing a new lord mayor.
Media should have access to council meetings including local area meetings, says Labour Councillor Mary Freehill.
“I think that it is important to be transparent. There needs to be transparency around decisions and the media have a right to be there to see these decisions,” she says.
Decisions are made at the monthly meetings but councillors discuss these issues at local area meetings, Freehill says.
“Local Area Committee Meetings give an understanding to the bigger decisions that are made,” she says.
Restricted access to the media could have been a result of technical difficulties and unknown areas, said Green Party Councillor Hazel Chu, speaking on the phone in May.
Hosting the local area meetings on Zoom has been problematic, says Chu:“It’s not just a live stream, it’s been really quite awkward because you have people who just don’t go on mute, people typing away and no one gets heard.”
Chu says she thinks that decisions to hold meetings without the media and public present is more to do with efficiency. “It was better to have less people on a call,” she says.
Business as Usual
With Covid-19 restrictions easing, some council meetings are expected to begin moving from online platforms to in-person meetings again.
“As these restrictions are eased further over the month of July it is hoped to return to at least some committee meetings being held in physical terms,” a spokesperson for the council said, via email.
However, it won’t be business as usual with meetings in Dublin City Council.
“There may be limits on the number of people who can attend these meetings because of Public Health Guidelines,” said the council spokesperson.
Organising these meetings has also presented some difficulties.
On Monday, some South East Area councillors were supposed to meet in City Hall while others would watch online to discuss four strategic housing development applications, according to Lacey.
“It was supposed to be in City Hall but some people were not happy with that. It was not possible to Zoom in, don’t ask me why because the technology is beyond me,” he said.
The meeting is now rescheduled and is set to take place in the Round Room in the Mansion House on Monday 22 June instead.
“All the members will be able to attend this meeting should they wish,” Lacey says.
“[Council meetings are] not like the Dáil where you have big policy positions. At local government level you are trying to work out solutions to problems and that is best done in a face-to-face situation,” says Lacey.
Independent Councillor Christy Burke, chair of the transport committee, says he’s in no rush to return to physical meetings. “Is it worth it? No it’s not,” he says.
Issues are being discussed, motions are being debated and Burke is happy to keep his meetings online, he says.
“All it takes is one person to test positive and that whole deck of cards comes down,” says Burke.
According to a spokesperson for the council, it will be up to each area committee and strategic policy committee, along with relevant council officials, to decide on whether to have physical or virtual meetings, or both, during June and July, with a review planned for September.
As for media access to these future meetings: “The media will be informed when these meetings are arranged,” a spokesperson for the council said.