It’s just over six months since the world turned upside down. I haven’t made sourdough or sewn any masks. I haven’t put up drawings in my windows or turned my back garden into a haven for bees.
But I have started to sit up and take notice of local government.
All the time I have spent outside for walks or runs in my 2km and 5km radiuses have made me a lot more aware of my surroundings and how easy or hard they can be to navigate when on foot or by bike.
Whether you love it or hate it, you can’t help but be impressed with what Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council has managed to achieve over the summer with the roll-out of a temporary cycle lane linking Blackrock to Dalkey. This has shown us just how quickly our surroundings can be changed, and what is possible.
Local government has the power to implement measures very quickly that can improve people’s day-to-day lives in meaningful ways. But the procedures and actions of local government are not always easy for the public to follow.
After hearing conflicting reports on the outcome of a motion on speed limits in the city that was presented at a Dublin City Council meeting earlier this month, I went back and watched a recording of the meeting – to see for myself what had actually happened.
Although I was able to follow along for parts of it, there are definitely some changes that would make the council’s meetings a lot more accessible and transparent.
Lord Mayor’s Business
It was a Tuesday night in mid-September when I sat down to watch my first council meeting: [the first part of] Dublin City Council’s monthly meeting, which had taken place a week earlier.
To find the webcast of the meeting I just googled “Dublin city council webcast” and the first hit brought me to a list of recent meetings.
The meetings are being held in the Mansion House, rather than at City Hall, to facilitate social distancing. It’s a strange setting – long tables covered in white tablecloths are laid out in lines, with councillors sparsely spread out across them all.
There is a head table, like at a wedding, and the lord mayor is about to kick off proceedings. The meeting starts with “Lord Mayor’s Business”, which consists of remembering past council members who have recently passed away, planning for future meetings and other general business items.
During this segment, Lord Mayor Hazel Chu [of the Green Party] refers to agenda items 7, 8 and 10. I don’t know what these items are about, so I wonder if I can find an agenda online. I escape from full-screen mode and see there is a space where the agenda should be available to the right of the video, but it has not yet been published.
The lord mayor continues with general housekeeping items and asks if there are any objections to holding two meetings in October. I can see she is looking down to someone who has indicated they want the floor.
The camera pans to [Sinn Féin] Councillor Larry O’Toole, who is holding a notebook and some papers. He launches straight into a story about receiving a letter, how some of his neighbours also received this letter, and how it relates to the council advising him that they know he does not currently have a bin service provider.
I’m still trying to relate this back to the lord mayor’s question about whether there are any objections to holding a second meeting in October. But I soon realise that what O’Toole is saying has nothing to do with her question.
O’Toole, it seems, is simply seizing an opportunity early on to relay his concerns about these letters, which may or may not be insinuating that certain persons may not be disposing of their waste in an incorrect manner.
I wonder whether the meetings are regularly punctuated with this type of off-topic moment. If so, that ought to keep it interesting, I think to myself.
Then we go back to Lord Mayor’s Business again, this time to say farewell to [Sinn Féin] Councillor Críona Ní Dhálaigh. She gives a speech saying it was an honour to serve her community, but also how trying it could be.
Councillors from all parties pay tribute to Ní Dhálaigh. Their praise is not at all trite, and there is a strong sense of shared loss among councillors, across party lines. I find this touching and begin to think that perhaps the edges of party politics are softened at local level.
After Lord Mayor’s Business, we finally get to the council items/motions. There are some emergency motions that all need to be approved ASAP. The lord mayor advises that councillors who wish to speak on any topic will be given two minutes.
I thought I was following what was happening until I realised that a motion had just been passed without there being a vote on it. It appears that any items that need to be passed just need a proposer and a seconder. If there is disagreement or dissent, then someone needs to literally speak up or the motion just goes through.
I noticed that items aren’t always introduced as their item number along with a description, and sometimes they use only the item number.
As I don’t have an agenda, I need to use my powers of deduction to figure out exactly what councillors are talking about.
I was able to figure most of it out, but I got a bit lost on Fianna Fáil Councillor Deirdre Heney’s motion relating to a dog shelter. I wasn’t sure of the history on this item and what Dublin City Council’s involvement was with the shelter.
Appointing Committee Positions
I think this should be an uneventful section but there seems to be an issue with the committee relating to Moore Street. Heney [of Fianna Fáil] has notified the lord mayor that her party wishes to further defer their appointment to the committee.
This seems to have touched a nerve with a few councillors – they think Fianna Fáil has been given plenty of time to put someone forward and is not taking the appointment seriously. There is some back and forth and I think they agree to wait until the next meeting.
I pause the meeting here to search for the full list of Dublin city councillors with photos to make it easier to identify each speaker.
The next item is filling a position on the Joint Policing Committee. [Editor’s note: there are several joint policing committees – a citywide one, and several local area ones. The one in question here was the Dublin City Joint Policing Committee.]
Sinn Féin Councillor Daithi Doolan points out that the council itself should not actually be the ones to make this appointment. He quotes a text and gives the reference for the council’s law agent to review.
Tensions have started to rise now and councillors have stopped referring to one another as Councillor Surname, but rather just as Sinn Féin or Fianna Fáil.
The 30kph Speed limit
Finally, we get to item 11 on the agenda, a report on a plan to institute 30kph default speed limits in the city. This is the reason I am watching this meeting in the first place.
Some news stories and tweets after this meeting suggested that there had been shenanigans. Some councillors have denied voting against the 30kph speed limit even though other councillors indicated that they did.
I have decided to watch the meeting to find out for myself exactly what happened.
[Fine Gael] Councillor Naoise Ó Muirí proposes an amendment to the report on 30kph speed limits that the council is set to vote on. He says he wants to have the option of local area committees to decide that 40kph would be more suitable for certain arterial routes. Several councillors comment on this proposal.
[Council Acting Executive Manager [(Traffic)] Brendan O’Brien explains that the law agent has advised that the amendment cannot be accepted into the report. The [public] consultation and work that has been done will have to be scrapped and a new consultation process will be required in order to prepare a new report.
At this point, I became very confused on why they are voting on the amendment at all. The amendment is incompatible with the report – i.e. amending this report will render the report something which cannot be voted on and implemented.
But the councillors vote on the amendment nonetheless: 32 in favour, 18 against, by a show of hands. I am surprised, as this is very low-tech, and makes it difficult to see afterwards which way each councillor voted.
Ruth Dowling from the council announces that the amendment has passed, and the report falls. There is a flurry of commotion.
Ó Muirí is back at the microphone. He wants to make it clear the report hasn’t fallen but rather the council has voted to amend the report! He seems to think his amendment hasn’t been the undoing of the report.
There is some debate about whether they should also vote on the report itself. But the law agent has indicated that they should not and that the report has indeed fallen.
I like analogies to explain things, so I’ve thought of the following analogy to explain what I think just happened. Imagine being at a restaurant and being told there was sherry trifle with custard on the menu. Your dining partner asks if it’s possible to have custard and vanilla ice cream on the side.
The waiter explains the custard is layered into the dessert and that there is no vanilla ice cream in the kitchen. You both proceed to order sherry trifle with both custard and ice cream on the side.
The table adjacent to you overhears you and they also request the same. No desserts arrive, and you all sit around blaming the waiter.
After watching the meeting play out I can see now how some councillors have (correctly) claimed that they voted in favour of an amendment that would reduce speed limits and yet, simultaneously, other councillors have claimed that these councillors actually voted for the amendment that will result in further delay to the rollout of reduced speed limits.
Both are true.
Prior to watching the meeting I would have thought something like this was black and white, and I wouldn’t have considered the third grey option offered by the amendment.
The End of the Meeting
The next item is relating to the scheme linking the War Memorial Gardens to [Chapelizod Road on the southern edge of] the Phoenix Park.
There is broad agreement on the benefits of this scheme. A number of councillors speak in favour of this item.
[People Before Profit] Councillor Hazel De Nortúin raises a concern relating to residents from an apartment block close to the proposed development. She requests that the council planners meet with some representatives from the apartment residents committee to present the proposed plans.
Then there is a report relating to the payment of grants to community projects and community groups. Some concerns are raised that this [the report’s proposals] will result in cutting funding to small community projects. The council manager insists this is not going to impact any community groups that pivoted to a Covid-19 response.
The rest of the meeting moves at lightning speed through the remaining items and the meeting ends.
After watching my first council meeting, it seems to me that these meetings could be made more transparent for members of the general public.
One very simple thing would be to make available a published agenda. That would certainly help the public follow along. [Editor’s note: there is a note on the webcast page that says “An agenda has not been published for this meeting”, but the agenda is actually available elsewhere, on the council’s website.]
It would also be helpful if there were time stamps associated with each item in the webcast. Then if you were just interested in hearing the debate about a certain topic you could jump to that section. [Editor’s note: this feature is available as part of the council’s normal webcasting system, which it is not using as meetings are not taking place in the council chambers at City Hall due to Covid-related distancing needs.]
It might also help if reports being voted on or discussed are linked beside the meeting webcast. [Editor’s note: some documents do appear to be available under the “Resources” tab on the webcast page, but this system is not easy to navigate and apparently not comprehensive.]
It would also help if the meeting minutes were published, along with the motions that were voted on and a record of the votes. [Editor’s note: minutes are published but not for quite some time after a meeting. For example, minutes from the council’s July monthly meeting are available online, but minutes from the September monthly meeting detailed here were not yet available online when this op-ed was published.]
Another improvement might be if councillors just stated their name and party on the first occasion they speak at a meeting. It might seem foolish to them but it would certainly help someone following along, especially if they are hard of sight or watching on a small device.