Longford town councillors have reacted with scorn to Minister Phil Hogan’s plans to reform local government by merging many town and county councils prior to the 2014 elections.
The full plan, which will be outlined in June, aims at saving €6 million a year by merging town and borough councils with bigger local authorities, resulting in dozens of council seats being abolished before the 2014 local elections.
Independent Cllr Gerry Warnock, who raised the issue at last Wednesday’s Town Council meeting, questioned the veracity of the Labour Fine Gael government. “Are we to believe that a government, who since taking power has diverted billions of euros of public money into the pockets of unsecured bondholders, can put a price tag of €6 million on probably the last bastion of real democracy left in the country?”
Cllr Warnock, an Independent, called on the chamber to make the people of the town aware of the impact the “erosion of their rights to meaningful representation” will have, but stressed sending a letter to the Department, the normal response by the Town Council, was not a viable option. “I think we might as well send such a letter to Disneyland for all the attention it would receive,” he said.
Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government Phil Hogan, who released provisional plans at the Irish Planning Institute’s annual conference in Kilkenny last Friday, came under sustained attack from councillors. Cllr Paul Connell said the Council should seek a meeting with the Minister. “I would challenge Phil Hogan on it and I would say to him he hasn’t the guts to do it. If someone is not fit for a job, and I’m certain Phil Hogan is not fit for a minister’s job he should stand down himself, or Enda Kenny should take him out of it because he’s not fit for that job and he’s proved it beyond all doubt.”
Cllr Connell justified his stance by describing the introduction of the Household Charge and the advent of Irish Water as “two of the biggest botches I have ever seen since I joined politics.”
Cllr Mae Sexton, who was elected the first female chair of the Town Council in 1999, said: “It took 100 years of local government for that to happen and to think Phil Hogan, with one stroke of a pen can wipe out all that history, and the commitment given by councillors long before me and since because he thinks he can save €6m, is a disgrace.”
Cllr Sexton, who ran as a Labour candidate in the last General Election, was scathing in her review of the current government. “There’s hardly a politician standing that hasn’t lost my respect. Every single one of them said something when in opposition and then did a u-turn when in power. I’m ashamed to say I was ever associated with any of them and if anyone in this chamber has represented them now is the time to come out and distance themselves.”
Cllr Peggy Nolan was quick to respond to Cllr Sexton’s remarks. “I’m a Fine Gael councillor and I have no intention of resigning. I’d rather work within the system rather than outside of it. But whatever has to be done so that Phil Hogan knows this is unacceptable must be done.
“Minister Hogan you have it wrong, you do not have my support on this, and it has to be rethought. One minister’s advisor would cover the cost of running two local authorities for any given financial year; that’s what you’re looking at,” the Fine Gael councillor remarked.
“We seem to be trying to mirror Europe in all that they think is good, if that’s the case why are we going directly in the opposite direction of Europe. Every single town in Europe have their town councils and they are being bolstered up with powers that we never ever had in any of our Town Councils,” she added.
Cllr Warnock then informed the chamber that a TD earns €92, 692 in basic salary every year. “Given the dual mandate councillors on this Council the maximum this chamber can cost is €59, 259 a year; that’s just 64 percent of one TD’s salary. Minister Hogan needs to look closely at what he’s doing,” Cllr Warnock said.