Next Monday’s scheduled meeting of Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council has several important pieces of business on the agenda. In addition to the normal Councillor submitted motions, we will have the opportunity to discuss our ABP submission on the proposed €18,000,000 plan to develop cruise liner facilities in the harbour. It also falls to us to determine if we will once again vary the Local Property Tax rate, a move that last year gave over €8,000,000 back to the residents of the county.
Judging, however, by the media activity (both real and social) of some of my Councillor colleagues, it would appear that nothing is currently more important than a row about the procedural workings of a sub-committee of a local authority!
Since being elected to the council in May of last year, I have regularly been asked by people how I am finding life as a Councillor. It is very hard for me to give any answer that doesn’t contain the phrase ‘slow and frustrating’. Don’t get me wrong, working in and for my local community is a very energising and rewarding experience. The problems unfortunately begin when we attempt to conduct business at our monthly council meeting. At these meeting, we have the opportunity to exercise what little power that remains vested in Local Authority members and deal efficiently and expediently with business for the benefit of those that elected us…. But we don’t! …Instead the webcast cameras are rolling, the press are in the gallery and we feel the need to grandstand, to score some political points and to ‘echo’ what was just said by our five, six or seven electoral ward colleagues lest their newsletter reads better than ours.
In stark contrast to this, at the twice monthly area committee meetings, where there is no webcast and the press or public are seldom in attendance, we achieve things because we are concise and to the point. Business is completed both efficiently and effectively and more often than not the meeting finishes with the agenda completed.
While members of previous Councils may have had the luxury of being verbose, this is not an option for the current Council, if we are in any way serious about getting through the business with which we are charged. At the local elections last year, membership of the council increased from 28 to 40 members, almost a 45% increase. There was, however, no corresponding, meaningful change to the rules around which we conduct business to accommodate this enlarged council – no change to meeting length, no increase in the number of meetings, no reduction in the number of motions or questions and no change to speaking time.
In the commercial world, one could propose getting management consultants in to have a look at this, but they would only tell us something that we all already know – that we cannot nor will not get through our business unless we make some changes to how we conduct it.
Fortunately, we have within the Council a body which is charged with examining how well our practices enable us to function. This body also has the power to formally make recommendations for change when it deems change and improvement are necessary. This body is called the Organisation, Procedure & Protocol committee (OP&P) and I am a member of this committee. The remaining membership is made up of 19 of my Councillor colleagues democratically selected from across all party groups. This committee, which is armed with the ability to propose changes to how our business is conducted, meets once per quarter. The idea, as I understand it, is that we propose, discuss, and vote on changes to the Council’s ‘Standing Orders’ but ultimately, the committee has no power beyond recommendation and once any proposed motion to the committee has been debated, potentially amended but agreed upon by the majority of the meeting, it subsequently goes forward to the full Council for further discussion and possible ratification.
It has been obvious to me, from the beginning of my term on this Council, that in order for us to function as we should, we urgently require the OP&P to recommend changes to the Standing Orders- changes that would enable more than the current minimal level of business to take place. The frustrating part, however, is that any attempts within the OP&P to effect relevant and meaningful changes to the Standing Orders have just been voted down from within that very committee.
For example, at the September 2014 meeting, there were proposals to reduce the number of motions that a Councillor could pre-submit to a meeting agenda from 3 down to 1. This was voted down, (as was a subsequent motion to reduce the number from 3 down to 2). I supported this 3 to 1 reduction at the time as I did last week when the motion was tabled yet again.
Let me put some context on this: In the first 12 months of the life this council, despite holding 3 additional meetings more than scheduled, a total of just 107 pre-submitted motions were dealt with. If every Councillor had used their full allotment of motion submissions, then there would have been the need to deal with 1,320 motions. If, in comparison to this, every Councillor were entitled to just one motion per meeting, there would still be a potential for 440 motions over the course of a calendar year- still not easy given the time available, but 440 is much more achievable than 1,320. Furthermore, this ‘one motion’ proposal is best practice in local authorities where the membership is of the size of Dun Laoghaire Rathdown, all of the other Councils in Dublin – Fingal, Dublin City and South Dublin, effect a limit of one motion per Councillor per meeting, as do many other Councils around the country.
At the previous to last OP&P meeting, another proposal was brought forward by one of my party colleagues. I saw the sense to this motion and was happy to second it. The proposal was simply that we order motions on our agenda so that we can deal with those relevant to our business as Councillors first, and then, if time permits, we can move on to dealing with motions of a national and international nature. The logic being that, whereas we have some influence and a mandate over the former, the latter is not central to our remit and should not displace the dealings we are charged to undertake as local Councillors. This too was voted down!
Our demonstrable unwillingness to reform has added to my frustration. So I did some quick maths, and given that our monthly meeting lasts just 3 hours, I allotted 20 minutes of time to management for their reports and then divided the remainder across the 40 elected Councillors thus rendering each Councillor with just 4 minutes speaking time for the entire meeting. In order to highlight and bring to the fore the obvious shortcomings of our Standing Orders, and the need for reform if we are to discharge our business effectively, I decided to bring this up for discussion at our OP&P meeting.
I had anticipated that facing restrictions on speaking time would focus the minds of the members and that it would spark a meaningful conversation around how we might better conduct our business. I am still hopeful that it will. However, at the recent meeting of the OP&P committee, facing the loss of a vote on the re-tabled ‘one motion’ proposal, several members of the committee walked out of the meeting. This was disappointing for me, not because of the display of dramatics but because once again, the opportunity for the OP&P to have the important conversation on how we can better conduct our business was lost.
(To be fair to the members that walked out, however, they did so because of the re-tabling of the ‘one motion’ proposal, more specifically the decision by the proposers, of which I was one, not to engage in an introduction to that motion prior to the vote – we refrained from doing so because it was a simple re-tabling of a motion that had previously been discussed at an OP&P last September, and given that the OP&P meets for just 4 hours per year, we had a desire to be efficient and expedient and to save some time for other conversations concerning our business rules, namely my 4 minute speaking time proposal – not to have reached this proposal, because we used up our time holding an identical discussion to the one we held 4 meetings previously, would have been somewhat ironic).
Despite all this, I still believe that the OP&P is the appropriate forum to introduce the necessary reform to improve how we serve the County. I remain hopeful that we can pull together in the coming months in order to make this progress. Sadly, however, I can make a prediction that at our meeting tomorrow night, there will be a motion from the floor at exactly 45 minutes into proceedings (the earliest permissible time) and this motion will be to suspend our business in order to discuss something that should have been discussed in the more appropriate forum of the OP&P.
The meeting will be broadcast on the web, tune in if you would like to see what we are actually doing when we should be conducting business on behalf of the residents of Dun Laoghaire Rathdown!