9 May 2014 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The nostalgic atmosphere and ceremonial sense surrounding Tuesday’s final meeting of Monaghan Co Council before the May 23 local elections brought home the imminence, and possible portentousness, of the profound changes in local government administration the country is shortly to see.

Admittedly the significance of the moment was most immediately confined to the ‘insider’ perspective of the elected representatives who are either departing the public stage or preparing to seek a return to it, the executive and staff who are in the process of easing the phase of transition from the old to the new way of doing things, and those members of the Press whose function it is to convey the happenings in our Council chambers to the wider public.

Whether the public themselves are fully aware of the nature and extent of the changes in local government that the forthcoming elections herald is not entirely clear – while there is plenty of evidence festooning our highways and byways that the politicians are looking for votes again, it is questionable whether the majority of the electorate have appraised themselves fully of what the local government poll they are being campaigned about signifies in terms of change.

It can be assumed that the majority of potential voters are by now fully aware, for example, that there will be no more Town Councils – they are probably less aware, and understandably so, of the mechanics of the new Municipal District/Co Council structure that will operate in their stead.

This may not be of immediate concern to the electorate – their determination of the people who will serve on the new local authority will be based more on a personal evaluation of the candidates’ track record or potential than on the specifics of the job they are being appointed to do, on the assumption that it is more or less the same one as before.

But that there will be a marked difference to the role local politicians will be expected to play in the new local government era, in aspiration at least, has been made very clear over recent times, and was a message communicated again by Co Manager Eugene Cummins when he addressed the Co Council on Tuesday on the reconfiguration of Council services.

A full outline of Mr Cummins’ briefing will appear in our next edition – but his remarks chime with his previous comments on the future of local government in Co Monaghan by conveying a sense that a markedly different skill set will be required of our locally elected men and women in the future.

The new emphasis in the work of Monaghan Co Council in fostering enterprise and job creation in the county is one area where this requirement seems obviously manifest – as does the enhanced community development remit the new local authority structure has been assigned, which seems to call for a greater level of flexibility and interchange with the existing forces of community activism than professional public administration and its elected arm have previously been required to fulfil on a statutory basis.

There will also be an enhanced requirement on the new county authority to formulate and implement policy in a range of areas – meaning, in principle at least, that the business of full Council meetings in the future will devote greater time to strategic concerns and long-term planning than to the nuts and bolts issues that have traditionally fuelled debate and disputation.

There have been some dire forecasts about the direction in which local government in this country is being taken, a good deal of them from the ranks of politicians who will no longer have a part to play in the drama due to the extensive cull in the numbers of councillors.

The public will pronounce their verdict sometime in the future, on the pragmatic basis of whether the service they are receiving from their local authority is any better or any worse than it was before when Councils and Councillors were more profuse.

By then of course, it will be too late to do much about the structure of things. That is perhaps why it would be prudent for the discerning voter in the coming weeks to spend some time not just studying the form of the runners in the race, but the significantly changed nature of the course which those on which those on whom they place the wager of their vote are expected to travel in the future.

A new broom is in action – we should watch the direction in which it is sweeping.

Anyone feeling a bit disoriented by all this local authority change might have derived reassurance from Tuesday’s edition of ‘The Irish Independent’, which took up the trusty old stick of expenses with which to beat the Irish part-time politician once again!

There will be less gratitude forthcoming from the politicians themselves, who might protest with some conviction the timing of the chastisement, with an election weeks away.

But that of course is the point of the comprehensive coverage the national paper is devoting this week to the earnings of those who serve on City and Co Councils throughout the State.

That the tenor of the focus seems to reinforce one of the ostensible motivations behind Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan’s ‘Putting People First’ reforms – that there are too many local politicians and they are too expensive a breed to maintain in such numbers in the times that’s in it – may, or may not, be beside the point.

Those moved to outrage by some of the detail of the newspaper’s findings might be comforted to know that there will soon be a lot less local politicians to do any expense-claiming.

Whether the resultant savings will result in better local authority services is something we will just have to wait and watch.

And whether all the money spent was being wasted would seem in one instance equitably answered by the arguments presented by Independent councillor Paudge Connolly at this week’s Co Council meeting that expenditure by the Monaghan authority on a trip to Prince Edward Island in 2012 (highlighted by the ‘Indo’) was more than justified given the burgeoning return in tourism revenue the county is enjoying from cultivating its links with Canadian communities.

The expenses chestnut is a venerable one, but Minister Hogan seems to have decided that we can no longer afford so many local politicians.
Future events will determine whether we can afford to be without them!

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