Council Affairs: In defence of truancy

Limerick County Council Offices in Dooradoyle.

A NUMBER of Limerick councillors have been put on the naughty step by the local authority over cautions of truancy. Poor mites, looks like if these hooky-playing politicians are late for class again, Pat Daly, Chief Executive of Limerick City and County Council, will have to take a cane to them.

What am I on about?

For those of you who have better things to do than track the comings and goings of our city’s leaders, a recent article in the Independent highlighted the anger of some Limerick councillors at threats to cut their allowances if they don’t improve their attendance at meetings.

According to the Independent, four council members had their wrists slapped for poor attendance with warning letters sent to Independent councillor Emmett O’Brien, Social Democrat Elisa O’Donovan, and Fianna Fáil’s Kevin Sheahan and Michael Collins, who did not reach an attendance record of 80 per cent.

See, for councillors to receive the full payment of their annual expenses allowance, they must first reach their attendance quota or risk payment being cut. You might think you know where this is going, but stay with me…

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Speaking to the Independent, Cllr O’Brien said: “Being in full-time employment post Covid, these meetings are not being facilitated towards full-time employees and I’ve repeatedly asked for them to be on in the evening times.”

Telpis! What kind of a world are we living in at all where hardworking part-time politicians simply trying to keep the streetlights working wind up on the wrong end of a bollocking from the man, all because they miss a few auld meetings while trying to make ends meet?

Don’t we all have to make a few bob somehow? Whether you’re a publican, auctioneer, farmer, or plumber, we all have to keep the wolves from the door as best we can.

First of all, and to be fair to councillors, they do have more meetings now than ever before.

Between monthly area meetings, private briefings and workshops, strategic policy committee (SPC) meetings, and full monthly meetings, they’re spread fairly thin for a thankless enough job at the best of times.

And in defence of the four Limerick councillors singled out in the Independent’s article, be it work commitments, life curveballs, or whatever other reason they might have missed meetings, you can be sure it’s purely down to it being physically impossible for them to be in two places at once.

At last week’s monthly meeting of the Metropolitan District, Cllr Elisa O’Donovan’s frustration was evident as two of her motions were transferred to SPCs because the council executive felt they would be more suited for debate in these forums.

One of these two motions was a call for the council to engage with businesses and residents on Nicholas Street to implement revitalisation plans for the Medieval Quarter.

The proposal, she felt, should have been allowed on the agenda for the Metropolitan meeting. She received much support in the chamber on this point.

Cllr O’Donovan pointed out that she sat on neither of the two SPCs mentioned and would have to organise taking time from her day job to attend these meetings.

Cathaoirleach of the Metropolitan District Olivia O’Sullivan offered that they were just trying to make meetings as efficient as possible.

“We can’t be sitting here all day,” she explained.

There were similar scenes at this month’s Adare-Rathkeale area meeting when Independent councillor Emmett O’Brien expressed his frustration at councillors debating items not even on the agenda.

He pointed out that the meeting was being held on the busiest day of his week to accommodate another councillor just back from holidays.

These are just two examples and, while it’s easy to poke holes in individual instances and excuses, the bottom line is that we all have hectic lives.

I’m going to save you the Facebook comment here by saying: But don’t councillors know what they’re signing up for when they plaster their grinning mugs on every lamppost from Dooradoyle to Annacotty? Surely they realise before going over to the dark side that they need to be sure they can do the time before they do the crime? (The crime in this instance being the often selfless work of representing the people in their districts, of course.) We never hear them complaining about the number of junkets they go off on?

I take your point and I’m glad you brought it up. But again, in their defence, a lot of the younger councillors of recent years haven’t lasted their full term due to the workload and other commitments.

Which leads a lot of people to the argument that the role of councillor seems better suited to those who are self-employed, retired, or self-sufficient enough to support themselves without the time constraints of, you know, earning a living wage.

Rich old white men in other words.

And this is where our allegedly truant council very, very thankfully fall down.

We still have our old guard – the fuddy duddies and Tediousosaurus Rexes – but there’s oh so much more in the local authority’s searing melting pot. It’s a colourful and exotic menagerie of good intentions and uproarious bellyaching, and it’s all the better for it.

We have a number of younger councillors, fresh out of college (and short pants) lending a voice to the next generation. We have strong female representation, though admittedly nowhere near the 50 per cent mark (with just nine of the 40 being women). We’ve had our first Muslim councillor, as well as LGBT representation.

Our council, like it or loathe it, is made up of real people. It mirrors the busy lives that the rest of us live, and the amount of juggling we have to contend with between work, family, and other commitments.

It definitely makes for robust, informed, and often hilarious debate, but it also puts a heaping helping of pressure on the councillors trying to be all things to all people and keep some semblance of balance in their own lives.

Representing their wards is a full time job in in itself. When most of Limerick’s 40 sitting councillors already have day jobs and other life commitments, where is the room to run the county? Of course something is going to give. You’ve got to ask – does that mean we need to publicly flog them for it? (Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for public floggings.)

Still, at the risk of sounding too apologetic, our local representatives might want to remember that the devil never comes dressed in a red cape and pointy horns. He comes looking like everything you’ve ever wished for.