Seanad debates

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Media Report on Governance in Local Authorities: Statements

 

10:30 am

Photo of Mary FitzpatrickMary Fitzpatrick (Fianna Fail)

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the Seanad today to discuss local government. I do not know who requested this debate but I always welcome the opportunity to talk about local government. It is right here in my heart. I was first elected in 2004 to the country's largest local authority, Dublin City Council. I do not think there can be any greater honour than to be elected to represent your local community.

Today's debate, as I understand it, was triggered by an "RTÉ Investigates" programme. We are talking about local government, about governance and about media coverage of those matters. Our role as legislators also comes into the discussion. When we are talking about local government it is important that we first and foremost recognise it as a cornerstone of our democracy. We need to recognise and acknowledge that local government is made up of 31 local authorities with more than 949 elected representatives from their local communities. There are 30,000 employees in local authorities around the country. They have the responsibility for championing local communities and for championing and defending local democracy. They do that through delivering services, which include everything from the most utilitarian services such as sewerage and waste management, as well as housing, planning and traffic. They also include culture, such as our parks, our libraries and our local community festivals. This weekend, in the constituency in which I live, Phizzfest, which is supported by Dublin City Council, will be held in Phibsborough while in the north inner city, there is the Five Lamps Arts Festival.

All around the country, in the 31 local authorities, local authorities support local communities to deliver and to sustain one another. They ensure to a large extent community cohesion, as well as the healthy, vibrant communities that can be found in all of our local authorities. They are funded to the tune of €5 billion a year. That is a significant amount of funding. It is appropriate that our local authorities should be funded to that level and I probably would argue for more funding and some more autonomy for our local authorities. They are independent corporate entities, established under the Constitution. You cannot get greater authority in our State than to be established under Bunreacht na hÉireann, which they are. It is from that authority that they conduct and carry out their responsibilities.

One of their key responsibilities, and the elected representatives work with the executives on this, is to ensure that there is good governance. I believe that all councillors and all executive functions - or the vast majority of them at least, allowing for the human failings - take their governance responsibilities extremely seriously and diligently. Not only do they take them seriously, in my experience they go beyond what is required under legislation.

While the "RTÉ Investigates" programme had the title, the “Council Chamber Secrets”, these were not secrets. These were publicly documented failings documented by the Local Government Audit Service. That is right and that proves to us and to the public that the Local Government Audit Service is doing its job. Each local authority has an audit committee. The executives and the councillors work together to ensure that the highest of standards are achieved. That is as it should be. The Local Government Audit Service, and NOAC as the Minister of State mentioned, work to support the local authorities to catch where standards fall below what they should be, to identify those failings and to trigger corrective actions.

What the "RTÉ Investigates" story did was not actually reveal any secrets of the chamber, but it amplified what was already public knowledge and what was already publicly documented, and rightly so. I say all of that not to in any way belittle the issues, because anybody who saw the programme would be upset. I know from talking to the Fianna Fáil councillors from the local authorities around the country that they were really upset by it. They are upset because these are people who give of their time to go out, to get elected and to represent their local communities in order that they can do the best for their local communities and to ensure that the local authority delivers for their local communities. This tarnishes everything that the local authority does.

At any time in an organisation when there is a failure to achieve the highest for standards or when standards fall below that which should be expected and should be delivered, that reflects badly. I know from speaking to the Fianna Fáil councillors in Waterford, Clare, Mayo, Cork and in the other local authorities that have been mentioned, that this really upset them. It is important that they have the support of the Minister of State’s office, of the Department and of the Local Government Audit Service.

When these issues are identified, there should be follow-through. I accept, as do most reasonable people, that where an issue has been referred to An Garda Síochána and where it is before the courts, that has to follow due process. Everybody is entitled to be treated fairly under the law. It is important that transparency, accountability and the highest of standards are championed and are delivered. This is because there is not just a financial cost. There is also the cost of reputation and the damage that does to the local authority. There is also the cost and damage to, and the loss of opportunity for, those local communities and those local authorities when projects that are funded and that should be delivered are not delivered.I have run out of time. I thank the Minister of State for giving his time today, his interest in this issue and his support for local government and the local authorities around the country.

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