Ill-suits us to bash our councillors …

Paul Hopkins – Talking the Talk

WE tend to have a somewhat jaundiced view of our county councillors. On the one hand we see them as the ‘go-to’ for to ‘fix’ all sorts of grievances from pot-holes to speed ramps to sorting out that next-door neighbour who is building a monstrosity of an extension that threatens to block out your view of that local eye-sore which is another matter that you must have a word about with your councillor.

On the other hand, we imagine our councillors to be a bunch of free-loading junketeers dashing around the world attending obscure conferences on climate change or coarse fly-fishing in Outer Mongolia and claiming heaps of expenses in the name of fine dining and five-star hotels.

“Accusing them of ‘not pulling their weight’ when it comes to the housing crisis …”

And, by the way, they generally have a sad sense of the sartorial with boring ties and ill-fitting suits that haven’t been pressed in a month of Sundays.

The reality is somewhat different.

Councillors perform a myriad, often thankless, tasks for their county and its good citizens from adopting the annual budget, setting the commercial rate, giving approval to borrow money, land zoning, making or varying a development plan, making or changing bye-laws, nominating a candidate for the presidency and approving council land sales.

The latter two have put them in the spotlight of late, what with Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy accusing them at the weekend of “not pulling their weight” when it comes to resolving the housing crisis anytime soon.

That, and our murmurings about what our respresentatives “actually do” to merit their  salaries and expenses at the expense of we taxpayers/.

There are 114 local authorities across the State with 1,627 members. The job of each councillor is considered a part-time position. However, in practice, many representatives consider the job a full-time post.

In effect, our councillors are like a board of directors, with the city or county manager acting as chief executive and implementing their decisions. In short, they run the show and keep things running – in an ideal world, that is.

And, as mentioned, it is not unkown for you or I to have a quiet word in their shell-like ear about that speed ramp or that monstrosity of an extension as in: “Oh, I had a word with himself and he says it’s sorted.”

The average wage of full-time workers in Ireland last year was €45,611. Our councillors are paid a whopping basic €16,625.27 and this, naturally, is subject to tax and other levies. As for the expenses, councillors are entitled to payments ranging between €5,000 and €6,000 for travel and subsistence over 12 months.

For the record, other payments are also made for training and if a councillor attends a conference either in Ireland or abroad, though, what with the housing and planning crisis and matters up at the Aras,  I would imagine a coarse fly-fishing conference in Outer Mongolia is the last thing on their minds.

Local government reform before the local elections back in May 2014 saw the abolition of some councils and the amalgamation of others, with the number of local representatives in Ireland reduced from 1,627 to 949.

A source within the Association of Irish Local Government (AILG), the representative association for councillors, tells me that, since the reform and following a survey of the now 949 members, “the overwhelming conclusion was that councillors’ workloads have greatly increased”.

The survey shows that now there is one councillor for every 4,500 people and suggests that 74% of councillors are spending 10 hours or more attending meetings each week, with 68% spending an additional 10 hours or more on community events. Often, as I said, thankless work that has to be done to keep the show running.

And for a basic €16,625.27.

Small wonder their suits have not been pressed in a month of Sundays. Dry cleaning bills don’t come cheap you know…