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Opinion: Directly elected mayors would be good for democracy

Citizens of some cities will vote on Friday as to whether to introduce a directly elected mayor – the move would boost local government, writes Deiric Ó Broin .

Deiric Ó Broin

If you live in Cork city, Limerick or Waterford you will be asked to vote on Friday as to whether your city should introduce a democratically elected mayor.

Citizens of other cities might be given this choice too, at a later date. 

HAPPINESS IS LOCAL. 

The quality of housing, urban design, transport, connectivity of communities are all affected by local policies.

Local government is the level at which many of the collective action problems, that citizens face daily, can be solved.

And these challenges have the potential to create a new way to think about democracy in our cities.

Plebiscites will take place on Friday in Limerick, Cork and Waterford on the introduction of directly-elected mayors. 

If the idea is given the nod by the electorate in those places, the mayor will take over many of the executive functions, currently held by the chief executive of the local authority. 

I believe directly elected mayors would be a welcome improvement as the process has the potential to increase democratic accountability and provide cities with a definite leader.

The minister in charge of local government, John Paul Phelan, has published a detailed policy document on what powers the direct-elected mayor will have, including how they’ll be elected and removed.

If successful, the expectation is that these will be rolled out across Ireland.

Why not Dublin?

Of course, for many citizens, the most striking aspect of this is that Dublin is not included this time around. 

This is, in part, because there is disagreement as to how the mayor would relate to the four local authorities in the Dublin region.

For example, would the mayor just be for the Dublin City Council area or would he govern the whole of Dublin city?

Of course, the city includes areas that are currently overseen by Fingal County Council, South Dublin County Council and Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and currently, each of those ‘counties’ has its own mayor. 

Perhaps the Lord Mayor should govern the traditional county of Dublin – as delineated by GAA supporters?

It seems these issues are complex, so yes you have guessed it, the government has opted for a Dublin Citizens’ Assembly to discuss these matters and make recommendations.

This appears to be a repeat of an exercise already carried out in 2013 by the councillors from the four Dublin local authorities. It may reflect some nervousness on the part of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government.

In other areas too, the question arises as to whether these mayors should be leaders of the cities only or the whole county?

A mayor of Limerick wouldn’t just control Limerick city, but also Abbeyfeale, on the Kerry border. It might make more sense to have a mayor for Limerick city, including those parts that encroach into County Clare.

Meanwhile, rural towns might be better served by the return of town councils too.

Local leadership matters

A book that we have recently published, Mayoral Governance in Dublin, arises from a long discussion between academics, locally elected councillors, local authorities, political parties and civil society activists.

This included in-depth engagement with representatives of all major political parties, most of the small political parties and a number of independent councillors.

We believe that there are critical lessons for Irish efforts to introduce directly elected mayors.

Firstly, quite simply, local leadership matters. A directly elected mayor could make a critical difference to the quality of life in Dublin.

What makes the executive mayor so attractive as a public institution is that it facilitates better city leadership by making city leaders and their work more transparent and by attracting different types of civic leader to the role.

One of the great successes of the directly elected Mayor of London was the focus Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson were able to bring to particular issues.

Simply by having a mandate and the willingness to advocate on behalf of specific issues they were able to negotiate with central government on behalf of London.

It is not just about having specific powers, although these are useful, it is also the profile direct election brings.

The directly elected mayor becomes a very powerful ambassador for the city and when they use their profile appropriately they can leverage improvements well beyond the powers granted to them under the legislation.

Local government matters

Local decision making needs to be taken seriously and the appropriate financial and legislative framework must be put in place.

This is an opportunity to really elect a first citizen rather than our current system of promoting a councillor.

Currently, just about 7% of Irish government expenditure is spent by the local authorities and less than 5% is raised at local level.

An elected mayor with no money won’t have the power to effect change.

One of the challenges facing a directly elected mayor will be how he or she approaches raising money. Directly elected mayors will be accountable to the citizens of the city and for the taxes or funds they raise from the city.

We need to take local decision-making seriously. Executive mayors are a welcome institutional reform but there are a number of other very significant reforms necessary to adequately equip local government in Ireland to meet the challenges it faces.

The mayor must be given more power to set priorities in terms of transport and housing. 

Looking at London – the mayor there is in charge of transport for the city. Unless our directly elected mayors can take over that type of power from the National Transport Authority – there isn’t really much point in having them.

Directly elected

This raises another question, whether a strong executive mayor needs to be directly elected at all. There are some fears that direct election might lead to celebrities taking office. Does Dublin want a Boris Johnson?

In many cities, such as Paris, strong and effective executive mayors exist without a direct election.

But on balance we believe, as nearly all of our colleagues do, that a directly elected mayor is the way to go. It brings attention to the work of the mayor and means that he or she will have to show progress on the electoral promises they committed to – or they won’t get re-elected.

In a political culture like ours, a directly elected mayor will be scrutinised by the media in a way similar to the Taoiseach. The direct election will bring more publicity and public scrutiny than an indirect election.

This kind of proposals has the tendency to get lost in the long grass. Simply put Ireland should grasp the nettle and introduce directly elected mayors. 

Just do it.

Deiric Ó Broin is Head of Civic Engagement in Dublin City University and a Senior Research Fellow in the School of Law and Government in DCU where he lectures in Irish politics and public policy.   

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Deiric Ó Broin

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