Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Darren Skelton reports on a turbulent first year for the new Council

LOCAL Election weekend in Waterford – May 24-26 – was a very strange one indeed. For much of it, in fact, right up to about 4pm on the Sunday, it looked like we were going to see an annihilation of Sinn Fein. As the vote was progressing, their heads were down as it looked like they were very likely to go from six candidates to two. Cllr John Hearne said that they “got the tactics wrong” by only allowing their candidates to canvas in certain areas of their wards. It was strange to be fair and only for an unlikely late surge, they were lucky not to be saying goodbye to Declan Clune, Jim Griffin, Breda Brennan and  Pat Fitzgerald. As it was, their only casualty was Siobhan Whelan in Dungarvan, who was replaced in the same ward by her party colleague, Conor McGuinness. Somehow, they had managed to retain their six seats on the council.

Other interesting stories from that weekend were the poll topping Matt Shanahan who received an incredible 1,736 first preference votes. In subsequent interviews that weekend, Matt would say that he wasn’t just a one issue candidate. He was fooling nobody – his name may as well have been “Save D. Hospital”. Nevertheless, he’s a very capable politician and should give another good account of himself in a General Election, although he’ll have to prove that he can do more than just remind us all that the cath lab isn’t open at weekends.

In Waterford City South, John Hearne once again destroyed the opposition with 1,071 first preference votes – 300 votes less than 2014 but still enough to be 209 votes clear of second place, which went to Fine Gael’s John Cummins. Mr Cummins is entitled to be very happy with that result as he’s a Government candidate in a largely disadvantaged and understandably cynical ward. He’s entitled to feel confident about next year’s General Election. In the same area, Independent candidate Andrew Power, who had been – essentially – Fianna Fáil’s Jason Murphy’s Director of Elections in 2014, decided to run against him. He received an impressive 446 first preference votes so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him try again in 2024. Murphy in turn received a respectable 763 first preference votes but was probably hurt by Power drinking out of the same voting pool.

The new additions to the new council were Thomas Phelan from Labour, Conor McGuinness from Sinn Fein, Marc O Cathasaigh and Jody Power from the Green Party and Independent Donal Barry. It was sad to lose the likes of Cha O’Neill, Sean Reinhardt and Blaise Hannigan who were hardworking, honest representatives. I believe that Sharon Carey, daughter of the late John Carey had every right to feel shafted by Fine Gael as the addition of Fiona Dowd pointlessly shattered her vote. It was a very strange decision by that party, which was made to look even stranger a few months later when Fiona accused them all of bullying.

Damien Geoghegan celebrates topping the poll

Consistency

In the county, an area I can’t admit to being an expert in, there weren’t too many surprises (they’re a predictable bunch down there!). Damien Geoghegan (FG) topped the poll with a hugely impressive 1,716 first preference votes (over 10% of the electorate). That vote guaranteed Geoghegan’s place on the General Election ticket and I liked the way he pretty much said those exact words in every post-count interview he had. He has to be worth a bet to be one of Waterford’s four TDs next time around. John Pratt, James Tobin and Declan Doocey were returned in Lismore as were all the lads in Portlaw/Kilmac. Ray Murphy lost his seat, but, and I don’t mean any offence when I say this, not many people noticed. He was a very quiet politician (co-opted by Mary Butler after she became a TD) and one would assume that his skillsets lie elsewhere. The ever popular and passionate Ger Barron of Labour was the benefactor there.

I know I’m a city boy and I won’t be popular with the county folk by saying this but there really doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of imagination in the way they vote. All the usual heads such as Liam Brazil, Tom Cronin, John O’Leary etc got back in, probably without having to do a whole lot. Perhaps I’m being unfair, perhaps not.

Matt Shanahan was a poll topper in Waterford City East

The Pact

When the election dust settled, it was time for the councillors to come together and work on a pact. Rumours are that Joe Kelly was the architect of the first non-FF/FG pact in years. They had the numbers and the main stream parties did not. The pact going into the new council term was going to be made up of the six Sinn Fein councillors, four Labour Party, two Green Party and five Independents. They would call themselves the “Progressive Alliance”. Matt Shanahan said from day one that he wasn’t part of any pact (although he wasn’t present for day one as he was away).

The new grouping got together to piece together a plan that would assign mayoral roles for the next five years, as well as group chairs (these are lucrative positions – the Mayor of the City and County gets an extra €15k a year, Deputy Mayors get €3k, Metro Mayors get €9k, chairs of Special Policy Meetings (SPCs) get between €3k and €6k depending on the committee).

Independent Councillor Seamus O’Donnell was appointed an SPC chair position and soon after decided that this pact lark wasn’t for him, and jumped ship. He didn’t lose his SPC position though as those are only lost by resigning. Seamus is probably a lot shrewder than some give him credit for.

So, for the first year, Labour’s John Pratt would be Mayor of the City and County and Sinn Fein’s Breda Brennan would be Metropolitan Mayor. All the chairs and deputy positions were also assigned. Their first test would come in September, with the annual vote on the Local Property Tax. It proved to be a test that would rock the foundations of the “Progressive Alliance”.

Part Two

ON Tuesday, September 24 the 32 councillors sat down to vote on the Local Property Tax rate for the following year’s budget. In light of recent budget related events, many commentators are saying that it would make more sense to decide on the LPT at the same time the budget is decided. There’s probably some Government based reason as to why that’s not the case, but it would certainly have been a help this year.

As per usual, Chief Executive Michael Walsh made his case for an increase of 10%. He said that in order to address issues in “housing, roads, economic development etc” an increase of such was required. As he would do for the big budget meeting a couple of months later, Labour’s Thomas Phelan made the proposal on behalf of the pact. “While I welcome the CEO’s acknowledgement that there is a need for increased funding, I think there is also a need for stability and certainty,” he said. “In the interest of prudence and certainty, I propose that the 10% increase be rejected and that the LPT rate be the same for 2020 as it was in 2019.”

It was at this exact moment, that the credibility of the pact began to weaken. Voting on any tax increase is a difficult decision, both morally and politically. Nobody wants to do it because it pisses off the public immeasurably. Sinn Fein had voted against the previous five budgets (or attempted to – in 2018 they inadvertently voted for a tax increase budget) because it contained a local property tax increase. They were now in a position, with the most members of the pact, where they could actually propose a decrease in the LPT. However, the Chief Executive Michael Walsh is an intimidating man, with considerably more political experience than the councillors. Very few of them stand toe to toe with him and win. When he says there’s going to be an LPT increase, that’s usually what happens.

Sinn Fein’s John Hearne with Sinn Fein’s new man Conor Mcguinness

Spin

So, Sinn Fein were in a predicament – how on earth could they propose an increase and get away with it? In 2018, the manager asked for a 10% increase and ended up with 2.5%. Every September, the rate returns to its base level and it’s up to the councillors to decide where to go with it from there. As it happened, the solution that Sinn Fein and their Progressive Alliance colleagues came up with was to spin it in their favour. I call out spin wherever I see it, whether it’s by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Sinn Fein or whomever.

Cynically, on the night, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael made fools of themselves by proposing a decrease of the LPT. Every man and his dog knows that if they were in control of the council, they too would have voted for a 2.5% increase. However, they weren’t in control and they knew that they didn’t have the votes so if they wanted to, they could propose a 50% decrease and free One 4 All vouchers for everyone and it wouldn’t have been passed. The Progressive Alliance used their words very carefully and instead of saying, “like last year, we propose a 2.5% increase”, they said “we propose to leave the rate at the same as last year”, thus being able to say that they were “freezing the rate”. Let it be known once and for all, they didn’t freeze it. If there was no vote at all (and there doesn’t have to be – the vote only takes place because the Chief Executive wants to increase the rate from the base level), the rate would have been 2.5% less for 2020. Sinn Fein, Labour, Greens and Independents voted for the rate to increase by 2.5% and never let anyone tell you otherwise.

As would become the norm, Sinn Fein’s new star player, Conor McGuinness was quick out of the blocks with his press release. He sent an email to everyone and a message to WLR’s Damien Tiernan that the Progressive Alliance had voted to “freeze the LPT”. Mr Tiernan, many other media outlets and more importantly, Sinn Fein’s supporters, were convinced. The Progressive Alliance, with Sinn Fein as their apparent leaders, had won the battle, while Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were left to wonder how the “other lot” had managed to vote for a tax increase and still come out of it smelling of roses.

Bigger battles were to come however.

Leak

On October 31, all 32 councillors were made aware that the budget they would very soon have to pass, would be minus €3.3m, due to a re-evaluation of the commercial rates that Irish Water pay each of the local authorities. Sinn Fein’s Conor McGuinness was once again quick off the mark and publicly stated that an emergency meeting had to be called. On November 7, at that very emergency meeting, the councillors decided that they would send a strongly worded letter to the Department of Local Government, warning them that unless they were compensated for that money, they would struggle to pass a budget. I’m sure that particular Department were shaking in their boots.

On November 22, seven days before Budget decision day, the Department contacted Waterford City & County Council to offer them a one-off payment of €2m. When Friday, November 29 came, and the councillors were being asked to vote on Michael Walsh’s budget proposal, Thomas Phelan once again stepped forward with a proposal of his own. “We can’t pass your budget yet. We want another chance to lobby the Government.”

So, like a scene out of Oliver Twist, the councillors were saying to the Government, “Please sirs, can we have some more.” A delegation of seven councillors visited Minister of State John Paul Phelan and were politely told that there was no more money left to give.

So, it was back to Michael Walsh’s budget, which contained an unpopular commercial rates increase of 5%. In what was seen by many to be a surprising move, Sinn Fein set out their stall early: they wouldn’t be supporting any budget that contained a rates increase. On December 12, 24 hours before the deadline imposed on them by the Department of Local Government, it was that man again, Thomas Phelan of Labour who proposed an alternative budget. He said that they had been working on this for weeks and put in many hours. The word from the corridors of council power was that the alternative budget proposed was more of an alternative from the manager, than it was the work of “many hours” by Labour, the Greens and the Independents. Regardless, without the support of Sinn Fein, it couldn’t pass. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael voted against it (as they claimed to have other budgets in their back pockets that didn’t have a rates increase). Sinn Fein voted against it and surprisingly, Declan Clune abstained. Subsequent reports stated that Cllr Clune was against the idea of sitting on one’s hands and not voting for any budget at all.

So, for the next eight hours, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael asked the rest of the room to “come and talk to us”. They were in the “business of passing budgets”, they said. They just didn’t have the numbers. It’s a mystery to me, and many others why it took so long for Labour, Greens and Independents to finally sit down and talk to FF/FG. While they waited, a pantomime kicked off next door in the Theatre Royal. By the time the curtain closed there, the amateur dramatics were still going on in the council chambers. At 11:39pm, Cllr John Cummins finally announced that they (FF/FG) had met with the Greens, Labour and Independents and had a new plan. It was relatively straight forward. They would go with the original proposal by Thomas Phelan, but add in a 2.5% rebate for businesses who pay less than €5k per year in commercial rates. Everyone voted for it, except for Sinn Fein, who always said that they weren’t going to support anything that proposed an increase in rates. Sadly, they never offered an alternative themselves. At some point in the future, they will surely have to make some difficult decisions.

So, after all the singing and dancing, the businesses were still hit with a rates increase and an increase in the vacant property tax. Sinn Fein stuck to their guns but councillors like Seamus Ryan, Adam Wyse and Eddie Mulligan, who had previously spoken out against rates increases, did not. It’s clearly not easy to stand up in a room of your peers and refuse to vote with them on principle, especially when political sanctions are threatened, but that’s exactly what the electorate expects of its representatives.

So, a very busy year for the council ended with a behind-closed-doors meeting in Council Chambers between Labour, Greens, Independents (minus Matt Shanahan and Donal Barry), Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to decide on the new pact, and new mayors. That’s probably too many people for one pact and I couldn’t imagine any of them coming to an agreement. The meeting ended in a stalemate with a promise to resume the dance in January.

Something to look forward to so.

Darren Skelton keeping an eye on tallies during last year’s local elections.

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