Time for a directly elected mayor for Dublin

First Published in Village Magazine, March 2014

In 1991 I was elected as a councillor onto Dublin City Council. Before we took our seats on the new City Council we were issued with robes to wear for the formal first meeting. As a councillor my robes were green and blue. Councillors first elected in their ward were referred to as aldermen and wore the same robes but with an extra yellow strip indicating their status.

However, as I walked into my first meeting in Council Chamber I spied someone wearing bright purple robes. This was Frank Feely the unelected City Manager, whose self-chosen robes summed up the anti-democratic nature of local government in Ireland since the 1920s. Not only did he get to choose his own robes, but he, and all other unelected city officials then and now have huge powers over decisions that affect our lives.

A year ago I tweeted that the “Dublin Mayor idea will die a slow painful death by way of committee. Bad for Dublin, bad for Ireland.” Unless there is a change of heart by Fingal councillors this may well be the outcome. Apparently they aren’t overly enthusiastic about a directly-elected mayor, and have the power to block the proposal. Asking the sitting councillors of Dublin whether they want a directly elected mayor is like asking turkeys for their views on Christmas. They may well decline, given that their status depends on the status quo. Had the Green Party’s proposals for a directly elected Mayor for Dublin come to fruition we would have had a Mayor for all of Dublin directly elected by the people of Dublin next May, rather than the Fine Gael proposals that at best will result in a mayoral election in five years time.

The blame can be firmly put at Phil Hogan’s door for setting up a process that seems doomed to fail, unless there is a change of heart. Even his master-plan for local government reform “Putting People First” contains a breath-taking anti-urban bias as he proposes giving Dublin City equal powers to Westmeath on regional issues. It seems clear, that although Phil Hogan is Minister for the Environment, he is also a Fine Gael TD for the Carlow-Kilkenny constituency, and doesn’t want to devolve power to Dublin or other cities.

Currently national government decide on the important issues that cities should be deciding, and councillors are mostly left to sort out issues of maladministration. It doesn’t have to be this way; around the world great cities have good mayors. There are many examples of mayoral vision from strong and coherent city leaders. The challenge in Dublin is that the current divide and conquer approach of four different local authorities with four different agendas, managers and mayors elected on a revolving basis is confusing and dysfunctional. Henry Kissinger asked who he would talk to if he wanted to talk to Europe. We need someone to talk to when we want to talk to Dublin. The current mayoral system operates on a revolving door basis every twelve months, and ensuring a disturbing lack of continuity in city governance. We need a strong voice, an Ed Koch, a Pasqual Maragall or, whether we like him or not, a Boris Johnson. We need someone who has a strong, coherent vision for Dublin.

All across the world, strong cities have directly elected mayors. Georges Frêche one of the most colourful and controversial voices in the south of France was mayor of Montpelier for 27 years. Under his mayoralty the city thrived. That is why most French people when asked say they would like to live in Montpelier. Barcelona would not be the same without the legacy of Pasqual Maragall, who transformed that city from industrial backwater to hosting the 1992 Olympics. He made the city tick, and work effectively because he was a strong and dynamic civil leader who united the city and brought the Games to Barcelona. We all remember the scenes at the diving events, where the divers competed with the city as a backdrop. That was no accident, it happened because there was a strong mayor. We need such a mayor in Dublin.

We need the strong strategies and policies, which come with a directly-elected mayor. Four separate systems are not working. When Fingal speaks with one voice, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown with another, South Dublin and Dublin City with others still, there is no coherence, and no metropolitan vision for the nation’s capital. Visitors who come to Dublin are constantly confused about the various mayors from each of the city’s local authorities. It is not just visitors but Dubliners who do not understand how the mayoralty chain revolves every 12 months between different people who are briefly a voice for Dublin and then disappear from public view. However, against the odds though we have had some great mayors in Dublin city. I have strong memories of Carmencita Hederman and her fantastic contribution to the city during its Millennium year. Half way through the millennium year, she was replaced. That is no way to run a city or a region. Dublin is the driver for so much of the nation. We cannot change leaders every 12 months and expect coherent and effective leadership for the city.

If one does not like what the mayor does, one can still kick him or her out by using one’s vote. Under the current system this cannot happen. This gives the permanent government of county managers who in place for seven years the upper hand, and diminishes the role of elected representatives.

The legislation introduced by the Green Party in the last Government provided for a mayor who would co-ordinate water, waste, transport and planning policies. Time and again, we return to the legacy of bad planning decisions across the country. The people of Dublin are still picking up the tab for mad rezoning decisions that took place in Dublin County Council in the 1980s. Councillors were allowed rezone land without any sense of responsibility and without a mayor who had the bigger picture about what the city might be. When it comes down to strategy, plans and implementation, a directly elected Dublin mayor will have a coherent voice and will be there for the long haul.

In many places, a city’s lifeblood – its economy, cultural life and sense of place – is channelled through its mayor’s office. One only has to look at Shirley Clarke Franklin in Atlanta, Martin O’Malley in Baltimore, and Fiorello La Guardia in New York City, all strong dynamic people who made things happen. I can easily recall the last four mayors of New York City – Ed Koch, David Dinkins, Michael Bloomberg and Rudolph Giuliani. They all contributed to making New York great. The same kind of voice is needed in Dublin. The nations’ capital needs a directly elected mayor. Such an office will be good for Dublin City, the four counties of Dublin, and for Ireland. With the election of a mayor, democracy would be transformed and the days of unelected managers who could chose to wear purple robes will be gone for ever.