Una Caulfield says she and other residents want council meetings for the north-west area of the city to be webcast.
The meetings of other area committees are streamed on the council’s website, and a recording is archived online for residents, councillors, or other government gadflies to go check on what was said, and by whom.
But those area meetings happen in City Hall on Dame Street. Meetings for the council’s north-west area – which covers Cabra and Finglas, Ballymun and Glasnevin – are held at the Ballymun Civic Centre.
Once a month for a couple of hours on a Tuesday, councillors get together to talk about what’s going on in their neighbourhoods and hear from city officials working in the area about everything from waste challenges, to traffic changes, to housing schemes.
Caulfield, who is a member of the Griffith Avenue and District Residents’ Association, says that there needs to be more transparency. “There’s a lot of money being spent and we can’t find out what’s happened,” she says.
Some of the impetus for calls to webcast the north-west area meetings stems from a fractious debate around a road closure in Drumcondra.
Last summer, Dublin City Council launched a pilot scheme to try to stop rat-running through residential streets between Drumcondra Road and Home Farm Road. Locals have been split over the move.
It’s not just that though, says Caulfield. The Metrolink project is supposed to be built through the area in the coming years, and it could have big impacts on neighbourhoods.
“We’re worried it’s going to be decided and we won’t know until too late,” Caulfield says.
A Revived Debate
At April’s sitting of the North-West Area Committee, councillors agreed to record and publish audio files of the meetings, says Sinn Féin Councillor Séamas McGrattan.
McGrattan says he voted against this. “They’re public meetings,” he says, and he thinks they should be fully webcast, and not just as an MP3 file.
At May’s meeting, council officials did make an audio recording. They didn’t capture the whole meeting, though – only about 20 minutes of it, the discussion relating to the report on the road closure.
“But that’s no good,” says Caulfield. “All we’re looking for is transparency. You have to ask, why?”
In late May, Ruth Carty, secretary of the Griffith Avenue and District Residents’ Association, also wrote to Dublin City Council’s access officer to say that residents with hearing difficulties couldn’t use the audio recording as they were reliant on lip-reading video.
The association made a written transcript of the session on its website. But that was done “with difficulty”, Carty wrote.
Independent Councillor Cieran Perry said he thought that truncated recording might have made residents suspicious for no reason, and it might have been savvier to just record the whole session.
There haven’t been many cases in the past where parties have disagreed over what was said at the North West Area Committee’s meetings, or what has been voted on, says Perry. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen going forward, he says.
And it can be hard, or impossible, to glean the details you’re looking for from the written minutes of meetings, which are “brief”, he says.
Caulfield says the minutes of the meetings don’t accurately reflect what goes on. “You can’t find any record of anybody voting on anything,” she says.
At monthly meetings, councillors will sometimes use an electronic voting system which records whether they are for, or against, a motion. But at other meetings, they’ll generally just do a voice-vote, and note whether the majority agreed or not.
Residents struggle to find out who has said what, Caulfield says. And she says she has seen councillors at public forums disagree about what has, and hasn’t, been voted on.
Some residents have filed requests under the Freedom of Information Act to get information, she said.
Councillors say there are a few different issues at play, which has meant that the meetings haven’t been webcast so far.
Perry says it would be handier for him if the meetings were moved to City Hall, but not for most others. “A lot of the councillors would be locally based,” he says.
Because the meetings are held in Ballymun, some locals do turn up to watch, says Perry. That’s something he didn’t see when he sat on the Central Area Committee.
There’s also the issue of cost. In July 2016, councillors and officials looked at webcasting meetings held in the Ballymun Civic Centre.
According to a report from assistant area manager Mary Taylor at the time, it would cost either €19,000, or between €36,000 to €38,000 to link cameras in the chamber to microphones, depending on whether it was a wired or wireless system.
It would cost €10,000 a year for a staff member to monitor the system at meetings, and to pay the company that licences and hosts the webcasting system, the report says.
Councillors decided at the time that this was too much, said Taylor, in a letter in March to the residents’ association.
Perry says it is now likely to be discussed again, though. Ideally, he would like to see the North West Area Committee’s meetings webcast from Ballymun, to accommodate all.
McGrattan says he would be open to it moving the meetings to town, if that means they would be webcast.
“If they can’t do it in Ballymun, it should be moved to City Hall,” he says. Most things discussed at the meetings are run-of-the-mill anyway, he says.
Dublin City Council didn’t respond directly to a query as to whether Dublin Inquirer could record and broadcast the North West Area Committee meetings via Facebook Live, at no cost to the council.
“Agenda items which need to be webcast can be moved to the Chamber in City Hall, subject to room availability,” said Assistant Area Manager Aidan Maher, by email.
Also, not everybody uses social media, it’s convenient for people to have the meetings in Ballymun, and meeting minutes are online, Maher said. “Viewing figures for webcasts are very low.”