“People are in contact with you 24/7 and they expect to be replied to,” says Kieran Binchy of Fine Gael.
“You’re contactable all the time,” says Bobby O’Connell, the secretary of the Local Authorities Members Association. By phone, email, or social media.
The job of the modern-day councillor, it seems, is to be at the ready, constantly for the demands of the role.
Once they’ve factored in the many meetings, the unpredictable work hours, their family lives and their day jobs, some have decided that this term will be their last.
A Full-Time Job
Being a local councillor is officially a part-time role, but those who take it on say they find it’s much more than that.
Binchy has been a councillor for seven years, as well as a full-time barrister. “When I’m not busy in court I can juggle council duty, but when you add the fact that we’d our first child last December, trying to have a family life and two jobs is just unsustainable,” he says.
He has decided not to run again in the coming local elections in May. “There was a time when you could do a full-time job and do a councillor’s role,” he says. “But that is disappearing and one of the main issues is communications.”
Calls and emails are never-ending, he says.
Another councillor that you likely won’t see on posters around the city come May is Fianna Fáil’s Frank Kennedy.
His experience of the workload was broadly similar to Binchy’s. The longer he stayed a councillor and got to grips with the role, the more work it was, he says.
“It was primarily a question of time,” says Kennedy. “There’s just a certain number of hours in the day. It was very difficult to do the job of a councillor properly, and balance that particularly with my day job and life as well.”
In 2014, the number of electoral wards in the Dublin city council area was reduced from 11 to nine, meaning they generally grew in size. But each councillor is still invited to all of the meetings in the larger areas, with residents’ groups and on local community issues.
Kennedy says that “even if you were to pull that away”, the workload would not decrease significantly, and you’d “still spend a lot of time anyway trying to do your job properly”.
O’Connell, of the Local Authorities Members Association, who is also a Fine Gael councillor on Kerry County Council, says this is indicative of “what’s happening all over the country”.
“It’s not viable [financially] for someone who is a councillor who doesn’t have another job,” he says. For those who do have jobs, there’s an increasing problem of trying to get time off due to the uncertain hours.
Earlier this year, the Department of Local Government changed the electoral boundaries again. The number of wards will increase to 11 again, but there’s some discussion at the moment as to what the changes will mean for councillors and representation in different areas.
Minister of State for Local Government John Paul Phelan, of Fine Gael, announced a review of the role and remuneration of local councillors back in June this year.
In its submission to that review, the Local Authorities Members Association said its “members are spending over 30 hours per week at a minimum, fulfilling their role as a local elected member”, making it in their eyes close to a full-time position.
Councillors are currently paid €16,891 a year plus expenses. The association estimates that the average councillor earns a gross of €10.80 per hour, not including expenses. Workloads vary by councillor, too.
Under the 2014 Local Government Reform Act, “our members have responsibility for nearly 200 reserved functions”, the submission says. They also have roles such as turning up to monthly meetings, area committees, and representing the council at community events.
Councillors’ pay should be attached to grade 4 in the civil service, and the role should be made full-time, says O’Connell.
Labour’s Lacey says the make-up of those who become councillors will change, otherwise. “You’ll end up in a situation that only either older people or retired people or wealthy people will be able to go to local government and that’s really bad for everybody.”
Or, says Kennedy of Fianna Fáil, councillors who work for their political parties part-time, who are effectively TDs in training. This would lead to “one type of experience being represented”, he says.
“Too many meetings take place during office hours,” says Kennedy. That means they’re tough for those with jobs to get to.
The council isn’t set up for young people to enter politics, says Green Party Councillor Claire Byrne, because the high costs of living are most likely to hit them as renters, and people relatively new to the workforce.
Byrne has two jobs as well as serving as a councillor, and is a mother to a toddler.
Making the role of a councillor a full-time job, with a full-time salary, might help make it more of a destination, and less of a stepping stone, says Kennedy.
It could help convince councillors to remain in their seats and refrain from running to be TDs for longer, he says. This would be not only be better for local government, he says, but also give stability to people working as councillors.
Byrne says it’s important to get more young people involved in politics. That means a review “of the pay scales is needed”, as is making it a family-friendly job.
By making it into a full-time position also, a conversation can start that could see more powers devolved to local authorities, says Kennedy, as well as making councillors more accountable to their role.