From 18 March, there’ll be no council meetings for the rest of the month, said a note from Dublin City Council Chief Executive Owen Keegan to councillors on Monday.
That doesn’t mean all business will stop though. Council staff will send around agendas – which will list what’s discussed at meetings – and councillors “will be asked to respond by e-mail within a certain time-frame in relation to business that is time sensitive”, the note says.
That could include proposed property sales, comments on “strategic housing developments” – the big planning applications that are decided by An Bord Pleanála – and proposed variations to the development plan, it says.
While recognising the need for safety and social distancing, some councillors say they’re trying to work out how it’ll work.
Depending on how long it goes on, it’ll also raise questions about protecting transparency around what decisions councillors are taking and how – and making sure the public are keyed into debates.
A spokesperson for the council said meetings scheduled for the rest of the month include strategic policy committees – the ones where councillors talk about topical stuff, say transport, or housing, and so on.
So, for the remainder of the month, that would include the finance committee meeting on 19 March and the Protocol Committee on 26 March, according to the council calendar.
The finance committee is due to discuss rates debtors, rates alleviation schemes, funding road maintenance, and a review of the feasibility of crowdfunding and participatory budgeting.
And joint policing committees, and area committees – which are when councillors for different parts of the city gather to talk about changes or plans or issues that fall within the neighbourhoods that they represent.
The South Central Area Committee is due to meet on 18 March and the North West Area Committee is due to meet on 24 March.
The South Central Area Committee is due to discuss which local groups have been awarded funding through the community grants scheme for 2020, as well as adding a cycle and pedestrian bridge from the National War Memorial Gardens to Chapelizod Road, among other issues.
“Votes are rarely taken at these meetings. Most binding decisions on disposals, variations etc. are taken at council level,” they said, by email.
In other words, while councillors might tease out issues and debate what positions they should take, the votes at the monthly meeting are the ones that are final.
Nevertheless, there are ways that more of a record could be kept of these earlier-stage committee discussions.
The meeting minutes could include more details of how people voted and why, says Sinn Féin Councillor Críona Ní Dhálaigh. Then it would be published that way, she says.
Hazel Chu of the Green Party says that they’re waiting for a decision on exactly how it’ll work with meetings.
But if and when councillors do have to email in to weigh in with decisions, “that’s all FOI-able anyway”, she says – available under the Freedom of Information Act. “And everything should be published, anyway.”
She’s been posting updates on Twitter too, she says. “It is all transparent, nobody is trying to hide anything.”
It’s unclear at the moment whether the next monthly meeting in early April will go ahead as planned. Generally, councillors are packed in close to one another in the chamber at City Hall – which would be against HSE advice on “social distancing”, to keep at least two metres away from others, to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
“No decision has been made at this stage,” said Keegan’s note to councillors. He’s examining if they can change the normal arrangements “to meet the social distancing requirements and allow the meeting to process”.
Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey said that he would prefer to see other plans put in place for the full council meeting before any distance procedures being put in place. “I certainly wouldn’t be jumping into postponing that yet.”
“I’d be very loathe not to see the monthly democratic meeting of the council not taking place,” he says. If there is a need to keep people apart, they could do it in the round room in the Mansion House, and have people distanced from each other there.
“It might be necessary, but it wouldn’t be my starting point,” he said.