On Monday at 2.30pm, the screen of the Dublin City Council webcast for the scheduled South East Area Committee meeting reads “meeting will start today” – except it doesn’t.
Well, not formally anyway.
A spokesperson for Dublin City Council Press Office said the meeting went ahead on Microsoft Teams, but members of the press and public were not invited to watch.
Usually, anyone with a predilection for local government can stream most of the council’s meetings.
That includes both the main monthly meeting where all 63 councillors gather in City Hall to debate and vote on city issues, as well meetings of the council’s various committees, which feed into the main monthly meeting.
Like, for example, the South East Area Committee, where elected representatives from the south-east inner-city, Pembroke and Kimmage-Rathmines raise constituents’ concerns with council management, get answers back about their queries, and hear presentations on council plans for the area.
But given social-distancing rules meant to combat the spread of Covid-19, many of these meetings have been cancelled.
Instead, council management is briefing councillors informally online, and meeting to confer with leaders of the parties and independents.
These alternative arrangements don’t sit well with some councillors. And they won’t work with the main monthly meetings, which the current legal advice says require councillors to gather.
From Meetings to Briefings
So far, 12 meetings have been cancelled in March and April: one monthly meeting, two joint policing committee meetings, four strategic policy committee meetings and five area committee meetings, according to a spokesperson for Dublin City Council.
Instead, there have been remote “area briefings” in April for most of the council’s five area committees, along with meetings to talk about Strategic Housing Development (SHD) applications, the spokesperson said.
(SHD applications are the big planning applications that bypass the council and are decided by An Bord Pleanála, but councillors’ submissions are sent in.)
These include “queries, questions and discussions at our local area and we are getting a run-down of what’s happening locally”, says Green Party Councillor Caroline Conroy.
Independents 4 Change Councillor Pat Dunne, a member of the South East Area Committee, says Monday’s briefing went ahead with one item on the agenda.
That was a presentation on proposed student accommodation to be built by Trinity College. But the briefing was soon abandoned due to technical difficulties, Dunne said.
While these meetings aren’t going ahead as planned, area committees and strategic policy committee meetings – which focus on particular topics, like housing or transport – can only recommend actions anyway.
“All policy, regulatory and statutory decisions are taken at the Monthly Council Meeting,” a council spokesperson said.
In addition to these area-level briefings, there’s also another set of briefings happening during the shut-down.
Group leaders of each political party, and the loose group of independents, are getting briefings from council management, and then updating their members, says Fianna Fáil Councillor Deirdre Heney.
“Everything is happening through group leaders,” she says.
Fianna Fáil Councillor Mary Fitzpatrick says work is continuing on various projects. “It’s only the big chunky projects like the future of Moore Street or the Magdalene laundry site, it’s those that have slowed down,” she says.
Council officials and staff have been “somewhat redeployed”, and the scope of their responsibilities have been “amended to reflect city council taking the lead role on the community response” to the pandemic, Fitzpatrick says.
A “community response framework” and a crisis-management team have been established at the council. Lord Mayor Tom Brabazon, another Fianna Fáil councillor, sits on the crisis-management team in “high level meetings with senior management”, representing councillors, says Heney.
People Before Profit Councillor Tina MacVeigh says she’d like to hear more from the mayor about what’s happening in these meetings.
“I don’t hear from the lord mayor. If he’s there to represent councillors, he’s not feeding back, not soliciting any ideas from the group leaders on the council, so it’s very far away,” MacVeigh says.
The “community response framework” is being run in collaboration with city council staff, head of housing Brendan Kenny, and head of Dublin Fire Brigade Dennis Keeley along with various other community leaders and council executives, coordinating help for those in need.
Social Democrats Councillor Tara Deacy says she has asked Keegan if local area committees can make submissions and observations in terms of some of the issues that may be emerging locally.
Keegan, in his response said that “councillors are free to contact either me or the relevant Local Area Manager in relation to any local issues as they arise. A series of meetings with councillors will also be held during which issues can be addressed.”
With all this happening in small groups, and behind closed doors, independent Councillor Anthony Flynn is concerned with what he sees as a lack of involvement of most councillors in running the city during the pandemic.
“In terms of the control of the city, it’s now in the hands of the CEO and the CEO is not an elected official,” Flynn said.
The May Meeting
While these informal briefings and small-group meetings might be keeping the system ticking along to some extent, there are some things that can only be done at monthly council meetings.
This includes the sale or “disposal” of council land and property, adopting by-laws, and varying the development plan.
The Local Government Act (2001) dictates that monthly council meetings must take place with councillors present.
A spokesperson for the council said they had sought legal advice on whether they could host the monthly meetings remotely.
“As statutory decisions are taken at a Council Meeting, these decisions can only be taken at a legally convened meeting which means that a quorum of Councillors need to be in physical attendance,” the spokesperson said.
The question is how to do that without gathering 63 people in close proximity in the relatively snug council chamber for several hours.
The April monthly meeting was cancelled. Discussions are now underway on how the May meeting might be held.
Some councillors have suggested organising this meeting with just about enough councillors to meet the quorum of 17 – with each party proportionally represented, based on how many seats they won in the election.
According to Labour Councillor Joe Costello, the proposal is that the Green Party, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and independents will each get three representatives, while Labour and Sinn Féin will get two, and the Social Democrats and People Before Profit will get one each.
Says Heney, the Fianna Fáil councillor: “The agenda will be approved by group leaders prior to the agenda going out and it will then be discussed by each group and it can be fed back in then at the council meeting.”
Costello said he is suggesting that if anything on the agenda is controversial or would require much debate, it would be left to the next meeting – and by then, he hopes, restrictions may be lifted.
However, there are concerns from independent councillors about this proposal.
Independent Councillor Cieran Perry says it would be hard for another councillor to represent him. “An independent councillor in Ballyfermot may not be au fait with what’s going on in Cabra, and vice versa. I wouldn’t really be capable of representing a councillor from elsewhere,” he says.
Independent Councillor Anthony Flynn, shares the same concern. “We need the minister to change the legislation. We also need a new system put in place with regards to us being able to vote online,” he says.
Sinn Féin Councillor Anthony Connaghan, however, thinks other councillors not in attendance can watch the meeting as it happens.
“And if something comes up we can text and ask them to pull them up on that matter or ask about that. You’d have to be on the ball because officials like to fly through things,” Connaghan says.
In any case, a spokesperson for Dublin City Council says preparations are in place for a monthly meeting on 11 May, adding that the decision rests with the councillors as to whether they proceed with proportional representation.
As of Monday night, Councillor Heney, who is the Fianna Fáil party group leader, said all group leaders have agreed to the proposal for the May monthly meeting. “The secretary, on behalf of management, is now trying to organise the meeting.”