Donegal County Council's Budget-passing woes

A small sidebar piece on page four of today’s Sunday Tribune raised a half-smile-half-grimace from me.

Today’s edition hasn’t gone online yet, so I can’t link, quote or send traffic to, unfortunately. However, the story to which I refer is pretty much a rewrite of this piece from the Donegal Democrat. One-line summary; the 10 Fianna Fáil county councillors in Donegal passed the annual council Budget while the other 19 councilors were out of the room.

Carolyn Farrar of the Democrat reports…

Labour Cllr. Frank McBrearty Jr said that Donegal Mayor, Fianna Fáil Cllr. Brendan Byrne, has broken the trust in the council chamber by allowing a quorum of 10 Fianna Fáil councillors to adopt the 2010 budget while the remaining 19 were in a meeting down the hall.

[…] This was Cllr. McBrearty’s first budget meeting and he said he was led to believe meetings would be adjourned and reconvened several times to allow for negotiations among parties, as they had been in the past.

“Dirty tricks politics is what it is,” Cllr. McBrearty said. He said the move will affect the way he sees the chair.

Note: Labour, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and one independent are in coalition to run the council.

How does the Fianna Fáil mayor, who is also the chair – therefore, neutral – feel? Ocean FM reports…

[…] Mayor Byrne added that he had the option of either letting the budget collapse or continuing and after waiting for six minutes, he took the decision to proceed.

He said the questions should not be asked over who was in the chamber when the Budget was passed, but rather why the other councillors were not in the chamber on behalf of those who elected them.

Seemingly, a council worker, note-taker or – god forbid – councillor could not be dispatched to inform the other councilors down the hall that the meeting had begun. The budget was quickly voted through before the others were aware the debate had reconvened.

It does not appear it was going to be a handily passed budget either, folks. Fine Gael had called for a massive 8.5% reduction in commercial rates, more than twice the cut advised by county manager Michael McLoone (brother of Peter, if you’re wondering) in his pre-budget report. While all parties had committed to a slice in the rates, the size of cut was to be debated. Fianna Fáil councillors had looked for more conservative cuts, and as far as I know these were written into the budget.

Sinn Féin’s four representatives have now threatened to pull out of the technical agreement, in a press release they called Fianna Fáil’s actions “an affront to democracy“. Labour’s McBreaty has said the mayors position is untenable.

So why did it raise a half-smile-half-grimace?

I and a small number of journalists I know who have tried to look into local authorities from a national standpoint have found Donegal County Council one of the most nightmarish with which to deal. I’m in the middle of a survey of all local authorities and have found Donegal CoCo to be one of the very few which have obfuscated and failed to respond to my enquiries a number of times.

Since August I’ve been looking for details of allowances made available to council members but still no luck with some councils now (though, this has admittedly been on the back-burner of the last month or so). Technically I should be blaming the council officials, not councillors, for impeding my information gathering, but I always get the feeling when council officials are delaying there’s a political reason for it.

Of course, that’s just the opinion I’ve formed and a little of what I hear on the grapevine. Still, it brings a smile to my face to know it’s not just this side of the coin having problems. Have fun sorting out your troubles, councillors.