BACK IN 2002, when the Exchequer was awash with money, the Government introduced a “representative payment” of €16,600 a year for local councillors. It wasn’t a great deal of money. The payment – and a related retirement bonus – was designed to bring new blood into local politics and to mark an end to Oireachtas members holding council seats.
But it also signalled a transition from the concept of the volunteer local representative who engaged in politics for altruistic purposes to a paid representative. Since then, the impetus towards salaried, full-time local politicians has gathered pace. It is time for a public debate on the issues involved.
Minister for the Environment John Gormley is in the process of preparing a White Paper on local government reform. Among the submissions he has received is one from existing councillors who are seeking scaled-back Oireachtas pay and conditions. They want salaries of at least €50,000 a year and State pensions as well as office accommodation, secretarial assistance and financial resources. They believe there should be special payments for mayors and for the chairmen of strategic committees.
It has always been accepted that local councillors should not be out of pocket for carrying out their duties. They receive various allowances and payments. In 2007, the cost of representation by our 883 councillors amounted to €29 million. The average sum received by an individual, including the representative payment, was in excess of €33,000. The highest-earning councillor received €80,000.
Most councillors do not become involved in community affairs because of the money. Some individuals see local politics as a path towards Leinster House. Others are happy for the status it offers and for an opportunity to contribute to their communities. But a handful, as various tribunals have found, abuse the system and engage in corrupt planning practices and improper land rezoning. Paying councillors to become professional politicians would not necessarily change that pattern or improve the quality of local representation.
Whatever about formal payments, anecdotal evidence and official concern would suggest that the allowances and expenses systems are being abused and need to be changed. With local elections less than three months away and a White Paper being prepared, candidates and the electorate deserve clear guidance about future pay and conditions.