Tuesday, June 18, 2019

A local authority is to reverse a move to exclude the media and public from policy meetings.

The move by Kilkenny County Council meetings follows criticism by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) that a “national policy” is needed to ensure transparency with regard to the Strategic Policy Committee (SPC).

Every local authority has such Committees to advise and assist the council in the formulation, development and review of the policy.

Membership is comprised of elected members, council staff and experts in relevant fields. The policy is formulated in draft form to be then scrutinised and voted on by all councillors.

Last week councillors voted, for the first time, to exclude members of the public and the media from these meetings.

At Kilkenny’s Council meeting on Monday evening, Fianna Fail whip Cllr Andrew McGuinness said the party’s councillors would be bringing forward a Notice of Motion at the next monthly meeting to reverse its decision to exclude the public and media.

Cllr McGuinness said the decision had been made at the first meeting of the new five-year term when councillors “were all very much focused on the order of the day”.

He said it was fair to say none of the public representatives had wanted to exclude anyone or create a closed-door policy.

“On reflection, it wasn’t the right thing to do, and in the interests of transparency and fairness, we want to make sure people can have access,” Cllr McGuinness added.

“It should also be remembered that there is a sensitive nature to some things discussed at SPCs, and to be fair to all there will always be an opportunity to discuss things in private.”

NUJ Irish Secretary Séamus Dooley described the decision to exclude the public and media to such Committee meetings as “an inauspicious start to a new council”, but said the union would not be “singling out Kilkenny council” as this issue went beyond one local authority.

NUJ Irish Secretary Séamus Dooley

“While there has been an improvement in recent years in media access in local government some councils are now abusing that. The committees should operate in public, much like the Oireachtas Committees at the national level.

“If they need to conduct some of their business in a private session, as happens at Oireachtas Committees, that is one thing. But the principle must be that they are heard in public.”

A report published last year carried out by Transparency International, Transparency, Accountability and Ethics in Local Authorities, highlighted that “ Ideally all Council meetings should be webcast.”

Fine Gael councillor Mary Hilda Cavanagh said the members had a long discussion on the decision since. She asked that in future, councillors be given notice of any change to the policy of this sort, and not on the third Monday in May “a week before the local elections”.

She said in her opinion it was not the time to discuss policy.

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