Directly elected mayors in Cork, Limerick and Waterford will act as champions for the city regions as counterbalances to development in the capital.
And in Cork’s case, its directly elected mayor would be the most powerful politician outside Cabinet, the Tánaiste said.
Simon Coveney was speaking in Cork at the launch of Fine Gael’s yes campaign for the plebiscite on directly elected mayors which will be held in Cork, Limerick and Waterford on May 24 – the same day as the local and European elections.
If people vote yes, he said he expects some big personalities from the worlds of sport, business and politics to emerge for the first elections in 2021.
Under the Government’s proposal, people in Cork city, Limerick and Waterford will be asked if they want directly elected mayors to assume some or all of the functions, including roads and housing, now performed by council chief executives (CE).
The first elections will take place in 2021, with the first mayor getting a two-and-a-half-year term. It will be five years from 2024.
The mayor would be paid €130,000 and have the right to appoint two advisers. The cost of the office could be up to €450,000 a year in each of the three areas.
Mr Coveney said in Cork’s case, the city is set to grow at twice the pace of Dublin over the next two decades to counterbalance the dominance of development on the east coast.
“So this is about creating a champion to deliver that potential which will involve significant budgets and a lot of strategic policy decisions,” he said.
“I think that role will be very powerful politically but it will also be about shaping and growing and expanding in a very ambitious way Ireland’s second city.
If you look at the breadth of the policy powers, as well as the direct mandate they would have from the people, I do think it will probably be the most powerful political office in the country outside of the cabinet.
It will be properly resourced both financially and from a staffing perspective.
“It will have real power and it will have a mandate directly from the people to be able to effectively put a program of office in place over five years to deliver for the city.”
Local Government Minister John Paul Phelan said there is a serious democratic deficit at the top of Ireland’s local government structure and that the directly elected mayoral proposals would turn that on its head.
He said the first directly elected mayors would have to present their programme of office to their councils within two months of their election which would then be used as a yardstick by councillors by which to judge them.
Both Ministers insisted that the creation of a directly elected mayor would empower, and not undermine existing councillors.
They confirmed that a study on the powers and pay of existing councillors is underway.
Mr Coveney said for many councillors, the role has become full-time.
“And you do have to ask the honest question – are the financial supports that are there for councillors today adequate to attract people who are committed to public service but also, you know, they have to pay the bills let’s face it,” he said.
“So we are changing the power structure and we are looking at how we financially support councillors as well to ensure we have functioning local government,” he said.
The party’s campaign director, Senator Jerry Buttimer, called on other political parties and independents to join with Fine Gael in a non-party political campaign “to inform, to engage, and to sell” the proposal to the people of Cork city, Limerick and Waterford.
He also said the Taoiseach plans to attend townhall-style meetings on the plebiscite in the three areas in late April, early May.