Local councillors clash in row over members’ interests
A local councillor said that he was being targeted by a fellow member over his involvement with the Athlone Croi na hÉireann festival - a claim that was rejected during a heated debate at the June meeting of Athlone Moate Municipal District this week.
Fianna Fail Cllr Frankie Keena claimed that he was being “singled out and used as a scapegoat” by Cllr Louise Heavin as a result of his involvement with the festival so that she could “prove her point” in relation to legislation governing the declaration of members interests.
In response, Cllr Heavin said it was “never her intention to target anybody” and she was “very sorry” that Cllr Keena would feel like that. She explained the reason she had first raised the issue of the councillor's involvement in the Croi na hÉireann festival committee issue last year was in an effort to have “a proper procedure put in place that works for all councillors because what we have isn’t working at the moment.”
Under Section 177 of the Local Government Act 2001, members of local authorities are required to declare at the outset of each meeting if they have a pecuniary (financial) or other beneficial interest in an item which is on the agenda for discussion.
On Monday, during the discussion on matters arising from the minutes of the April 3 meeting of Athlone Municipal District, Cllr Frankie Keena asked his Green Party colleague Cllr Louise Heavin to explain her public statement that he had a conflict of interest as a result of his involvement in the Athlone Croí na hEireann Festival Group.
Cllr Keena said he had always adhered to the core principles underlying democratic government which are based on councillors “acting in good faith and with fairness and impartiality” to promote the public interest. He also pointed out that part of his mandate in being elected was to treat fellow councillors with “respect and dignity.
“I seem to be targeted by Cllr Heavin, and I have an issue with that,” said Cllr Keena, who added that he found this “annoying and upsetting” both for him personally and for members of his family. He also added that the members of the Croí na hÉireann festival committee were “annoyed as well because their credibility is being questioned here.”
Addressing Cllr Heavin directly, Cllr Keena asked her to explain where he had either a pecuniary or other beneficial interest in the Croí na hÉireann festival. He added that he had clarified his involvement with the festival and made it clear “at all times” and would continue to do so.
Intervening in the debate, Cathaoirleach Cllr Vinny McCormack said the issue had been raised under matters arising and if it was allowed to go any further it would have to be “dealt with separately.” He said Cllr Keena had clarified that, under the code of conduct, he (Cllr Keena) was “absolute and happy” that there was no conflict of interest in this particular situation.
“Absolutely,” replied Cllr Keena, who commended the other councillors for their involvement with various community groups and for their “excellent work” with these groups and described it as being “the bread and butter of being a councillor.” He added that the public statement made about him by Clllr Heavin “affects every single member in this chamber.”
Cllr Keena went on to reiterate that he had declared publicly, at all times, his involvement with the Athlone Croi na hÉireann festival and had stated on numerous occasions that he had no pecuniary or other beneficial interest in this particular matter.
“I do feel this is targeted, and that I am being singled out and used as a scapegoat here for Cllr Heavin to prove her point” said Cllr Keena, who added that if the Green Party councillor had an issue with regard to procedure she could have brought it as a motion to the full chamber for debate “instead of targeting me.”
While welcoming the discussion on the declaration of members interests, Cllr Heavin said she was “very upset” at the suggestion that she would “target anybody because I am not, and I am certainly not targeting the Croi na hÉireann festival, and I would be very happy to meet with the committee to discuss this further,” she said.
Cllr Keena said what had happened last year was “still pending and it’s confidential.” He added “that complaint is still pending, and I am disappointed that it has been mentioned publicly.”
Cllr Heavin clarified that at no stage had she raised “any confidential issues” and she wanted that put on the record. “I said I raised this, which I did do, in a public forum, and it was mentioned at a council meeting last year, but I did not raise any confidential issues and I just wanted that put on the record,” she said.
A number of other councillors became involved in the 45-minute debate, including Cllr Paul Hogan who said members of the local municipal district have sought legal clarity on this issue “on a number of occasions” and it has not been forthcoming.
“If it is the view of our long-standing legal advisers that no legal certainty can be given on this issue then it is within our reserved function to seek a second option and I am proposing that we do this,” he said, adding that he was “very close” to proposing an adjournment of the council until such time as legal advice could be sought “because the way in which the councillors in this chamber have been treated on this issue has been very poor to date.”
Director of Services Barry Kehoe said he felt it would be “impossible” to get legal clarity on the issue of the declaration of members interests and pointed out that the executive of the council had received no legal advice. “If we did, I think the advice would say members should be left to interpret the code as they see fit,” he added “in other words, it is open to interpretation.”
He suggested that the issue should be raised with the Corporate Policy Group of the council and debated at a full meeting of Westmeath County Council rather than at municipal district level as it is an issue that affects all elected representatives.
Cllr Liam McDaniel said “somebody, somewhere” should be able to provide clarity on “what is and what isn’t” and he said it should not be left up to individual elected representatives to make such decisions. “Someone is going to have to adjudicate on this”, he said, while Cllr Tom Farrell, who is a member of the Association of Irish Local Government (AILG) said the issue needs to be clarified “once and for all because none of us know whether we are doing right or wrong and every member here is on one or many community groups.”
Cllr Aengus O’Rourke said the issue should be debated at an ‘in committee’ meeting of the council as it does not affect either the Executive of the council or members of the public. “It is something we have to get our heads around,” he said.
“It is an issue which does affect me,” said Cllr Frankie Keena “as what was said is a public statement.”
In an effort to further clarify the position, Barry Kehoe said he felt the only way this issue could be clarified would be in the context of “a formal compliant to our ethics officer, or a formal compliant to SIPO” and he added that such a complaint would have to channelled through “one or both offices. “
Members decided to accept the proposal put forward by Cllr Paul Hogan and seconded by Cllr Vinny McCormack to seek legal clarity from the council’s legal advisors and, in the event of that not being forthcoming, to press ahead with seeking a second opinion as part of the reserved function of the elected members.