10 Jun 2008

Cutting through years of history and skipping some unbelievable backstory, Kilrush Town Council recently began putting it about that they needed to move from their current home in the old courthouse in the middle of town to a larger facility. Several developers presented themselves as possible suitors, including the owner of an ideally located, newly renovated, perfectly sized building who offered the Council his turnkey solution for €1.7m +/-. (I don’t know much about the other offers, but I’m told that each in their own way had their merits.) Anyway, Suitor Number One was kept at arm’s length – in that arm's length way that only Local Authorities can pull off – the KTM (Kilrush Town Manager) was playing her cards close to her chest.  

Time passed.

Then, a few weeks back and sort of out of the blue, Kilrush Town Council announced its decision in relation to its new home. To everyone’s surprise it had opted for the solution which, on the face of it, was by far the least suited to its needs: a burnt out, 12-year-derelict, former hotel which would cost €1.4m to buy and several millions more to restore - some newspapers say something like €5m, but I don’t know where this figure comes from. The decision raised eyebrows for all sorts of reasons – first, the building in question is owned by controversial local businessman Anthony Kelly; second it’s been sitting idle for so long many believe the Council could have exercised any number of ways to acquire it for less than nothing.

The KTM, who by the way is tipped to fill the soon to be vacant County Manager’s position next year, deflected public disquiet about the manner in which the purchase was handled (lack of transparency in tendering procedures, no obvious studies in relation to value for money, site suitability, evaluation of alternatives, etc.) by breezily informing local reporters ‘commercial sensitivity’ was preventing her from being as open about things as she ideally would be. But pushed by one reporter on where the money would come to fund the project, KTM couldn’t hide behind the ‘commercially sensitive’ veil to cover the fact that she hadn’t got an answer. She doesn’t know where the money will come from. Nobody does.

Then last week, KTM informed County Councillors from the Kilrush area that the Town Council had already entered into contract negotiations on the purchase of the burnt out hotel. When pressed on the matter by FG Councillor Madeleine Taylor-Quinn, amongst others, KTM offered no details.

Cut to last evening and a meeting of the County Council in Ennis (where, remember, Councillors are already in a state of nuclear war with officials on a variety of other planning issues). First, it emerged that attempts by various Councillors to have the Kilrush situation included on the agenda for the meeting were resisted. But, when proceedings finally got underway, the matter somehow managed to be discussed (if that's the word I’m looking for). Order broke down and mayhem followed in the midst of which KTM left the Chamber. When called back by Cllr. Taylor-Quinn to give an explanation of how Kilrush Town Council could enter into such a peculiar looking, not to mention fantastically expensive-to-the-tax-payer, deal without justifying its actions to its public, KTM arrived back twenty minutes later and told those gathered she had no obligation to divulge any further detail than was already known.  

The Minister for the Environment, John Gormley, has been made aware of what’s happening in Kilrush. But noises coming from the Minister’s people suggest he thinks the situation is best ‘handled by Kilrush Town Council and/or Clare County Council’.

In Ireland, the term ‘local authority’ is a bit of a misnomer. The way the system is set up, what we refer to as ‘the local authority’ is really just a local branch of the Department of the Environment. Locally elected councillors have very little power. Power lies with the officials, and the officials with the most power are those handpicked and planted by the Department. So, when things are going pear shaped within a local authority, as they clearly, clearly are in Clare, logic would suggest that the Department should step in to intervene. After all, if the Department doesn’t, who does?

Since taking up the position as Minister, Gormley has been faster than most to make his opinions felt regarding Council activities which don’t meet his approval; rezonings and the like. Pansie Bunfights, in other words. Well, Kilrush is no Pansie Bunfight, so perhaps its not the kind of thing he feels he should be involved in.

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