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Fiona’s no rezona

Councillor Fiona McLoughlin Healy has risked her reputation challenging the low standards ingrained in Kildare County Council

 1. CONFLICT OF INTEREST

Blue in the face with Bluebells

McLoughlin Healy was suspended from Fine Gael for championing ethics in a case of alleged conflicts of interest against Fianna Fáil TD, Fiona O’Loughlin, though the Council has denied the issue is big enough to attract legislative prohibition.

The beautiful ‘Bluebells and Buskers’ festival in Rathangan, Co Kildare, was founded by Fianna Fáil’s Fiona O’Loughlin, now a TD and formerly – and relevantly for this purpose – a Councillor in Kildare County Council, and her family – in memory of her father, a former Councillor, some years ago.

The Leinster Leader of 30th April 2013 notes: “The family of former County Councillor Jimmy O’Loughlin, who passed away last January, is organising “Bluebells and Buskers” in his memory, with 15 musical acts dotted amongst the trees. Kilinthomas woods held a special place in his life”.

In 2015 an application was made to Kildare County Council for €600 towards the €2,300 required for catering, printing, room costs and sound hire for a 1916 version of the event. Mr Brian O’Loughlin, the brother of then-chair of the Council committee considering the matter, former Councillor Fiona O’Loughlin of Fianna Fáil, was listed as the “Contact Person” on the application form. He stated that the grant was transferred directly to the bank account of the Rathangan Community Association limited, a charitable company limited by guarantee and with published audited accounts. The application form, though, was filled in by ‘Buskers and Bluebells’, and not Rathangan Community Association.

In late 2015 then-Fine Gael Councillor Fiona McLoughlin Healy (no relation of Fianna Fáil Councillor O’Loughlin) asked for a breakdown of funding allocated by the Decade of Commemoration Committee and expressed concern that a play written about 1916 failed to get funding while an annual woodland festival did. When she asked if any conflicts of interest had been declared all hell broke loose.  She subsequently tabled a motion seeking a breakdown of the grants paid out by the Decade of Commemorations committee, only to gain no support.

Bluebells and Buskers: admittedly beautiful

Notes from the discussion of her motion show a fierce exchange, as the Councillor fought with figures on all sides. The CEO of Kildare County Council, Peter Carey went so far as to describe the motion and subsequent discussion as “regrettable” and “embarrassing”. Director of services, Peter Minnock, issued a statement in which he said he found the manner in which it had been raised “disappointing” and that he had “no concerns regarding the impartiality, integrity and manner in which the work has been performed by all persons engaged in this process”. This statement came before the Fianna Fáil Councillor admitted on local radio that she had not declared the conflict of interest in dealing with the grant application made in her brother’s name. local commentators following the story overwhelmingly found little substance to the conflict, as did politicians publicly discussing it on social media, as all proceeds went into the redevelopment of a local community centre.

It matters little. Village ventures that the disappointing behaviour and the regret and embarrassment will all redound against the Council in the end.

Former Fianna Fáil Councillor O’Loughlin failed to disclose the nature of her interest, or the fact of a connected person’s interest at the relevant meeting, and before discussion or consideration of the matter commences, and failed to withdraw from the meeting. She therefore breached respectively section 177 (1) (i), and section 177 (1) (ii) of the local Government Act 2001.

LOCAL GOVERNMENT ACT, 2001

“Disclosure by member of local authority of pecuniary or other beneficial interests. 177.—(1) where at a meeting of a local authority or of any committee, joint committee or joint body of a local authority… a matter is proposed or otherwise arises… then, a member of the authority, committee, joint committee or joint body present at such meeting shall, where he or she has actual knowledge that he or she or a connected person has a pecuniary or other beneficial interest in, or which is material to, the matter— (i) disclose the nature of his or her interest, or the fact of a connected person’s interest at the meeting, and before discussion or consideration of the matter commences, and (ii) withdraw from the meeting for so long as the matter is being discussed or considered

Speaking about the incident, Fianna Fáil’s Fiona O’Loughlin told Village Magazine in November 2016:

“The ‘allegations’ were completely unfounded and addressed by both the officials of KCC and the now-chair, Councillor Padraig McEvoy. I was not part of the adjudication of the awards. A grant was not paid to myself or my brother. A grant of €600 (one of many around the county) was paid to the bank account of Rathangan Community Association in order to part pay for a publication about William A. Byrne, a Rathangan poet who took Thomas McDonagh’s place in UCD after McDonagh’s execution. A local cultural community group called ‘Bluebells and Buskers’ which organises community events and fundraises for the local Community Centre made the application. My brother, a locally civic and community-minded volunteer, happens to chair the group”.

Unfortunately, it is indubitably the case that the former Councillor, Fianna Fáil’s O’Loughlin, and her committee had had sign-off on the grant which was for an event intimately linked to her family. Former Councillor O’Loughlin may think it is happenstance that her brother chairs the group but the law appears to treat it as a substantive problem.

The County Council was obliged to investigate Council McLoughlin Healy’s complaint but felt it was trivial:

“The complainant can make the case for an interpretation which leaves little room for discretion on what must be declared. The complainant can further make the case as provided for in the code of conduct that if there is any doubt a declaration should be made. The respondent can equally make the case that the interest concerned here is of an insignificant nature and that no declaration is necessary. The circumstances surrounding the matters of public interest arising in this particular case do not appear to be extensive in nature and do not appear to convey any appreciable benefit, financial or otherwise, on the people concerned.

“Having completed the desktop review and having regard to all the considerations outlined in this report, including the legal considerations set out above I have not come to the conclusion that former Councillor O’Loughlin (now a Fianna Fáil TD) was in breach of ethical legislation as set out in Part 15 of the local Government Act 2001. I say this based on the documentation I have reviewed and by applying the test of whether a member of the public knowing the facts would reasonably come to the conclusion that the interest concerned had little influence on the decision of the committee or confer any pecuniary or other beneficial interest on Councillor O’Loughlin or a person connected to her. My findings are based on a non-judicial review of all the documentation and the facts set out above”.

The report was prepared by the Cathaoirleach, Ivan Keatley, and Chief executive for the ethics registrar, Mark McLoughlin (again, no relation), though it is not clear if the registrar should have compiled it himself, at a little distance. It was presented to the Councillor on 27 June.

It tells an extraordinary tale that Council officials would not consider €600 significant or extensive in nature or such as to convey any appreciable benefit. Councillor Fiona McLoughlin Healy will now take the matter to the Standards in Public Office Commission which is not subject to workaday political pressures and is unlikely to be so blasé.

Meanwhile, McLoughlin Healy had the Fine Gael party whip removed from her on November 22 last following an internal party disciplinary procedure. This followed a motion of no confidence she had tabled in the then-Mayor Brendan Weld because of his handling of the O’Loughlin conflict of interest. He had called a meeting of party leaders in the wake of the controversial Decade of Commemoration motion to gather support to block motions from Fiona McLoughlin Healy, his Fine Gael party colleague, for the future.

Her term of suspension was six months. However, she told the Leinster Leader in May that she will not be re-joining until an investigation she called for into the actions of some of her party colleagues is complete and the results presented to her.

But it seems unlikely there will be an early reconciliation.  Fine Gael will not complete the investigation instigated by its national organisation, and Councillor McLoughlin Healy has unearthed other problems, the resolution of which appears to hold no interest for her former party.

2. LOBBYING

They’re everywhere, so the rules don’t apply

Council dismissive of need for registration of lobbyists for rezonings despite clear legislation

Councillor Fiona McLoughlin Healy is alleging that there is a lack of policing and enforcement of legislation requiring lobbyists to register if they lobby a designated official for zoning/ rezoning of land.

At the Council meeting in March during the most recent County Development Plan review process McLoughlin Healy (now Independent) proposed a motion asking Kildare County Council to check that anyone lobbying the Council for zoning or rezoning was registered as a lobbyist – as required by law.

She says her concerns have been occasioned by a rezoning of land (coincidentally, the locus is again Rathangan) from the most restrictive category ‘Open space’, to the least restrictive category ‘Town Centre’, with some specific conditions.

She claims to have been personally lobbied by a private-sector planner and his client to turn a decision of the Council taken immediately before the election of the current Council, on its head – an unusual manoeuvre. She claims she checked if the planning consultant (a former employee of the Council) and his client (who had also lobbied her and others) were registered as lobbyists. Neither was registered.

In advance of discussions of rezoning at a public Council meeting McLoughlin Healy asked for clarification from the executive concerning councillors’ responsibilities to declare where they had been lobbied especially if they were aware that the lobbyists hadn’t registered. She was informed they had no responsibility to declare and the radical rezoning was carried, despite a failure by the executive to explain the rationale for the complete reversal of a previous decision.

McLoughlin Healy emailed her concerns to the CEO and Director of services for Planning, Peter Minnock. At the February Council meeting at which they were to sign off on a final draft of County Development Plan she also asked that her concerns, stated at the discussion of the rezoning/material alterations previously, be minuted. This elicited a false statement, made publicly to the Chamber from the Director of service for Planning, Peter Minnock, that her concerns had been referenced in the minutes for the October meeting. They hadn’t. She clarified the Director of service’s misrepresentation in the discussion of the February minutes at the monthly Council meeting for June.

This is not just an issue for Kildare. This is a national issue. Kildare County Council’s executive feels under little pressure to give effect to the intent of the lobbying legislation even where it would be easy to do so. Legislation provides that communicating with a Designated Public Official, including an official, a TD or Councillor, outside the formal public consultation process about a development plan or local area plan or a proposal to zone or re-zone particular lands may be lobbying. The regulation of lobbying Act 2015 provides that anyone who communicates with a Designated Public Official about the development or zoning of land is lobbying, and must register.

Who is policing whether or not applicants, or anyone communicating around zoning of land is actually registering? No-one it seems. Who better than the local authority to do a quick check on Lobbying.ie and ask that anyone who communicates with a designated official about a zoning is actually registered?

McLoughlin Healy’s motion for the March Council meeting acknowledged that while the onus rests on the person conducting the lobbying for rezoning of lands to register themselves that Council officials are in a position to give easy effect to the intent of the legislation by asking those lobbying them to ensure they are registered.  The motion was:

“As an exemplar of best practice that the council do a simple check on Lobbying.ie that persons lobbying for re-zoning of land are registered lobbyists as required by law and that where the person/s lobbying the council are not registered that: a. it raises a red flag for the council around the application; and b) council officials advise the applicant/s to register, before proceeding with an application”.

The Director of Planning in Kildare spoke of being lobbied everywhere including in hallways and concludes, contrarily, that he couldn’t be asking if people were registered. In fact, being lobbied in the hall or in a toilet or on a sideline is the same as being lobbied in the office of a construction company’s director. Although the Council dismissed her motion the standards Commission has recently distributed a letter to all local authorities the sentiment of which is very similar to that of the motion. In late June McLoughlin Healy met the CEO and asked him to revisit her motion and to state his position in light of the new communication from Lobbying.ie.

3. TWINNING

Ethical tripping

No accounting of any benefit to the citizenry from arbitrarily-bestowed travel perks

In March of this year Councillor Fiona McLoughlin Healy was invited to join a Town Twinning Trip by a member of Kildare County Council.  she says she was informed that travel and accommodation would at the very least be covered for both herself and her husband and if they didn’t want to spend much time with the delegation they could stay in a quieter a hotel on the edge of town, never having to meet with the rest of the delegation again until the trip was over. she told Village she was informed that the member and his wife travel almost every year and that she too was entitled to travel on any of the trips taken by any of the Town and County Twinnings.

 

McLoughlin Healy says she walked away from that meeting wondering how a single Councillor had access to information of which all other Councillors were aware. It raised concerns not just about the Council selectively sharing information but about what checks and balances are in place to ensure that funding of approximately €80,000 by Kildare County Council for Town and County Twinning is administered fairly, transparently, frugally and in the best interests of the wider community.

After ten weeks of researching emails and meetings, where she experienced difficulties and delays getting answers to basic governance questions like who the point of contact in the Council for Twinning is, she claims to be even more concerned now.

Readers are invited to search for “Twinning in Kildare” in the search bar to see if they can find evidence that public monies are in fact delivering benefits for our communities as intended and underpinned by the happy-clappy Town Twinning ethos.

Town Twinning developed in the aftermath of World War II as a laudable attempt to reunite bitterly divided communities. To this day the EU continues to support and fund Town Twinning, but its view of the role of Twinning has naturally evolved over time. The European Commission wants to move away from perceptions of Town Twinning as a junket. Through the wheel, the European Commission will only fund Twinning groups that are legally-constituted not-for-profit organisations capable of delivering results in specified spheres like remembrance, migration, tolerance, and inclusion of disadvantaged groups including immigrants, people with disabilities, and people in crisis.

A successful model Twinning: Fiona O’Loughlin TD with Peter O’Neill, Chairman of Newbridge Twinning Committee, and Andreas Bee, Mayor of Bad Lippspringe.

The Council finally informed her in mid-June that reports from Town and County Twinnings are held on file for the executive, the Internal Audit Team and the local Government Auditor. This is an insult to members, an insult to the taxpayers funding the Twinning programmes. what’s in the reports that is so secret? what is so important that it trumps the Council’s Corporate Plan and its aim to make the Council a transparent, accountable, effective organisation delivering value for money.

McLoughlin Healy denies she is accusing any Twinning group of abusing funds: “I don’t doubt having talked to people involved in Twinning that there is a lot of work being done and that volunteers work very hard. what I am stating is that it is unacceptable that despite being in receipt of public monies there is no official information, readily accessible around the activities and expenditures and objectives of Twinning groups in Kildare”.

The last information provided on the Council’s website dates to 2006. On the grounds that she could obtain little or no information relating to the activities, expenditure and objectives of any of the Twinning groups and the difficulty getting reassurances from the Council regarding its oversight role, McLoughlin Healy declined to accept the invitation to travel.

She is concerned at the following:

  • How councillors are selected for trips, the balance between elected and non-elected representatives, and the appropriateness of allocations covering spouses/plus ones?
  • The absence of reports from those travelling.
  • The criteria new and innovative Town Twinnings that develop the Town Twinning ethos.
  • The refusal of access for her to the Chair of the Audit Committee to communicate concerns about the Council’s handling of grant-funded organisations.
  • The refusal of access for her to audits carried out by the Council of grant-funded organisations.

When Town Twinnings are initiated on the basis of friendships formed at exclusive sporting events or international rugby this builds in privilege, not inclusion, she concludes.

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