The ability for councillors to trigger a process to remove the future directly-elected mayor of Limerick from office would risk creating American-style "impeachment hearings," an Oireachtas committee has heard.
Under legislation being considered, a three-quarters majority of councillors would be needed to begin the process of removing new directly-elected mayors. After that an independent review panel would be set up to look at the issue, with the Minister for Housing and Local Government taking the final decision.
The Oireachtas housing committee was undertaking pre-legislative scrutiny of the proposed powers of the future directly-elected Limerick mayor.
People in Limerick voted in favour of proposals two years ago to introduce a directly-elected mayor, while voters in Cork and Waterford rejected the proposals.
The directly-elected mayor will serve for five years, and have powers that include oversight of Limerick City and County Council’s budget and development plan.
Peter Burke, Minister of State with responsibility for local government, told the committee removing a mayor would be a "very serious matter, therefore the bar for such action is high".
Fianna Fáil TD Paul McAuliffe said he feared the process to remove the elected official would in practice be used by Opposition parties to "kick the mayor around".
“I believe we’ve designed a process that enables a political football, that essentially would make impeachment hearings in the US the ultimate conclusion, and I think we should avoid that,” he said.
Given the often fractured make-up of local councils, it was possible Opposition parties would rally up to 80 per cent of councillors to vote for a mayor’s removal, “on a national issue that might not be connected with the mayor himself at all,” he said.
Addressing the committee, Mr Burke said legislation to allow for elections in Limerick for a mayor would hopefully be finished by the summer, at which point it would be put before the Dáil.
The proposed directly-elected mayor would not have any role in the allocation of local authority grants, to prevent “political involvement” in the process, he said.
The position would have “real power,” and would not “water down” the role of local councillors, he said.
Cian O’Callaghan, Social Democrats TD, questioned when voters in Dublin would be asked if they wished to have a directly-elected mayor.
Mr Burke said the Citizens’ Assembly had been asked to consider the structure of the four local authorities in Dublin, and examine the idea of a directly-elected mayor for the capital.
The Government would await the findings of the assembly’s discussion of the issue, which Mr Burke said would be “a significant body of work.”
Fine Gael Senator John Cummings said voters in Waterford and Cork rejecting the option of having elected mayors had been "missed opportunities" for both areas.
“Limerick is the case study now for the entire country, and it is essential that we get this right,” he said.
Mr Burke said the vote in Limerick to approve the proposal had been close, in part because the plebiscite was held among other elections and “got very little attention” at the time.