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Officials are happy to keep councillors at arm’s length

Some Galway County Council officials were ‘quite comfortable’ to continue having very limited contact with local politicians – even after Covid restrictions had lifted, it was claimed this week.

Several councillors repeated their complaints over lack of access to staff in relation to mainly planning and housing issues at this month’s Galway County Council meeting.

They voiced their frustration at how long it was taking to get email replies and some staff were refusing to take calls from them.

Chief Executive Jim Cullen had previously told councillors that uncontrolled access presented difficulties due to data protection requirements.

Access would be in a controlled manner, and he would ensure there were designated points of contact within each section and enquiries would then be answered. The root of the problem was there were not enough staff to deal with enquiries from the public representatives, with staff numbers down from 1,025 to 804

Councillor Jimmy McClearn, leader of the Fine Gael group of Galway County Councillors, said councillors were as likely to get a reply from the Pope as they were from the planning department.

“Some staff members are quite comfortable not having to deal with councillors.

“How will I set up a meeting with a planner if a planner won’t meet me? That’s the fundamental flaw. What are the data protection issues? There’s no money in the planning office, no sensitive information. All information is online – even the public can access it. If nobody will return a call how can we go about our business?” he fumed.

Cllr Andrew Reddington (FG) said he had called into County Hall four days in a row to talk to staff members in the planning department but was “more or less told we’re too busy”.

“We’ve families in County Galway spending thousands of euro on a planning application but we can’t organise a pre-planning meeting for them. It’s the only council in the country this is happening in. It’s completely insane.”

Sinn Féin Cllr Dermot Connolly said he sometimes gets calls back from the planning office at 9pm.

“They’re carrying a savage weight on their shoulders.”

Cllr Seamus Walsh, who has been on the Council since 1999, said councillors should not contact planners until a decision was made. At that point they could get details of the reasons for a refusal which they could pass to their constituents.

“There’s an eight-week statutory requirement for decisions to come out. They’re under tremendous pressure.”

A professional planning agent who prepared applications, the Fianna Fáil politician said planning staff were being overly strict in applying rules on things like sight lines which was putting more of a workload onto staff.

“You don’t need a 70-metre sight line on a boreen in Connemara,” he opined.

Following a meeting between the corporate policy group, Cathaoirleach Michael ‘Moegie’ Maher and Chief Executive Jim Cullen it was agreed to provide an all-areas fob for councillors and a list of staff in each department who could be contacted.

(Photo: Chief Executive Jim Cullen)

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune:

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