Sinn Féin has criticised Belfast Council over a lack of "transparency and accountability" regarding a group of senior officials responsible for some key decisions made by the local authority.
At the recent full meeting of Belfast City Council Sinn Féin went head to head with Chief Executive John Walsh over the Chief Officer Management Team (CMT) - a group of senior council officers.
The party accused the group of making unaccountable decisions without the backing of elected representatives, including decisions surrounding the council park area at Divis Back Path, which became Páirc an Lonnáin this year, and connectivity between Upper Springfield and Black Mountain.
At the council meeting Sinn Féin Councillor Ronan McLaughlin suggested the dismantling of the CMT for efficiency savings. He said: “Over the next couple of months we are going to have to set the rate, and we are currently looking at around an 11.5 percent increase.
“That coupled with the British Secretary of State saying he will set a regional rate, which, if it is close to that set in England, will mean Belfast citizens are facing a double whammy. So it is imperative for us as councillors to find as much in efficiency savings as possible.”
He added: “I think I have found the one space in this council which seems to be constantly expanding and having more allocations given to it, and that is the CMT. I have spent my nights looking at the organisational structure of the council - currently we have 32 positions of director and around director level, which is a vast increase in where this council has been historically.”
He said the council had three strategic directorships with no one in the post, and said there were “questions to be asked” about the worth and longevity of these roles, especially since they were included in next year’s rate.
He said: “Regarding the transparency and accountability of the organisation, I am not even sure who sits on CMT, I don’t know who attends, and I don’t know what they talk about. I hear some rumblings outside the room, and some are fairly uncomfortable conversations. Some of it strays into political matters that should be decided by committees.”
He proposed a report be brought back before elected representatives looking at potential efficiency savings and in particular at the CMT group. The proposal was carried by the chamber.
Sinn Féin Councillor Ciaran Beattie said: “On accountability, I will give you an example, and there are many many others. Divis Back Path, a small bit of disused land beside the Westlink, which had antisocial behaviour issues for decades, saw the Department for Communities asset transfer it to us with a huge budget to regenerate that site, along with huge budget for maintenance.
“Part of that was a very small pot of money for a programme which meant that local sporting organisations and clubs, boxing groups and football clubs, used the site. We didn’t have to spend one penny to open the site, not one penny to clean up or lift any litter, and there was no damage caused over the period of that programme.
“But someone within this council decided that should end. And it was nobody in this room. It wasn’t brought to any committee for any decision.
“The point is there are decisions being made at leadership level that none of us get sight of. There are directors who bring proposals to CMT for clearance, and some of those proposals don’t see the light of day. We don’t see them, and we don’t have the ability to discuss them, whether we agree with them or not.
“And if we are talking about transparency and accountability, has anyone ever seen the minutes of CMT? Has anyone ever seen the rationale for some of these projects not even coming before us? Because I haven’t. So if we are talking about accountability and transparency, let's talk about it from the top down.”
He added: “These are decisions that are impacting our ratepayers, our communities, the people who live among us. The people who elect us - and we don’t have the ability to have judgement on that. So we need a radical overhaul in how we manage this council.
“I have similar concerns about the Party Group Leaders meetings, which were put together to discuss contentious issues. Which is absolutely fine, and a process we would be more than happy to engage in.
“But it has moved away from contentious issues to discussing every single issue. It has become a sounding board to get a consensus so officers can go away and make decisions behind closed doors in meetings that are not recorded and where no minutes are taken.”
Sinn Féin Councillor Micheal Donnelly told the chamber the CMT group had ‘knocked back’ a project to increase connectivity between Upper Springfield and Black Mountain, a project which had lined up funders and was 'oven ready.' He said CMT made the decision without consultation with elected representatives.
Chief Executive John Walsh responded: “Can I just record my own personal disappointment on this. I have to say, as was identified, this structure was actually approved by this council a couple of months ago. There is nothing unusual, in the management structure of any local government organisation, having a chief officer management team.
“There has been no effort made in terms of trying to conceal anything through the discussions that happen there. I can assure you every one of those officers, as I have found in 32 years of service with this organisation, give more than themselves to try and make this city a better place.”
He added: “The system of Party Group Leaders was never meant to be decision making. It was made for two things, one, to have a safe space to discuss difficult political issues, and two, to have a place where we could discuss some of the main strategic things that come through this place, that makes this city a better place, and makes the lives of our citizens better.”