Letterkenny OpenCoffee Club

Just saw a mention on Twitter to the inaugural meeting of the Letterkenny OpenCoffee Club – an informal gathering for the tech / IT / social media related community. I’m not sure who has organised the meeting, but fair played to them for doing it.

The meeting takes place at 6:30 tonight at CoLAB @ LYIT – attached to the Business Development Centre. More details are on the website. I won’t be able to make it this evening, but I hope to make one in the near future.

Something weird’s happened here…

For some reason, I’ve lost about two years worth of posts to the blog here. It coincides with my finishing the council, and trying to figure out what to do with this blog.

So, while I figure out what has happened, and where everything has gone, I’d like to say two things:

Firstly, a major thank you to everyone who helped me out on the council over the last five years. Personally, politically and professionally. Getting elected wasn’t easy in the first place; it took a great team of people to do that, and I hope I lived up to what you wanted to see in a councillor. Letterkenny Town Council has a great team of highly professional staff, who work closely with the Councillors to get things done. That’s why the Town has done so well in the last decade or so, and it’s why we have so much to show for the good years we saw here.

Secondly, I want to wish the councillors – re-elected councillors, new members Cllr Tom Crossan and Cllr Jimmy Kavanagh, and returning councillor Tadhg Culbert – the very best for the next five years. If the Council does well, Letterkenny does well. It’s hard to overstate the importance of a local authority in creating the right environment for a town as somewhere to live, work and grow up, and the input of the nine councillors will be key to achieving that.

I’ll post more of my thoughts on my time on the council, and my hopes for the next council, as soon as I can figure out what’s going on with the site here.

Update: through a combination of Google Cache and a few backups, I should be able to restore all the content. It will take a while, but I’ll get it sorted.

Joe Rospars Dublin Event, New FF Online Strategy

I’m just back at a computer after an event in Dublin that I was able to organise through work. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working with Fianna Fáil and Blue State Digital on a new website and a new web strategy for the party.

It’s been a busy few weeks, but a great experience. The team in Blue State are fantastic; they really know there stuff about online campaigning. In particular, they focus more on strategy than on technology, and that’s something Fianna Fáil will hopefully benefit from greatly.

Joe Rospars, one of the founding partners of the company, was in Dublin today as part of a wider trip to Europe. I pushed Fianna Fáil to organise a public event rather than a private, party only event. I put out the invite through Strawberry Media, and organised the event.  We were delighted with the turnout, about a hundred people showed up and we were able to get a good Q&A going with Joe himself afterwards.

I spoke to a number of people afterwards, the majority of whom were very positive about it. One person did mention that a few people were unhappy about the way it had been advertised, and that it hadn’t been publicised as a Fianna Fáil event, and I see messages on Twitter about it as well.

The idea to have the public event, rather than a private one, was mine, and the decision to push it from Strawberry Media was mine as well. Why? I wanted as wide an audience as possible to hear Joe’s talk, and to get the opportunity to question him directly. I felt that some people would have not wanted to attend a Fianna Fáil event, but would love to hear Joe Rospars. This wasn’t the launch of the Fianna Fáil website.

So rather than organise a glitzy launch with banners, posters, videos or the like, we had an open, free event, with a short introduction to say why Joe was in town.  Sean Dorgan, party General Secretary spoke to introduce the fact that Joe was in town in connection with his work for Fianna Fáil, and that the party wanted to have his expertise out in the open rather than tied in for the party only.

The event was 10:1 Joe Rospars to Fianna Fail; we’ll have the video online in a few days. Joe’s content wasn’t affected by us, we didn’t discuss it with him before hand, and he spoke for over 40 minutes as opposed to less than 5 from people from the party.

I’m genuinely sorry that anyone is upset about the way I handled the run up to the event; I hope that the quality of Joe’s talk, and the ability to hear first hand his impressions of Irish and European politics, in some way makes up for it.

I’m thankfully for everyone who turned up, and for all the great feedback I received on the night.

Update: (26/2/09) Here’s the text of the Press Invite (PDF) sent to members of the tech press. It features an FF logo and details of why Joe was in town. He also discussed this on RTE Radio 1 with Mary Wilson around 5pm on the day.

This post is one of a few that have been mangled recently; I’m working to restore all the comments that I possibly can. They will return here in the coming days.

Closure of Rockhill Barracks

This week saw the last parade of Troops from Rockhill House army barracks in Letterkenny. The barracks at Rockhill and Lifford were victims of the October budget, which saw a total of five military facilities ordered closed in a decision which owes little to financial concerns (as I’ve discussed here before).

This is a massive blow to Letterkenny and Lifford, and the surroundings communities. All local representatives have come out against this, and a number of meetings have taken place between local reps and senior officials and ministers. This is a terrible decision, which will impact in a number of ways, both for the people involved and their families and for the wider community of the town.

People employed at Rockhill have made a massive contribution to Letterkenny over the years. The base will be sorely missed, for economic and social reasons.

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Thanks to Amy Rose Harte in the Donegal News and Donna Deeney in the Letterkenny Post for the write-ups this week, on my decision not to seek election to Donegal County Council and to step down from Letterkenny Town Council at the election on June 4th.

I made the decision not to seek a nomination for the County Council in December, when the candidate selection interviews took place. After considering my position for a long time, and consulting with family, friends and supporters, I’ve also decided not to seek re-election for the Town Council.

The articles talk about “personal and professional reasons”, which boils down to the limited number of hours in any given day. The merging of the Letterkenny and Milford electoral areas gave me a fantastic opportunity to take a seat on Donegal County Council, which would mean spending much more time on politics and less time for work, study and a personal life.  Since starting work at Strawberry Media in March, things have been great, and there is a number of things I want to do there which will require commitments of time at work, and time working with clients up an down the country.

The decision came down to figuring out how to strike the right balance, and give each element the commitment they deserve. Where I to remain on the Town Council, and do the personal, professional and academic things I intend to, something would definitely suffer. By not seeking re-election to the Town Council, I hope someone with the ability to commit full-time to the role will get the seat and continue to work for the people of the Town.

Is this the end for me and politics? Certainly not. I will be active during the campaign for Fianna Fail, both in Letterkenny and wherever else I can help. I take my position as a Councillor very seriously, and will be working on local issues right up until the end of my term. I also intend to continue supporting a number of the groups I have worked with over the last five years. I won’t rule anything in or out for the future, as circumstances will certainly change, but the decision at this stage is made. I love politics, and public service, and I hope I can be of help in the future, in whatever way.

Being a Councillor has given me an awful lot, I’ve really enjoyed the role and the interaction with people in Letterkenny, across the Country and around the world. It has even helped me professionally, particularly through this website. I’ve learned a huge amount in the last five years, from the first day of campaigning right up to today as I write this.

I have a list of people to thank as long as my arm, so I can’t really get in to it here for fear of leaving someone out. Family and friends have been key, particularly Mary who has had the key role of settling me whenever I get worked up about an issue (and stopping me saying something/doing stupid!). The Fianna Fail party, and all those who supported my campaign, made it all happen. The local media here gives great coverage to the issues, much more so than in many other towns around the country. The online community, bloggers and readers, who have contributed here and elsewhere. My fellow councillors, and the staff at Letterkenny Town Council, have  a great working relationship that moves beyond party politics and delivers for the people of the town. And certainly, the people of Letterkenny who gave me their trust and have made everything over these busy years worth it.

So, back to work, still five months to go!

Old Leisure Centre- May 14th, 2007

As has been the case at many recent council meetings, the meeting of Monday May 14th featured a long discussion about the old and new Leisure Centres in Letterkenny. At this meeting, there where two motions (one from Cllr Jimmy Harte, one from Cllr Neil Clarke) calling on the council to keep the old centre open when the new centre was opened, leaving Letterkenny with two municipal pools. When this was put to a vote, the motion was rejected (Cllr Harte withdrew his motion as they where similar).

The motion to keep the centre open was supported by Cllrs Jim Lynch, Neil Clarke, Jimmy Harte and Gerry McMonagle. It was opposed by Ciaran Brogan, Jean Crossan, Dessie Larkin and myself. Cllr Victor Fisher was absent as he has been unwell recently. The vote was decided by Mayor Ciaran Brogan’s casting vote, which he used against the motion. An amended motion was passed, saying that the council would only sell the Leisure Centre site for a public or civic building, and would not sell it to a private developer.

I am disappointed, upset and annoyed both by what happened, and by the way it happened. In particular, I know that I and my party are going to be villified for what happened. In the end, I don’t feel there was any choice in the matter.

Nobody wants to close any leisure centre. Letterkenny, in particular, has done great work in the last decade in extending the range of leisure facilities available in the town. We’ve opened the Town Park, redeveloped Linear Park at Ballyraine and the 8 Acres at Ballyboe, and begun work on the new Leisure Centre at Sallaghraine and 20 acre park at Ballymacool.

The Council never intended to run two pools together. Indeed, Letterkenny was ahead of most local authorities building new Leisure Centres in that the old pool will remain open until the new pool opens its doors. For example, Naas in Co Kildare saw their old pool closed for some months before a new pool opened. Cllr Harte and Cllr Lynch backed this policy until relatively recently.

There is no shortage of political will behind leisure facilities in Letterkenny. The council has a budget of just over E8million per year for all our services and work in the town, and we’re about to open a Leisure Centre which has cost E22.7m to builld, and will then begin work on a new Park which will cost E3.5m to build. If it were at all possible to retain the old pool, it would have been done.

The sticking point for running both pools is the ongoing operating costs. Last year (2006) was the best year ever in the operation of the High Road Leisure Centre- it required a subsidy of just E90,000 to operate. This is for two reason: first, it was operated extremely efficiently, and secondly it was not upgraded substantially as the new centre was under construction. In previous years, it has been common for the Centre to require subsidies of E250,000 and more. I don’t think this is unreasonable; it is a great investment for any council to make.

We will now, however, be making large repayments on our loan (E5m) and overdraft facility (up to E6m) to deliver the new Leisure Centre and Town Park.

Back in October, when Cllr Harte begin claiming to support the campaign to keep both pools operating side-by-side, I made it very clear to him that it was not simply a case of “deciding” to keep both pools open; the Council would have to budget for money to run them both. I have said this in public meetings, in Council meetings and in private. Cllr Harte has always ignored this point, including at last night’s meeting. Cllr Harte did not attend this year’s budget meeting, when it was unanimously agreed by all other councillors that there would be a six-month subsidy set aside for operating the High Road Centre. More than this, Cllr Harte has made no attempt to address the budgetary issues facing this council in running both centres.

To put it painly, there are two ways in which the High Road Centre could have been retained. I have been working on both of them since last October, but have not found satisfactory answers on either front. I am particularly annoyed that those who would claim to support the campaign for retension of the Centre have made no effort to do either, despite claiming for months to wish to run both centres.

The options are either to (a) show where the current trade at the Leisure Centre could be greatly increased – it would need to Double to run it anywhere near current costs – or (b) show how the Town Council’s budget could be amended to cover the operating costs by sourcing money away from other programmes.

No Councillor who voted to retain the pool last night had any proposals on either of these arguments, and nobody even chose to address them when raised.

I have worked on them. Last year, as Mayor, I was forced to use my casting vote against funding for the Comedy Festival, as it had not been shown where it could be sourced without harming other budget programmes. I then spent days working with the Town Clerk to identify lines in our budget where savings could be made, and delivered the funding for the festival about a week later. This was over E10,000. If trade at the combined Leisure Centres could be increased by a massive 50%, we would have needed to find a subsidy of at least E400,000. That’s excluding any major refurbishment works required to bring it back to standard.

I gave a commitment to the Swilly Seals that I would do everything I could to keep the centre open. I have done that. I have met with the Seals on a number of occasions, I have discussed the issue with swimmers, teachers, parents and other groups who use the pool. I have spoken to councillors on fifteen local authorities in all parts of the Country to see whether any other authority has addressed this problem better (none comes near Letterkenny). I have gone through every line of the Councils budget. The money simply isn’t there; to deliver the minimum E400,000 would require a crippling 10% increase on the Town’s Commercial Rate, above the common inflationary adjustment. This would burden local businesses further. Either that, or the council would have to spend E400k less on social housing, road safety measures or some other budgetary item.

I would like to compliment the Swilly Seals on the way they have behaved throughout this process. They have been very honest and decent throughout the process. They have come forward with suggestions on how the council could have closed the funding gap. They did have some good suggestions, but these would have helped at most bring in about E60k-80k per year, leaving a shortfall around E340k (based again on massive increase in uptake at the pools). They have been proactive in engaging with the Councillors throughout recent months, and I hope they will continue to do so in the years to come.

At it’s most basic level, this has been the worst example of an issue being abused for political purposes that I have come across in my time in politics. This is my first time as an elected representative while a campaign has been ongoing, but it has left a very sour taste in my mouth. The genuine concerns of the Swilly Seals and the schools and members of the community who use the pool have been used for nothing more than electoral reasons. I’m not talking about Cllr Neil Clarke and Cllr Gerry McMonagle here; as new councillors, they (like myself) were not part of the decision to close the old Pool. Cllr Harte was. Since leaving Fine Gael and standing for the General Election he has changed his position on the pool completely, and has written many press releases and spoke on the Radio on numerous occasions. What he has not done, however, is made any effort to resolve the situation. He brought forward no proposals that would have addressed the funding problems faced. He failed to even acknowledge the issue when it was repeatedly put to him.

No doubt there will be numerous press releases issued this week, castigating both me and my party for the vote that was taken. At the end of the day, council policy was that the pool was being closed. Cllr Harte and Cllr Lynch* both approved this. The vote last night was to change that policy, but none of the Councillors putting forward the motions made any effort to make a case to change the policy, and to show how it could be funded. I’m still very angry about what took place last night, and the way in which it has been handled by those seeking to abuse the valid concerns of community groups for electoral purposes.

I have been in touch with the Council this morning again to ensure that they address all the concerns of the Swilly Seals, to ensure the club continues to thrive in the new facility.

I have worked on this issue for over six months, and was unable to find anyway in which the council could keep both facilities open. This is much more than those who will now claim to have supported retaining the Centre have done. We must remember that Letterkenny is not losing out; at no stage will the facilities on offer be reduced. The day the new centre opens, we will go from having a twenty-year-old pool, in drastic need of repair, to having the finest municipal leisure centre in the country. This is being lost in the midst of this debate.

A note on calculations: The current pool can take one school class at a time, as lessons take place only in the shallow end. The new pool has a moving floor, and is 20% larger. It is possible to raise the floor so that the entire pool is shallow, and lessons could take place at both ends. This would allow either (a) two classes from the same school or (b) a class to be split in two, to be taught in smaller groups. This is a great boost, however I have not taken account of it. This means that a 50% increase in trade may fall short of delivering even the optimistic figures I have used above.

* Cllr Lynch has spoken on a number of occasions on different ways in which external bodies could have helped in this situation. No external body has been interested in helping. He has not been abusing this issue the way others have. We faced a tough vote last night, and I wouldn’t blame him for the way he did vote.

My first post on this issue, which outlines my position in full, is on this page. You can see all my posts about the Leisure centres listed on this page

Urgent- Postal Votes

I lifted most of this post from Daithi at Lex Ferenda. I do so with apologies- this is an important, urgent topic.

If you are unlikely to be able to vote in person on Thursday 24th May (and you are already registered to vote), it is not too late to apply for a postal vote. If you are accepted as a postal voter (due to being resident in a different place to where you’re registered – i.e. a student from Cork living in Dublin during term-time for college), you must vote by post – you can’t then turn up at your polling booth in Cork.

Your application for a postal vote goes to the local authority area in which you’re already registered – Donegal County Council in this area.

This must be done by Tuesday. (An application by an elector to have his name entered in the supplement to the postal voters list received by the registration authority on or after the third day after the dissolution of the Dáil at a general election … shall not have effect in relation to that election or referendum).

If you, or anyone you know, will require a postal vote, my advice is to ring Sheila in Dr McDaid’s office on 074 916 8642. Registrations have to be in by 4pm tomorrow (Tuesday)