Several Laois councillors push for staff to return to work in county hall

Lynda Kiernan

Reporter:

Lynda Kiernan

Laois County Council HQ Portlaoise

Laois County Council HQ Portlaoise

Several Laois councillors are calling for a plan to resume business as usual in county hall, so they can see them in person to get issues sorted for voters.

Half of the 400 odd staff are working remotely, making it impossible for councillors to call in and meet them without making an appointment first.

However the council CEO says safety of his staff during the Covid-19 pandemic comes first, with most of them working from home.

Sinn Féin Cllr Caroline Dwane Stanley called for a plan to get staff back to County Hall. She also wants council meetings resumed in county hall instead of the Dunamaise Theatre. 

Speaking to CEO John Mulholland at the meeting on Local Property Tax held on September 4, she said she was “not talking bulls***” when she said other councillors feel the same way.

“I just find it very frustrating. The housing section has been absolutely brilliant in terms of responding, but I have been frustrated with other departments,” she said.

“We have our schools going back with children sitting less than 2 metres apart and for some reason that’s adequate. Yet we have politicians who won’t because it’s not safe. I want to see a situation where we can go back in a safe manner. It's very frustrating when you’re going back to a member of the public and saying ‘I’m still waiting’,” she said.

The Cathaoirleach Cllr Catherine Fitzgerald agreed.

“I’ve a certain frustration as well. A lot of councillors have complained to me, but they are not saying it in here. We are throwing a letter into a post box the same as anyone. It’s lovely to put a document into somebody’s hand. I’d much prefer county hall myself,” she said.

Cllr Aisling Moran agreed.

“Once we wear masks and wash our hands we should be able to keep our distance. I understand people are working from home and when they do come in they are very busy, but we’re frustrated because we can’t get the work done,” she said.

Independent Cllr Noel Touhy disagreed.

“We have to hold our nerve and take the advice. If we meet those people are we going to tell them ‘I was in a room with 19 people?’” he said.

Cllr Willie Aird also disagreed.

“My wife is a teacher, they have worked above and beyond to get kids back and I salute each and every one. It’s wrong to make the reference to small kids, we are just doing our business differently,” he said.

He said he has made appointments with staff and met them in the foyer to good effect.

The CEO John Mulholland said that his staff are available for scheduled meetings with councillors, while they can also meet on site for issues like roadworks.

“That’s the way we are going to do business for the foreseeable future. But when it is safe to go back to county hall, either by way of meetings or to meet staff, we will be the first to trigger that. But we cannot do that as yet. It doesn’t mean productivity should be lost,” he said.

He said that staff are working in small pods much like schools, and there are parts of the building he has not been in himself during the pandemic.

“I think there’s a general air of acceptance and acknowledgement that we just must hold firm. We have to look at various aspects, the health and safety authority has a role now in monitoring and inspecting the buildings. We have a set of safe operational guidelines, in effect to protect workers. I frequently do inspections myself, not to catch people out but to see do they need assistance. And if someone is uncomfortable, and they feel they might need more protection but are unwilling to say that, then we must take account of that and provide a safe working environment,” the council chief said.

He said that the same standard applies to all the councillors.

“We don’t want any position where you are put at unnecessary risk within your workplace. My brief is to ensure a safe workplace for everybody," Mr Mulholland said.