City council report card 2010

By Andrew Harvey, Sarah Smellie & Elling Lien. Illustrations by Elling Lien.

Yes indeed, it’s time for the Scope’s Not-So-Annual (And Pretty Much Randomly Occurring) St. John’s City Council Report Card! Last time we did something like this was back in 2008.

We canvassed a bunch of business and arts organizations, city council watchdogs, and general city politics afficianados to ask them how the felt each councillor had performed over the past year. They gave each council member a letter grade and explained why.

Then we got council members to fill out questionnaires of their own, asking them how they thought they did, what they thought the biggest issues of the past year were, and where their priorities for the future lay.

Taking all that into account, we then poured over the results, searched deep within our own hearts and minds, and assigned the final grades.

The criteria for each grade was, roughly, based on a number of questions: Who tends to lead, and who tends to stay on the sidelines? Who has vision? Who sticks to their guns, and who is inconsistent? Who represents their ward well? Who attends and participates in meetings?

Here’s our opinion.

Click here to find out what ward you live in.

 

Dennis O'Keefe - Mayor
2010 grade: D+
2008 grade: C+

In the wake of Andy Wells, O’Keefe has brought much needed decorum and stability to council. His efforts to make council chambers a more civil, productive place have been well met, but as a chair of council meetings, he can be fairly divisive. A case and point is his conduct during the Fortis proposal and withdrawal. While it is one thing to be in favour of a certain project, it is another thing for a mayor to be all over the media begging Fortis to reconsider and expressing “frustration” over the “events leading up to its withdrawal.” (www.bit.ly/g9dct9) Dude, from our perspective, the events leading up to the proposal’s withdrawal consisted of citizens and councillors participating in a democracy. That’s the sort of thing a mayor should encourage.

We’re also disappointed in his continued stalling of the review of the city’s municipal plan, especially after he made such a fuss about of the importance of developing a vision for St. John’s during the election.

 

Shannie Duff - Deputy Mayor
2010 grade: A
2008 grade: A-

Say what you will, but we find it hard to criticize Shannie Duff for much. She is one of the most active councillors, and speaks intelligently and knowledgeably on virtually every topic. For someone who is routinely lambasted by sections of the public for being “anti-development,” she was leading the charge in the rezoning of Water Street West, which allowed for bonus height and new development in the area. Her many years on council give her a keen sense of when information is being presented in a misleading, or incorrect manner, and she does not hesitate to call people out on it. She is probably the most likely one to get in a racket, but in doing so, she’s usually defending her right to speak, or defending a position she has clearly articulated. Although she did call Tom Hann a “drama queen” that one time…

 

Danny Breen - Ward One
2010 grade: B
2008 grade: n/a

One of the newcomers to council, Danny Breen is learning the ropes and fitting in well. Breen has taken a fresh approach to the tight budgets he’s been facing, looking for belts to tighten within programs, rather than scrapping said programs outright. He’s also in good contact with his constituents, and often brings their concerns to council. Breen is always respectful and sensible when he talks, and listens to others’ perspectives. This is an excellent characteristic for a productive council member.

He does seem more likely to react to a motion than to make one, but hopefully that will change once he’s had a bit more experience.

 

Frank Galgay - Ward Two
2010 grade: C
2008 grade: B

If there’s one councillor who really lays out—perhaps ad nauseum—why he’s voting a certain way, it’s Frank Galgay. With 13 years on council, Galgay brings a calm, reasonable perspective to the table. Though he does stick to playing nicey-nice and smiling pretty for the cameras, his recent vote for the development on Signal Hill had many of his constituents pretty miffed. And although his perspective is balanced, it may be too much so for what is probably the city’s most radical and creative ward (which includes most of downtown).

 

Bruce Tilley - Ward Three
2010 grade: C
2008 grade: n/a

On his second go at council, Bruce Tilley represents Ward 3 with quiet dignity and clearly does a good job of staying in touch with his ward. He is generally reserved at council meetings, keeping his speeches short and getting right to the point with little explanation. He’s occasionally confused with what point the meeting is at, for which he takes a good ribbing from the other councillors, but he gets bonus points for bringing up safety concerns about the ducks on the road by Bowring Park with a straight face.

 

Debbie Hanlon - Ward Four
2010 grade: B
2008 grade: n/a

Debbie Hanlon is a councillor who always speaks her mind, and is smart enough to say when she doesn’t know something. This refreshing honesty makes her many contributions to discussion and debate welcome. She stays well in touch with her constituents through her website, www.ward4report.com, and brings their concerns to council. And she gets bonus points for her idea for a city-funded position to help artists promote their work locally and abroad to new markets. Outside-the-box ideas like this are crucial for surviving whatever grim financial times could lay ahead, and we’d love to see more initiative from her to turn these good ideas into motions.

 

Wally Collins - Ward Five
2010 grade: C+
2008 grade: D+

Wally Collins is like the quiet kid at the back of the class who occasionally cracks the hilarious joke. You don’t hear much from Wally Collins in council (for example, he was the only council member not to return our questionnaire, which loses him a few points) though when he does speak, it’s clear that he has his finger on the pulse of Ward 5, and that he’s responsive to constituent concerns. As far as issues outside of his ward, he seems to be a go-with-your-gut kind of guy. And speaking of guts, he ran the Cape to Cabot race this year in just over two hours. We’d like to see more of that moving and shaking from Collins in council chambers, too.

 

Sheilagh O'Leary - At Large
2010 grade: B
2008 grade: n/a

Having been elected with more votes than any other candidate, O’Leary came in with all the expectations of Obama. She has been extremely active in her time on council so far, raising a wide variety of issues, from funding for the arts to advocating for a ban on cosmetic pesticide use. She does do an excellent job of reaching out to the public and makes sure their voices are heard in council chambers.

Gotta say, though, we couldn’t help but be disappointed when she took up litter as one of her key issues. Litter? Really? That’s a pretty tame issue for a councillor who really seemed she was going to be a fist-pumping radical who fought for the little guys. We know keeping our city litter free is useful to remind people about environmental stewardship, but jeez.

 

Sandy Hickman - At Large
2010 grade: C-
2008 grade: C+

Sad to say, but if there was a councillor you might forget about, it’s Sandy Hickman. When he speaks, he’s sensible, respectful, and concise, but he just doesn’t speak enough. For a councillor-at-large, it would be nice to see Hickman pick up a torch—almost any torch, and really carry it.

 

Gerry Colbert - At Large
2010 grade: D-
2008 grade: F

With over 20 years on council, the often sensible voice of Gerry Colbert is one we wish we heard more. He’s civil, he speaks to the point and his experience lends a valuable perspective. And he’s got a great moustache.

So what’s with the D-? Councillor Colbert is, like, never there. Back in April 2010, just months after his re-election, The Telegram reported that Colbert had already missed 30 per cent of council’s regular meetings on account of his trips to Florida (www.bit.ly/g1g2nv.)

We gave him an F for his lousy attendance last time around. It’s improved a bit since then, so we are bumping his grade to a D-.

 

Tom Hann
2010 grade: C+
2008 grade: C+

Another active councillor, Tom Hann is not shy to voice his opinion, and he’s quick to point out inconsistencies in the actions of council. As a result of his questioning, we have seen a review of the city’s policy on sponsoring charity events, leading to a fairer process for dispensing city funds.

On the downside, Hann recently made a comment insinuating that video cameras should not be allowed in the gallery, which has us worried about his commitment to transparency and openness of council.

He also listed a review of the municipal plan as one of his top three priorities to us in the questionnaire we sent him this year, despite voting and speaking against a motion to begin the review several months ago.

Click here to read the councillors’ responses to our 2010 questionnaire.

4 comments

  1. Jordan · October 25, 2010

    Personally I think if Shannie and Sheilagh(Shannie junior) were making all the decisions this city would be bankrupt.

    O’Leary seems to always want to be spending money on pathetic things, that may not cost a lot when looking at the overall budget but it all adds up, and thhey’re both still anti-development.

    While Shannie may have done alot to get the small block on Water Street west rezoned she has still been against developments like the condo on New Cove Rd, the Star of the Sea Hall development, because the building was nearly 100 years old, she’s been trying to force a developer to abide by heritage regulations in an area where there are no heritage buildings, only building that were built in the last several years that look “heritage”. Over the years she has been instrumental in brining in heritage and height regulations which has caused the North East Avalon to sprawl out of control and has cost St. John’s millions and millions.

    I think one of the best councillors is Bruce Tilley, he seems to have been one the of the councillors who has made the most sensible decisions when it comes to some of things brought in over the last year. Wally Collins, Danny Breen and Sandy Hickman also seem to be some of the better councillors in my opinion.

    As for Doc I think he gets a bit screwed as mayor because he’s unable to really make decisions on a lot of the issues with city. All the mayor is really there for is to chair the council meetings and speak on behalf of council. I think the mayor should have a lot more power. All councillors should be elect at-large too.

  2. Anonymous · October 25, 2010

    Jordan pretty much hit the nail on the head about Shannie Duff. She is extremely anti-development, and the proposal for Water Street West doesn’t get her off the hook, it simply shows the foolishness and hypocrisy of the anti-development crusaders. The old Woolco building has about as much “heritage” value as the site of the Fortis proposal, the only difference is that an office tower on Water Street West wont be blocking the views of the latte liberals on Gower Street.

    Shannie Duff is a perfect example of why we should have term limits for city councilors. Running a city like St. John’s is not that complicated, and I would rather see new faces and new ideas every couple of years rather than have the same old dinosaurs and bored retired teachers term after term using city council as a platform for their own pet projects and interests. The city changes, while councilors like Shannie Duff don’t.

  3. Jordan · October 25, 2010

    That area of Water Street was also only brought into heritage regulations a few years ago so they just ended up with more work and money wasted by having to take it out.

    I’m always a bit iffy on term limits but when it comes to some of these councillors I can’t help but agree with it. Being around 20 and 30 years is ridiculous. Shannie I think is only in it for herself, look at the last election for example she decided to run for Deputy Mayor after Coombs decided he was running for it and I’m willing to bet it was just because she didn’t agree with him and new she could get him out. Why wouldn’t she have bothered to run deputy mayor before? It’s the same with others there too they run for positions that they no they will be safe, Colbert was deputy mayor till the much more popular Doc decided to run for deputy mayor so he moves back to at-large.

    Some serious reform needs to happen down at city hall, starting with less councilors and getting rid of wards wouldn’t be a bad idea either.