St. John’s city council report card

REPORT CARD
To evaluate each of the councillors we contacted each of them, and contacted various organizations and individuals who deal with them regularly.

Phase one: Five weeks before this issue hit the street, we sent an e-mail to acting mayor Dennis O’Keefe and the 9 remaining councillors. We asked them, among other questions, council’s greatest achievement in the past year, the city’s top 5 priorities, as well as their opinions on municipal issues like sidewalk snow clearing, bike lanes, graffiti, and Mile One Centre. They were asked to respond by two weeks later. A week later, we made another round of phone calls and e-mails to remind each of them.

We had a good turnout. Seven of the ten members of St. John’s city council met the deadline: councillors Frank Galgay, Keith Coombs, Wally Collins, Ron Ellsworth, Sandy Hickman, Tom Hann, and Dennis O’Keefe. Shannie Duff did submit, but missed the deadline by a few days. Councillors Gerry Colbert and Art Puddister did not respond.

Phase two: We also contacted a bunch of business and arts organizations, as well as regular citizens who follow city politics to get their input on each of the councillors’ performance over the past while.

The criteria: Who among them is willing to raise issues? Who sticks to their guns? Who reads the materials for themselves, and who takes city staff’s word for it? Who attends meetings? Who uses the media to educate and inform the public? Who listens to good ideas from ordinary citizens? Who has vision? Who has passion? …

WHO CARES?
Who cares about city politics? I mean, really. It’s the most boring, confusing form of politics there is. There are no political parties to guide voters if they don’t know the individual candidates. What most people see on Monday nights are men in suits having shouting matches about incomprehensible minutiae. Water from the tap, garbage schedules, holes in the road…

But, really, these things actually affect your life in a very basic, direct way.

City council is responsible for making this city livable. The decisions they’re making aren’t small things, they’re basic things.

Want a glass of water? The city is responsible for bringing it to your tap.

Want to cross the street? The city is responsible for making sure you can make it across alive.

POST ANDY
Andy Wells has left the building.

When people heard that former Mayor Andy Wells was leaving his seat as mayor of St. John’s to take the post as the head of the provincial Public Utilities Board, the people who follow city politics hardly knew what was going to happen next.

Talking to people as we were gathering information about this report, the phrase “post-Andy” kept popping up. As in “post-Apocalyptic” or “post-modern”… An era following a momentous period.

Andy Wells—love him or hate him—was a major force in city politics.

“Wells being gone is like blowing something up to change the course of a river and having not done all the planning on what might happen when you do that,” one person we spoke with said.

So what is St. John’s city council like, post-Andy Wells? The dust has just barely begun to settle, the city byelection to choose a replacement hasn’t even happened yet (City residents will go to the polls on June 3rd.) The remaining members of council are aligning themselves – trying to figure out how they fit into this brave new Andy-less world.

-.-.-.-

Gerry Colbert: F

Councillor At Large
Phone: 576-7689

Ignoring an e-mail (and phone message and another e-mail) isn’t exactly the worst thing you can do as a politician, but coupled with a low meeting attendance record, it might make you wonder where their priorities are.

Councillor Colbert has had a spotty attendance record at council meetings over the past few years. Of the council meetings for the period of October 2005 to March 2008, Colbert sent his regrets for almost a quarter of them.

Many of the people we spoke with knew little about what Colbert has been up to over the past while, although The Telegram recently reported he and Wally Collins had a physical altercation over changes to the garbage pickup schedule.

…At least he’s passionate?

Comments:
Poor attendance record. Does not play well with others.

-.-.-.-

Art Puddister: D-

WARD 1
Phone: 576-2332

Like councillor Colbert, Puddister is another one who’s hard to get a handle on. He’s generally quiet in meetings, and did not submit a response to our questionnaire.

He appeared in the media earlier this year to support former mayor Wells when he called for an inquiry into Air Canada’s service for Newfoundland and Labrador. He also originally opposed the Memorial Stadium Dominion development back in the day…

But one of the people we spoke with described him as a mannequin occupying a chair. “See if you can find someone who can tell you if he’s done anything,” they said.

Comments: Needs to pay better attention and speak up more.

-.-.-.-

Shannie Duff: A-

AT LARGE
Phone: 576-8583

She’s no radical, but she’s the radical-est we’ve got.

One could go as far as to say if there have been any initiatives from the city regarding urban planning, public participation, heritage protection, affordable housing, the arts, and most other good stuff you can think of, it probably came from her.

Councillor Shannie Duff has been on city council for 28 years. She has vision, is a good researcher, works well with others, and is good at explaining complicated issues to the public. She’s on 9 committees, and she reads things for herself before taking the recommendations of staff at face value.

Although she submitted her answers late for our questionnaire (hence the minus) she put a lot of thought and time into her responses, which reflects her career as a municipal politician: She does her homework, and is willing to take the extra time to do a good job.

Comments: Diligent. Hard-working.

-.-.-.-

Frank Galgay: B

WARD 2
Phone: 576-8577

As a retiree, he considers his position on council to be full time, and it’s not unusual for him to pay business or arts organizations a visit to see how things are going. On the one hand, he has been described as dedicated, respectful of the opinions of others, and open to new ideas. He’s a really traditional sort of gentleman, which is probably why he seemed to be a favourite target of Wells. On the other hand, he represents Ward 2—the downtown area—and for someone representing an area as vibrant as the downtown, he doesn’t seem to have as bold a vision as some people would like. He initiates little himself, and often supports councillor Shannie Duff on many things she brings up.

He says the top priority for the city should be to develop a balance between economic development and heritage preservation. Not exactly a lofty goal, but one with a bit of heart.

Comments:
Conscientious. Works quite well with others, but he’s not very adventurous… but how adventurous do you want your politicians to be?

-.-.-.-

Wally Collins: D+

WARD 5
Phone: 576-8584

A new councillor since the 2005 election, Collins usually keeps to himself at public council meetings, but has started to come out of his shell more in the past year. He’s like the new guy at the back of the class with the leather jacket on.

Behind the scenes, though, he goes hard. He’s on six committees, and attends neighbourhood meetings in his ward regularly. He takes care of his clan.

One-on-one, he’s described as quick, to-the-point, and as one person says, “no bullshit.” His answers to our questionnaire: Outdoor video surveillance? “No, do not agree.” Downtown hotel developments? “Sufficient as is.” Converting the Grand Concourse trail to accommodate cyclists as well as pedestrians? “Do not agree. Too much congestion.”

If you’ve got a topic, Collins has an opinion, and he’s sticking to it. Unfortunately, this could have had something to do with the physical scuff between he and Colbert a while back.

Comments: The physical fight between he and Colbert has to lower the grade—does not always play well with others, but is hard-working.

-.-.-.-


Sandy Hickman
: C+

AT LARGE
Phone: 576-8045

George Harrison was the quiet Beatle; Hickman is the quiet councillor. But just because he doesn’t like flapping his gums as much as others in The Bunker doesn’t mean he doesn’t contribute. He has a professional background in tourism, so he is sympathetic to arts and culture generally, and he seems to fall into the Shannie and Frank voting camp more often than not. He did, however, vote for the Memorial Stadium after Loblaws decided Cygnus Gymnastics could be there. (He didn’t seem concerned that a supermarket was attached to the gymnasium, just that recreation would take place inside.)

It might just have been how city council worked—or didn’t work—at the time, but ages ago Hickman proposed a fixed term for garbage collection, but the idea was overturned. Now, after lots of confusion and frustration, Xs on the calendar and stinky garbage left in your hallway, the city is switching back to a fixed term.

While it’s kind of cool for him to be able to say “I told you so,” wouldn’t it have been better if he had fought for the idea harder at the time?

Comments: Thoughtful, and receptive to new ideas, but could bear to speak up.

-.-.-.-


Keith Coombs
: D+
Ward 3
Phone: 576-8643

Although Mile One is a contentious issue for many city councillors, this isn’t the case for Councillor Keith Coombs. He lists its construction as one of the city’s greatest achievements.

When he was chair of the St. John’s Sports and Entertainment committee, Coombs was forever promoting the “economic benefits” of Mile One, and also approved the term for Mile One of “being debt-free and subsidy free by 2010.”

That said, just last year the city was required to increase the Mile One subsidy from $1 million to $1.5 million. Strangely enough, the budget deficit for 2008-2009 is projected to be $1.6 million.

Ed Hollett, a local political blogger, affectionately refers to Mile One as the “Keith Coombs Money Pit.”

He is a friend of developers, and has, it seems, voted in favour of every major development project in the city. He is another long-serving councillor who has ambitions to become deputy mayor once he has given up his full-time job as principal of MacDonald Drive Junior High.

Comments: Speaks his mind, stands up for his ideas, and sticks to his guns. …A politician can be good at what they do whether you agree with them or not. (Maybe even if they’re wrong?)

-.-.-.-

Dennis “Doc” O’Keefe: C+

Former acting-mayor
Former deputy-mayor
Running for mayor in the upcoming byelection

Dennis O’Keefe is struggling to strike a balance. He is a suburbanite, but he is also a very dedicated walker. He wants to keep taxes low, but wants to provide a higher level of service to residents. “The city always has to balance its budget,” he said in the survey. “In the budget process we deal with whatever the projected deficit is. We will make every attempt to ensure that there is no increase in property taxes, either business or residential.” A controversial example of his dilemma popped up a few months ago when he changed his mind regarding sidewalk snow clearing. The budget got tight, and he voted unanimously with council to can the original $180,000 sidewalk snow clearing pilot project around schools. Later, however—and when it became obvious that Andy Wells was soon going to step down as mayor—O’Keefe proposed a new sidewalk clearing program for around $500,000. Far be it for us to say boo to clear sidewalks, but it’s not as though the city’s budget is getting any bigger, and many people thought it was a bit strange for the Chair of the Finance and Administration Committee to be having such a sudden change of heart. Listening to the public is one thing, but making a good decision and sticking to it is another…

How much is he doing for the good of the city, and how much is he doing to advance his own political career?

That said, who cares? The majority of the people we spoke with said he would be an okay mayor.

Comments: He is not what most people would call a visionary, but he could be characterized as open-minded. Listens well, and works well with others. Room for improvement.

-.-.-.-

Ron Ellsworth: C

Former WARD 4
Running for deputy mayor in the upcoming byelection

“Back to basics” is his campaign motto, and this does pretty well describe his opinion about the role of city government. His top five priorities? “Snow clearing, garbage collection, environmental protecting [sic], water and sewer, and parks/recreation/arts.” And whaddyaknow? This is essentially a list of the standing committees at city hall. The tried and true.

The people we spoke with had a variety of opinions about Ellsworth. One called him “Rookie of the Term”, One called him “gatekeeper of the pocketbooks of the city”, and another said “he would make a great accountant, and I don’t mean that disparagingly to accountants.” It’s good to have someone on council who will comb through the finances and question whatever he thinks doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, but there are many people who disagree with his philosophy. When last year he was one in favour of auctioning off some of the city’s art collection to fund other council initiatives, such as after school sports, you could feel artists’ and arts organisations’ humming with anger.

One of the people we spoke with said he was “Rookie of the Term”, and a few of them called him a political protégé of Andy Wells, which we’re not sure what to make of.

Generally he seems consistent, but there is one instance which could put people on shaky ground: A few years back he organized a poll to measure opinion on who voters would choose for mayor: Dennis O’Keefe, Marie White, or himself. When he was asked by a journalist if he was behind the poll, he said no. The next day, another journalist asked the same question and he said yes.

…Huh?

Comments: He’s ambitious and generally consistent, although lying to the media loses him quite a few marks. Speaks up. A little too focused on the nuts and bolts and could stand to step back and look at the bigger picture.

-.-.-.-


Tom Hann
: C+

AT LARGE
Phone: 576-8219

Running for office two and a half years ago, Hann’s campaign was focused on making changes at council… But how much change has he brought? He did serve a short term on the St. John’s Sports and Entertainment board and made significant changes there – reducing the number of councillors (and thereby, politics) from the board, improving the financial reporting system, and having them give more regular updates to council. Aside from this, however, the extent of change is unclear.

He does, however, have strong opinions on art. What constitutes the difference between graffiti and murals? When city council passed the bylaw last year forcing property owners to remove graffiti from their property, Hann wondered out loud in a council meeting whether this could also apply to murals he didn’t like.

“The old Woolworth building, there’s supposed to murals on it but it doesn’t look much like art to me,” Hann said in the meeting.

Councillor Duff was quick to note that particular mural was an art project done by young people commissioned by the owner of the building.

At another recent council meeting, shortly after the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s Paul Watson referred to sealers as cigarette-smoking apes, Hann thought it important to complain that an episode of Coronation Street airing on CBC contained the line “I would rather club a seal than tell Eileen her boyfriend is married.” He then asked council’s support for his intention to write a letter of complaint to the CBC.

I mean, pick your battles.

(He got council’s support to write the letter, by the way.)

Hann is a member of what is referred to as the “rookie trio” or “The Three Amigos” (Ellsworth/Colins/Hann) who appear to work together as a team and support one another. He is Ellsworth’s campaign manager for the upcoming byelection.

Comments: Outspoken nature aside, he is a thoughtful addition to the class. He seems sympathetic to public opinion, and has a seat on 9 committees.

Read the councillors complete answers to our questionnaire here.