St. John’s City Hall Cliff Notes

Nathan Downey looks at the big issues of the past few months.

The days are long and sultry and sunlit. Public service on every level has hit barbeque season, and St. John’s city council meetings have dropped in frequency to once every two weeks. But, since we’re on the eve of an explosive election, it stands to reason that for a number of our elected officials, the summer’s not just going to be all pig roasts and coleslaw, clambakes and hootenannies. Instead, we can imagine hopefuls and incumbents burnishing their armour and oiling themselves up for a serious contest come September.

But now, as the political cycle has entered its languid summer snooze, let’s take a brief look back at some of the key issues, dramatic interludes, and hijinks that have been kicked around council chambers over the last year.

Rise in Violent Crime

On the evening of May 31, the quiet of a sleepy street in the Kenmount Terrace subdivision was shattered as a gunman in a car shot a magazine of AK-47 bullets into the wrong house. No one was hurt, but it was another in a string of high-profile episodes of violence to rock the city in recent months. Police are continuing investigations into an arson and firebombing they believe is linked to the Dauntless Street drive-by. In mid-March, a savage beating at Tessier Place led to the death of Joey Whalen and second-degree murder charges for Mount Pearl resident Kenny Green. Police believe all of these incidents relate to the illegal drug trade that seems to be ramping up in booming St. John’s.

Are these drive-bys, firebombings, and savageries indicators of what’s on the way for the normally placid capital city? Are the city streets about to become battlefields as players in the drug trade duke it out for control?

City council has taken measures to address the problems administratively.

In the wake of the Tessier Place murder, Councillor Sheilagh O’Leary helped organize a neighbourhood watch organization for the troubled street.

Council also approved the founding of a mayor’s advisory committee on crime prevention in the June 25 meeting. Naturally, as we’re in an election season, this no-brainer of an idea was subject to controversy: Councillor O’Leary accused Mayor Dennis O’Keefe of plagiarizing the idea for the committee from Ward 2-hopeful Jonathan Galgay. O’Keefe defended himself by saying that the idea came to him after consultation with Galgay. Regardless of where the idea came from, the committee will be struck and there will be an administrative apparat devoted to addressing the rise in violence.

The New Metrobus Terminal

Metrobus is slated to get a new terminal this summer. Maybe.

The $32.4-million facility, which is being constructed on Messenger Drive (Off Kelsey Drive), has been plagued with delays. It was originally scheduled to be completed in the spring of 2012, but 2013’s spring has come and gone and the facility is still not finished.

Councillor Tom Hann is council’s representative on the St. John’s Transportation Commission, and he says the facility should be done by this summer. Or early fall.

Meanwhile, council has been mulling over what to do with the old terminal facility. Right now the leading idea for the Freshwater Road terminal is to repurpose it as a permanent home for the St. John’s Farmers’ Market. Given its size, its proximity to green space, its large garage facilities, its central location, and its positioning along bus routes, this is actually a great idea.

Hotels, Hotels, Hotels

A glut of new hotels are being constructed in St. John’s to address an acute shortage of accommodations. Demand for hotel rooms is highest in peak tourist season, but the offshore oil industry and the Muskrat Falls megaproject also put strain on bed availability.

A Fairfield Marriott recently opened its doors at 199 Kenmount Road. Construction is beginning for a 200-room Sandman Hotel in the same area, and numerous other proposals have rolled through council.

Probably the most interesting of these is a proposal to build a rooftop hotel atop the Atlantic Place parking garage. A public meeting will be held July 4 to discuss the project. If it gets approval, it’ll be a welcome facelift for one of the biggest eyesores in the downtown area. The proposed hotel will feature 150 rooms spread out over three storeys on top of the parking garage, and will use mesh screening to disguise the existing structure and boost its deficient aesthetics. Stay tuned.

Goodbye Shannie

In May, Deputy Mayor Shannie Duff announced she would not be seeking re-election in the fall. This marks the closing chapter in a long and distinguished career in politics for the deputy mayor. Duff’s good sense and commitment to responsible development and heritage preservation revolutionized city council practices and oversight.

Her political career included stints as mayor and as an MHA, and her commitment to community service earned her the Order of Canada in 2003 and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2013.

Duff’s retirement means that Ron Ellsworth is running unopposed for the deputy mayor’s chair come September. Ellsworth, a prominent businessman, served as deputy mayor for Dennis O’Keefe until the 2009 election, when he took a run for mayor and lost. Unless an opponent materializes over the summer months, it looks like he could breeze back onto city council.

The Silly Season

The municipal election is imminent. On September 24, residents of St. John’s will go to the polls to select a new council. The rapidly approaching election means that council has entered the “silly season”, in which our elected representatives don their gloves and start duking it out in the ring of political rhetoric.

Right now the most exciting contest seems to be the mayoral race. Mayor Dennis O’Keefe is facing off against two challengers — councillor-at-large Sheilagh O’Leary and health activist Geoff Chaulk. Barbs have been hurled, signs have been brandished, and the mayor’s nice-guy persona seems to have been misplaced. Three months are left on the clock and it’s a pretty safe assumption that we’re all in for some pretty good political theatre.

The other one to watch is the race for Ward 2 councillor. Ward 2 encompasses the heavily populated downtown core as far west as Patrick Street. There are three contestants vying for the seat left vacant by Councillor Frank Galgay, who’s hanging up his council spurs — Frank’s nephew Jonathan Galgay, community activist Andrew Harvey, and political advisor Simon Lono. It’s a tough one to call at this point, but expect it to be a fierce competition.

Follow a live play-by-play of the city council drama every other Monday at 4:30pm on Twitter @thescopeNL

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