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St. John’s is the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador and the easternmost city in North America. With a population of roughly 108,000 people, it is also far and away the province’s largest urban centre—and a major regional economic and cultural engine. In the 2020 citizen satisfaction survey, the top priorities for city residents were identified as road maintenance, sidewalk snow clearing, road snow clearing, traffic planning, and land use planning.
At-Large councillors are meant to take a broader view on City issues, rather than responding to the needs of a specific constituency as Ward councillors are. All members of Council take on a “lead” position or positions on a number of different portfolios, the duties of which include attending committee meetings, introducing items pertaining to that topic in Committee of the Whole and regular council meetings, and speaking on related issues in the media. At-Large councillors are intended to take the well-being of all 108,000 city residents into account when weighing decisions—though whether this truly takes place is perhaps subjective.
There are four At-Large council seats. Three incumbents—Maggie Burton, Debbie Hanlon, and Sandy Hickman—are seeking re-election. There is one vacancy, meaning there will be at least one new face representing the entire city.
The Independent spoke with At-Large candidates Maggie Burton, Paul Combden, Tom Davis, Ron Ellsworth, Debbie Hanlon, Sandy Hickman, Meghan Hollett, Mark House, Anne Malone, Jess Puddister, and Greg Smith about why they’re running, the issues facing the city, and what they want to do about them. (Steve Parsons said he was unable to find time for an interview; Raymond Petten did not respond to multiple interview requests.) All interviews were conducted live over the phone, and candidates did not receive the questions or topics in advance. Read on to find out where they stand on bike trails, climate change, the budget crunch, public transit, affordable housing, snow clearing, and more.
Elizabeth Whitten (The Independent): Why do you want to run? And what life experience do you have that makes you feel qualified to sit on city council?
Maggie Burton: In 2017, I decided to run because there weren’t enough people sitting around the table representing the issues that I thought were the most important to the city. I was a young mother at the time, and when I first had kids, there was no way for me to get out of my house downtown and just walk around in the winter. So I felt really strongly that the city should be better for young parents and for kids and women, especially. Those were the first perspectives that I brought forward.
I was at a book club meeting in 2017 and we were talking about poverty reduction and how governments could help with that after the American election in 2016. We were talking about local politics and how there was an election coming up and I decided to get involved. First I tried to find somebody else who was going to run and get involved as a volunteer. But there wasn’t anybody that I really wanted to work for. So then I decided to run myself.
I’m running for re-election because there’s still a lot left to do. I am proud of the work that I did in the first four years and I’m hoping that we get a few more progressive voices on council so that we can get the six votes—the magic numbers that we need to get change actually passed.
Paul Combden: Well, I’m a hard worker. I have a lot of volunteer experience within the community. I’ve been volunteering now since I’ve been 16. I was a fireman on the Volunteer Fire Department of Wabush. I was the director on the Pride Board for two years. So a lot of community experience. I’ve also been working with both levels of government. I worked for the city of St. John’s for four or five years. And now it’s provincial government. So I’ve been working, say, for the public and on a taxpayer dollar for most of my career. 10 to 12 years experience in both the levels of government. I’ve always enjoyed politics. And I thought now is a great opportunity and it’s time to make a change.
Tom Davis: Well, it all goes hand in hand. I’ve had my own business since I was 21. When I was in university, I started my own business. I’ve been working in my own business ever since. I never had any ambitions of getting into politics. I’ve always been interested, obviously, in the situation for the province and the city as far as I perceived that we were going down this path of unsustainability. And I’ve always been concerned about the damage that we were doing to the environment, both globally but also provincially and municipally.
All those things came to a head last year going back to the Snowmageddon. Snowmageddon, for me, was a very frustrating process as I watched this terrible snowstorm shut the city down. There was a disconnect between the fact that businesses and the economy was closed for longer than it should’ve been. Our leaders used the word emergency, but then it took days longer than it should’ve because there were resources all around the province and around the city that were not put into place. Even weeks after Snowmageddon there were still parts of the city that weren’t passable. I don’t know if it’s a combination of the fact that maybe unions run the province more than they should, but they’re not the bad guys because, ultimately, we’re all in this together.
Snowmageddon was the impetus, and then we get into this [COVID] situation and then I still see our leaders—and I include municipal leaders—not recognizing that the oil industry is a stunted industry, that that is going to decline and that the revenues of the province and the city are going to continue declining. The way we run our city is as if everything’s going to just keep going, and I don’t believe it is. We have to make difficult choices, and we need leaders who will educate the population as to our actual situation, our reality. That’s the financial side of it. Climate change is also existential, and the city is directly or indirectly responsible for a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. We have to tackle those things, as well. I don’t see leaders who are willing to step up and say these things and do these things, and to look the public in the face and just give them reality and call on them all to do their part.
Ron Ellsworth: I’ve always been a community volunteer. I started volunteering when I was about 12 years old. We were raised in a single parent family in rural Newfoundland, and we relied on community a lot. Giving back is so important regardless of where you are and what’s going on. I’ve had over 30-odd years of continuous volunteering.
Presently, I sit on Virginia Park Community Centre Board. I’m the Vice Chair. I sit on Community Centre Alliance. I sit on the finance committee of MacMorran Community Centre. I sit on the Shea Heights Community Centre Board, EverGreen Recycling Board. I’m involved with Genesis Centre, with helping entrepreneurs, VOCM Cares, Business Arts NL, Bowring Park Foundation, and the North East Avalon DARE Committee.
So it’s a lifetime of giving back. And I have my business background. We’ve been very fortunate on the business side. We’ve owned and operated businesses now for about 25 years. Part of those businesses also is giving back to the community. We were able to do a sponsorship with Ronald McDonald House, with the Daffodil Place, along with some other projects that we’re able to help invest in.
Why I want to go back on council is, it’s much easier to get things done on the inside than it is on the outside. And because of my long service in the community, I have a lot of contacts within the community, a lot of different groups, organizations, government agencies, governments themselves. Getting things done is easier when you know where to go and who to work with.
Debbie Hanlon: Oh, life experiences? Well, I rose from a single mom on social assistance to one of the top entrepreneurs in Canada. I built my entire career here in Newfoundland. I know the business side of Newfoundland. I know the development side of Newfoundland because I’m a realtor and a developer. I’ve been on more boards than paint when it comes to my social side. I’ve been an avid community volunteer from the Single Parent Association to Newfoundland and Labrador Organization of Women Entrepreneurs, to committee boards to the Board of Trade to committee boards with NOIA. So my vast experience of life, the ups and downs that I’ve experienced personally are a lot of things that people go through every day. So I find I can relate to anyone on any level.
Sandy Hickman: Basically I haven’t changed the way I have been thinking or the way I am. Overall, my life, a citizen of St. John’s and of Newfoundland and I love both more than anything in the world, except maybe my family and friends. I’ve always been involved in public service and feel that I’ve been fine in terms of contributing during my tenure on council, and would love to have another four year term.
Another four years would allow me to continue all the work I’ve been doing. I should note that I’m also quite interested in the Canada Games in 2025 and have been all my life. I think it’s going to be a great, great event and I really want to make sure I’m involved in that. I’m feeling the best way to do that is from a council seat.
I’ve always loved my province and loved my city and wanted to be involved, and was very involved in sport throughout my teen years and right through my adult life in coaching and administrating. It’s something I think is really important for the development of an individual. It really helps when you’re part of a team or you’re training—you’re disciplining yourself.
I really truly believe in the ideals of sport—the benefits of sport, both physical and mental. That moves on into my Canada Games interest as well. But I’ve been involved in pretty much every committee in my time on council. And I’ve learned an awful lot, and really gained a greater appreciation for the arts and for heritage during my time on council. I’ve come from being a sport guy, a jock, to being a little more well-rounded arts and heritage supporter.
Meghan Hollett: So I want to run based on a multitude of factors. I have worked in community and community nonprofit for many years, both in the city, provincially, as well as nationally. I’ve worked with a variety of folks from newcomer Canadians to working within environmental and cultural heritage sustainability with Conservation Newfoundland and Labrador. For a number of years, I’ve been involved with Happy City St. John’s. For many years, I watched this.
I was involved as basically a boomerang resident. I’m bouncing back and forth between St. John’s and moving away from employment opportunities. I participated in a lot of different events just as a regular citizen, like anybody else. During my time with Happy City St. John’s, I was really fortunate to have the opportunity to be on different committees, as well cover council. So for multiple years, I sat in the media bin alongside VOCM, CBC, The Telegram, allNewfoundlandLabrador and covered the meetings, which was really unique. I grew up watching Cable Nine as a kid with my parents and watching council meetings. (I think that says something about my age.) But being in council was totally different, physically being in this space. That really opened up my eyes and I saw the issues that were being discussed and how the decisions were being made.
I really want to see the city reflected through the council members. I’ve worked with a lot of great people that I don’t think are necessarily reflected there. My hope is to be a part of a council that better reflects our community.
Mark House: I want to run for council because I want to accomplish goals that represent the views of the city. We need to work together. Everything that we try to accomplish can only be accomplished by working together. The result is always much better than trying to do something on your own.
Another thing I’d like to think about is the vision—having a better community. My slogan in this whole campaign has been building a better future. By working with individuals in the city, working with each other, we can do those things.
I’m also a family man. I’ve got two children of my own. I know what it’s like to want to have a safe and secure environment, safe home to live in, and to be able to raise my family in good neighborhoods that have good quality service. I want to be able to be part of being able to improve on those kinds of things. I’ve got a genuine passion for the community and its people and the future success of what I want to accomplish.
As far as my experience goes, I am an educator. I’ve been a music educator in the city for the last 28 years, working with the Newfoundland English School District. I work with K-6 children. One of the things that I like to think about is the community within a school. The school where I teach has a very diverse society. They all work together. We teach empathy and caring for each other. The school community is a microcosm of the community surrounding it. I believe that I can apply those skills in working with the outside community, the citizens of St. John’s, in making it a healthy, happy environment.
Anne Malone: I decided to run for a couple of reasons. The first is that I acquired my disability later in life, which means that I have the experience of being perceived as a person who is non-disabled and also the experience of a person who is perceived as having a disability. The contrast between those two experiences blew my mind. I had never been chronically unemployed. I’d never been unemployed in my entire life until I experienced sight loss. Bear in mind that the only thing about me that has changed was that I now require accommodations to read and to move around the world. It seemed absolutely gobsmacking to me that all of the skills and experience I had acquired no longer worked in my favor. My perceived disability put me in a very different status from people who are not disabled.
The second thing was that I experienced—and still do experience—so much difficulty navigating this city that it drove me into an area of public advocacy. For the last eight years, I’ve been engaged in many demonstrations, protests, vigils, meetings, letter writing, all the things you do to try to move an issue forward. So, when this election came up, I had several people who approached me and asked me to consider running. I firmly believe that the rights of people who have disabilities are human rights. The vast disabilities community is experiencing a lot of marginalization and we were not looking at this issue through a human rights lens.
Steve Parsons: [Steve Parsons told The Independent he was unable to make time for an interview.]
Raymond Petten: [Raymond Petten did not respond to multiple interview requests.]
Jess Puddister: It started in 2017. The first election that I worked on was Hope Jamieson’s. That was a big game-changer for me. I didn’t know anyone in politics at that time who was like me. So when her campaign was so well received and there was such a big appetite for young people and women to be represented on city council, that really changed my perspective.
I was doing a lot of advocacy work around that time as well on tiny homes and sustainable development. My partner and I were trying to live in a tiny house that we had built ourselves. I started giving presentations to town councils all around the Northeast Avalon to see whether or not they’d update their development regulations to allow tiny homes.
That was a really eye-opening experience for me—trying to advocate for change and understanding the levers and the mechanisms for change. Ultimately, we didn’t get to live in our tiny house, but it totally redirected my career in environmental science to the municipal sector because I had to teach myself how to read municipal legislation—to understand how development regulations and municipal planning interact with each other.
So I was able to find a job as a municipal climate change advisor with a local nonprofit. Then I started giving presentations at the Municipalities NL conference on Development Regulations and Tiny Homes. And it just went from there. When the opportunity to write for The Indy came up to cover St. John’s city council meetings, it just felt like a really perfect fit. When I started listening to the meetings every Monday and writing my column on the goings-on at City Hall, it’s impossible not to be aware of the gaps that exist and the lack of diversity in expertise.
I’m coming at this from a climate change perspective. To solve the climate crisis, the bottleneck is not in science, it’s in politics. I want to get in there and plug my skills in at City Hall because I know there’s a need for it. We don’t have any time to waste. So that urgency just propelled me to a place where I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror and say, “No, I’m not going to try to do this.”
Greg Smith: I believe that we’re at a pivotal time in St. John’s history. We have a demographic crisis. We also have, really, a crisis also in terms of: how do we balance the books fiscally? We have to be able to deliver better services. We have to find ways to grow our population, because I know so many friends of mine that have left St. John’s post-high school or post- university or college, to go to cities like Halifax or Moncton or anywhere on the mainland or away. We need to create a city where the atmosphere is right for people to start a family, to start a business, to start a career, and to also retire comfortably.
We need to create those things as a city. On the fiscal side of things too, the really important thing is that we need to find new revenue. We need to find new ways to make money as a city, new tax revenue, so we don’t have to put the burden of balanced budgets on the taxpayers for better services. And I think that that is quite pivotal.
In my personal life experience, I was raised on social assistance and social housing growing up. To this day I’m still a pedestrian and I’m still a transit user and I have been my entire life. So I experienced the issues firsthand and I know the importance of investment when it comes to delivering better services and having a more accessible city for everybody.
As somebody who is young, somebody who is openly queer, I can give people a fresh perspective to those side of things. That’s quite an interesting combo—I get to talk about all of these things, while at the same time address that we need to stop spending money on things that we can’t afford. We need to make sure that we make it affordable, not by raising taxes, but by finding ways to keep them where they are and to actually get better revenues—whether it’s selling Mile One, or reform on the Business Realty Tax Allowance, or finding new ways that we can do better permitting to grow business.
What are the main issues the city is facing, and what do you propose to do about them?
Burton: I want to make sure that the city remains a good place to live and for businesses to succeed. I want to champion sustainable growth through efficient core services, progressive development approval processes, and a modern transportation network that’s more accessible to more people. Basically, getting around is really important and being able to afford to live and work here is also important. But we need to re-examine the way that we plan in the city to make sure it stays as compact and efficient as it can be in terms of the way we actually build the environment here.
That’s one thing. We have a significant budget crunch in the coming years. We’re going to need to be really careful that the budget we set reflects the priorities of the people who live here. We know that there’s not a big pot of money sitting around, so every spending decision is so important. I want to try to keep services where they are now—and increase them in some cases—while keeping the tax burden at a reasonable level for the people.
Obviously there are other issues like climate change. We need to work on our community climate plan and get the implementation of that gone through. We’ve made a lot of progress on that in my first term, but we have a lot left to do. We’ve seen that Snowmageddon and severe weather events are going to become more common because of climate change and we need to be better prepared for handling emergencies like that.
Built heritage, affordable housing, and development in general: there’s a lot of issues that need to be looked at through a ‘systems’ lens. We know that 12,000 people in the city are spending more than 30% of their income on their housing, which makes it unaffordable for them. But we have to look at it more broadly and figure out why it’s so expensive to live here and make improvements on things like transit, so people don’t have to be forced to own a car to get to work.
Combden: My main issues: accessibility, green initiatives, some affordable housing and supporting local businesses. But my big key one is Mile One. This should have no bearing on the municipal taxes at all. The citizens should not be responsible for this type of organization. It should be sold. It’s absolutely outrageous that the city is allowing taxpayers to keep this place funded.
Davis: Well, our spending. Number one issue. I mean, right now we have a $13 million deficit. I believe it’s structural, so I don’t think it’s a short term deficit. $13 million is 4.2% of our budget. We have to cut our spending by 4.2%. Businesses and taxpayers who have been affected economically by the pandemic are going to be impacted directly by provincial government cuts which will be necessary in order to keep the lights on in the province. We can’t increase taxes.
We have to decrease our spending by 4.2%. That will involve employees making less money, there being less employees, less equipment, less services, less of a lot of the things that people just take for granted or that they demand or expect.
We also have a challenge—climate change. We need a climate change resilient city, which we need to have the resources to be able to respond to natural disasters or things like Snowmageddon. I propose a further 1% reduction in expenditures to create a climate change resilience fund, whose purpose is to just respond to flooding, infrastructure damage, snowstorms. So basically that’s over 5% reduction in spending.
Greenhouse gas emissions. We need to cut our emissions by 50% by 2030. In order to accomplish that, we need to reduce them by around 6% per year. Newfoundlanders emit 20 tons of greenhouse gases per capita. The world needs to get down to four tons per capita. We’re so far above that, it’s insane.
For the city’s operations, it’d be 47 tons of CO2 this year one and continue going down there. All vehicle fume sources to be reviewed. That would be easy things like idling or vehicle choices, but also just whether or not an activity that requires a vehicle is necessary. Does a snowplow need to go out? Does a maintenance crew have to go out at all? That would all be part and parcel of reducing expenses, but including the cost of greenhouse gases into all our decisions.
Then my final thing right now is a snow clearing reserve so that we actually go out and approach contractors now, get a special rate, divide the city into sections for a future Snowmageddon event. We have experienced municipal workers take the commercial operators around in the section that they’ve been assigned to, and also create manuals to show areas of concern, places where you put the snow, where the fire hydrants are so when this happens again we’re prepared and we can activate this snow clearing reserve. Obviously, the unions have to buy into it, but it is unacceptable that we shut the province down for, in my opinion, three or four days longer than it should’ve been in 2020.
Ellsworth: It’s interesting. You go into different neighborhoods door to door and there’s different issues of major concern. Issues around accessibility and mobility, sidewalk, snow clearing, snow removal is a big issue Downtown. You get out into Airport Heights, Kenmount Terrace, the Goulds, Shea Heights—safety on streets, safety for our young people is very important.
One issue that’s paramount for everybody is tax implications. This council is looking at a $13 million deficit. The new council will be sworn in a second week in October. By early December, we’ll have to have a budget finalized. And we know there’s a $13 million shortfall.
We brought down a budget in 2016, 2017, that removed almost $19 million from the budget cycle. We made some major strides without doing major cuts. Working with the unions and staff, there’s efficiencies that can be found. Can we close all $13 million? I don’t know, but tax increases are the last thing that I want to do. I know some candidates are promoting small tax increases for different projects, but I think it’s a dangerous, slippery slope when we accept that tax increases are the way to go.
What I intend to do is to be accessible to the public, always. My phone was always available. I spent time every day at City Hall and there was no trouble reaching me while I was on council previously. The 11 that are fortunate enough to get elected got a big task ahead of them. The work I’ve been able to do across sectors, across government, across political parties is paramount to building teams. Through teamwork and collaboration we can make things better.
Hanlon: Well, climate change is by far the biggest issue facing the world right now. So that for sure is one of the biggest issues we’re facing. But as a council, as a municipality, it’s going to be financially challenging. The assessments have dropped on homes, there’s going to be less tax revenue coming in. A lot of people can’t afford the current taxes. We don’t know the fallout of the pandemic. Very strong financial knowledge along with the compassionate side are going to be required to run our city. So big, big decisions—tough decisions—are going to have to be made this year.
Hickman: There’s no question that there’s really one main issue, and that is a continuation and enhancement of services while maintaining a reasonable taxation level. Our upcoming budget is also part of that main issue. Next year’s budget will be a very tough one. Everybody’s gone through tough times, all levels of government have, and the city is no different. Next year will be a difficult budget for this incoming council.
We must, however, understand that we want to support and encourage young families. We also want to support those that went ahead of us, the retired people that are living on fixed incomes. None of these cohorts can afford a high level of taxation, and right now the taxes in St. John’s are moderate, in my opinion. There really is not much room for growth and increase. Our biggest challenge is to continue the services that we do and enhance where we can, such as sidewalk snow clearing. We have enhanced that over the last couple years, but that can do with more enhancement. How can we do that with efficiency and fairness while still maintaining the taxation level that we have now?
Hollett: There are a lot of big issues that are facing the city right now, be that climate change concerns, sprawling concerns, financial responsibility. There are so many things. Accessibility being a concern. We have an aging demographic in St. John’s, and also in our whole province. By 2035 we are seeing a roughly 43% increase in folks over 65. If we think that we’re facing accessibility concerns right now, it will only be worse in the coming years. So we need to be wise in how we’re making our decisions right now.
That means making sure we have curb cuts when we’re doing any kind of infill work on sidewalks. This also includes sidewalk snow clearing, making sure that people can get around easily. It also means making sure that we make the hard decisions now and not passing them on to future generations. So that means not being able to build in flood plains, and encouraging ways that we can have the lifespan of Robin Hood Bay go on longer. Maybe that means composting options at neighborhood levels. There’s lots of great work being done in this by other nonprofits in the city. There’s ways that council can jump on that, explore it, and celebrate it. We’ve got so many great people in our city that are invested in so many different ways and helping lift them up and celebrate that is one great thing that council can do.
Affordability is also a key issue we’re seeing. So many people right now, especially with COVID, have lost their jobs, and they’re feeling the crunch. We need to support families of all shapes and sizes and socioeconomic levels.
House: There’s several hot issues that I have heard residents say to me. One of the biggest issues that I’ve been hearing is protecting our greenspaces, especially in the Rennie’s River Trail. That is a very special area for the residents that live in the area and also for most citizens in the city. Now there is a bicycle plan that has a lot of good strong merit. I am an avid cyclist. I ride my bike back and forth to school daily. So the trails are very important for cyclists.
But the pedestrian trails, a lot of the pedestrians are very concerned, especially in the Rennie’s River and the Virginia Lake area. They are very concerned that this bike lane that they’re planning on widening the path and paving it, to have different lanes for bicycles and walkers and people with disabilities who need wheelchairs and so on, and strollers.
There needs to be a balance between protecting nature and preserving the greenspace like Rennie’s River Trail and Virginia Lake, but also be able to come to some kind of a balance for the cyclists to be able to ride in a safe environment. Our city is, last time I checked, very hilly and there are lots of narrow streets. It’s really quite dangerous for bicyclists to ride around the city and to be expected to ride along the side of the road. I know that it would be very advantageous if we had some special area for the bicycle riders to ride. But I don’t know if it’s necessarily the best idea for them to ride on the same space as the pedestrians.
Another big issue that has come up is the wetland area, the Synod West Wetlands, over in the East End. It’s a wetland area, it’s a greenspace. People like to go out and play in the fields with their families and there’s all kinds of space. Because it’s a wetland, they want to protect the water and the animals, the waterfowl that live there like the ducks and so on. But on the books there has been a request for that area to be developed with 99 residential spaces. So they want to redirect all of the water that is in that area and to take over the land and develop it into a residential area.
The residents are very concerned. They don’t want that to happen at all. They’re really upset about it. They are very vocal about wanting to protect the area. And I am in agreement with their point of view that the wetland does need to be protected.
Malone: The city is facing, like, a plethora of issues. Obviously, the post-COVID economic climate is quite sobering. We’re at a time when you have to consider the needs of our community. Who are we as a city? What is our focus? Is our focus to simply balance a budget? Don’t get me wrong. I know we have to balance a budget.
We are already years behind in accessibility, for example, for persons with disabilities in this city. I feel that if we are not prioritized in the budgetary process, we will not only not progress, we will lose ground we have gained. The decisions that we make now, with regard to vulnerable communities and populations, will set a precedent that could keep us locked into this suspended animation for years to come. I really feel that it’s very, very important that the human rights and social justice lens be very present at the table as we build forward—not backward.
Parsons: [Steve Parsons told The Independent he was unable to make time for an interview.]
Petten: [Raymond Petten did not respond to multiple interview requests.]
Puddister: One of the main issues exacerbating a whole bunch of problems is the way that we’ve approached urban planning in the city. St. John’s has sprawled over the last number of decades, and that has exacerbated a lot of systemic issues like poverty, affordability, inequity in transportation. It’s ballooned our carbon footprint. It is causing us to hemorrhage money from the municipal budget because as a city sprawls and we build more roads and more pipes in the roads, it really causes us to spend a lot of money to operate and maintain that infrastructure.
So I think there’s a lot of retrofitting and repair that has to happen to the urban fabric in St. John’s. We have to approach that from a direct development regulation and municipal planning perspective. Envision St. John’s came out just recently, which is a really good step forward, but I think there’s a lot more work left to be done to incentivize the kind of mixed-use development that we all need to have complete neighborhoods and disincentivize the kind of sprawling development that we’ve seen over the last number of decades.
Smith: First and foremost—and I’ve heard this literally from 70% of the voters—is Mile One. That is one of the biggest issues that we’re facing. I hear it literally, probably half of the doors I knock on. It’s probably 70-30, 80-20 in support of the sale. We need to find ways to actually create revenue in this city without putting the burden back on taxpayers. Selling Mile One for a good price, and also eradicate the subsidy of St. John’s Sport and Entertainment.
People are really wary of their taxes going up. People on fixed incomes, with inflation, it’s hard for them to be able to afford food and everything, let alone tax increases. So that is probably one of the number one things.
Certainly number two, or at least not number one, is accessibility and making sure that we have a city that is open for everybody. We need better sidewalk snow clearing in the city. We need to invest in that. As a pedestrian all year round, it’s so pivotal. I get to work on the bus, I know Route Two like the back of my hand. So I think it’s quite pivotal that we invest in transit, that we have better sidewalk snow clearing, that we make sure we have more audible crosswalks. That we have more visibility lines on stairs. That we have a city that values active transportation is an issue that I’ve heard across the entire city. I think that they’re probably tied for number one, you know what I mean? But it’s good to see a wide array of candidates, especially Anne Malone, who lives this first hand and is an amazing advocate. Having people talking about how we make our city more accessible and inclusive is incredible. I think this is one of the most diverse slate of candidates in any municipal election. It’s wonderful to see it.
Where do you stand on the future of Mile One?
Burton: I support looking at all the options on the table for Mile One. We did make some progress on this KPMG report that looked at how other municipalities across Canada handle the issue of stadiums. My focus is on keeping the subsidy as low as possible and making sure that taxpayers aren’t on the hook for more than is necessary to keep building going. I’m open to things like third-party management and I’m also open to keeping the building operating with as little subsidy as possible.
I don’t think that right before an election is a great time to make a big decision like that. I hope that in this term, we can finally figure out what the long-term strategy is for Mile One. But I think that we’re ways away from that decision at this point.
I want to make sure that taxpayers aren’t on the hook either for a business venture that may come back at the end of the day to actually ask us for money, or for more money, as has happened across Canada when private management of arenas has occurred. So we have to be really careful.
Combden: If elected, my main thing I will bring forward on council is, this must be so. Other big cities—take for example Montreal, Bell Center. In Toronto, Scotiabank Center. These are not owned by the city. It’s owned by a group of investors or an investor, which has been compiled of a community involvement committee, people within the community or board members and other business owners. Any decisions made within that organization is done through the committee. The city is still subsidizing this unit which should not be at all on the taxpayer dime. It’s absolutely asinine how the taxpayers are paying for this.
Davis: Well, getting back to the reducing cost, I don’t think the city should be in the business of being in the business of anything. Now, that doesn’t mean that we need to sell something, but we should not be operating a business, which is what Mile One and the Convention Centre are, in my opinion. The challenge with a lot of government services is the nature of being a public servant. When you’re serving the public, it’s a different model.
I mean, as a business owner in March of 2020, I laid all my employees off because I couldn’t afford to pay them. I do not understand why we have $170,000 employees that we paid for the last year and a half. I don’t understand it. I can’t wrap my head around it. Who pays these people? It is not the council who pays these people. It is not the bureaucrats at City Hall who pay these people. It is the hardworking or retired people of St. John’s who pay these people. If their job is redundant or if there is a year or two years or multiple years where they’re going to be underutilized, operations need to be downsized and costs need to be cut.
We cannot afford to put $5 million a year operating subsidy into Mile One and St. John’s Convention Centre. There’s an acceptable cost to a public facility, but providing hockey or concerts—that’s not the job of a city. And further to that, John Steele is building an extension onto his hotel downtown which will be a space that will compete with Mile One. We have a lot of competitive factors. That building and facility is going to continue to cost us so the answer to your question is it needs to be taken off the books, either directly or indirectly by not needing a subsidy, by reducing its cost a lot or by leasing or selling it to someone.
Ellsworth: Well, the easy political answer is say sell it, but I don’t. I’m a former board member of St. John Sports and Entertainment. That’s only four years ago. I can’t tell you right now selling it is the right option. But what’s going on is not working. It’s a mess. It should not be chaired by a member of Council. This should be chaired by somebody from the business community. St. John Sports and Entertainment needs to operate as the town’s board. It’s a business and it needs to be run like a business. When I sat there, Gerry Smith was the Chair of our board and Susan Gardner was Chair of our finance. We really focused on right-sizing the building for the revenue we had. In doing so, we got the subsidy down somewhere around $900,000. But that’s through a lot of work by a lot of people in the business community.
Selling it isn’t an option. But until I get in, get information, look at how we got where we are, I think we need to look at that and figure out a better approach than what we have.
Hanlon: I would like to see Mile One sold, to be honest. I don’t like the fact that we have to give subsidies to it. I do understand the value of Mile One. When you have hockey games, it’s not just the tickets to the hockey games. People come up for the weekends to restaurants, the bars, the buses, the taxis, everything takes a little bump—same with concerts. A lot of times when you come for a concert, you come for the weekend. It is the capital of the city. I understand we do need a complex, but I don’t think we need to own it to the point where we have to subsidize it. I’d like to see it independent some day. If someone was to buy Mile One then I would like to see them buy it without the city being on the hook for anything.
Hickman: I know a lot about [Mile One] having been involved on council. I know more than the outside people do. It’s a complex issue. It’s a 20 year old building now. It’s going to need some upgrading over time. It’s been severely impacted by COVID. That has been a huge factor in this whole problem, the last 18 months. We had the best year on record lined up for Mile One and the Convention Center, and boom, lost it all. One fell swoop on March 17th, we lost it all. So it’s really hit a huge setback.
It’s an easy target. I understand that. My concern would be that the city has control. If that could be done through a shared management with a qualified outside operator, or if an outside operator came to the city with a purchase offer that was fair to the citizens or the taxpayers of the city, then I would be supportive.
I want to make sure it’s understood, I would be supportive of selling Mile One if it was the appropriate and fair deal for the people of the city, as long as it was still a relationship with the city in terms of major events and all those kinds of things. I’ve come to that conclusion over the last year and a half that that’s a possibility and would be supportive of it. But it’s not as easy as it sounds in the media. It’s a difficult process and it’s a difficult problem to deal with. And it would require a very thorough proposal from a proponent.
Hollett: That’s a great question and it’s one I’m getting pretty often. You know, I think we have had two KPMG reports that are being done. Still waiting to find out what’s the result of the most recent KPMG report. It’s great that the Growlers have signed to go back in for three years, but what is the end result of this KPMG report? We can’t study something to death. We need to make a decision that is reflective of the values of the people in St. John’s. Carrying this on over and over again—so we have the Growlers sign for another three years. Okay. We’ll have an election in another four years. Are we going to be back in this same situation again in four years? I don’t want to see that happen.
We need to make a decision on this that is reflective of what everybody wants in the city. There’s lots of different options that could be a part of that. Does this mean making it a regional center? It’s interesting to see, for example, the Jack Byrne Arena, which is physically located in Torbay, but it’s bought in by many different municipalities, and they pay in based on population size. I’m not sure necessarily if that’s the right idea for Mile One. But I think that’s ultimately where we’re going to be with the financial dire straits that we’re in for the next 10, 12, 15 years. Working together is the only way to get through a lot of things. Be that with your colleagues at work, with community members or municipalities—that’s the only way forward.
House: I am speaking to a lot of fans, season ticket holders—they were really not happy with how everything transpired. Mile One is an aging facility. It hasn’t been altered or upgraded since 2001. That’s quite some time that nothing’s been done other than general upkeep of the facility.
Dean MacDonald came forward with this proposal to buy Mile One. He was going to put $25 million into it and upgrade the facility. Then there was another issue of the whole subsidy—between $1 million and $3 million yearly that taxpayers pay to Mile One in keeping it open. If Dean MacDonald bought the facility, that $3 million could be put to use in other areas that are much more needed. By selling Mile One, the subsidy would no longer be necessary.
In the end, the city denied Dean MacDonald’s proposal, and they basically said, well, it’s not going to be accepted because it’s not good for the taxpayers. The bottom line is that there are many issues and many sides to the story. I think that St. John’s Sports and Entertainment dropped the ball—or the puck, you could say—on the issue. If elected, I will do my best to bring a better solution. I don’t think that the issue should be closed. There needs to be much more dialogue on the future of Mile One. That injection of significant amount of money looked to me as a very good plan that Dean McDonald had planned for Mile One. That could have really been a positive thing for the downtown corridor.
Malone: First of all, I’m not privy to all of the information that people who are sitting on council now are privy to. I have no more information than the rest of the general public. So there may be things I don’t know about that process that will come in later. But my position right now is this: a lot of decisions are going to have to be made about where cuts to our budget will take place. I want the needs of vulnerable populations to be at the top of that priority list. Whether that is Mile One or any other issue.
It is wonderful that we have the potential for this kind of access, you know, in the city. However, if it can not pay for itself, if it’s something that the city is going to have to continue to financially carry and if that decision is going to mean that we cannot progress the needs of vulnerable populations, then I think that’s a problem.
If Mile One, going forward, can sustain itself, then I’m completely in favour of it.
Parsons: [Steve Parsons told The Independent he was unable to make time for an interview.]
Petten: [Raymond Petten did not respond to multiple interview requests.]
Puddister: Mile One is a more nuanced issue than a lot of people are giving it credit for. I read the KPMG report that came out in January on the implications of potentially selling Mile One. In that report, KPMG did a cross-jurisdictional scan of 58 stadiums across Canada, and of those 58 only one is privately operated and owned. That’s the home of the Winnipeg Jets. And even though that stadium is privately owned and operated, the teams there still receive millions of dollars in subsidy from both the city and the province. So even in that situation, they have not been able to completely get away from publicly supporting that asset financially. About 34% of the stadiums they looked at used a public-private partnership so that the stadium would be publicly owned and operated by a third-party business.
That’s something that we should really seriously explore because it’s a working asset. It’s something that we built with our tax dollars. It belongs to the public. We should retain ownership if possible, and have an open, transparent, and fair call for proposals from third-party operators who can put their plan on the table and say, “This is what we think we can do, and this is why it makes sense.” And then make an objective decision with all that information on the table to make sure that we’re doing something that’s in the best interest of taxpayers.
The last thing I’d want to see is make a hasty decision to sell a working asset like that and then lose ownership and see the usage of that property change should the business plan fail. But I think there’s a lot of information that the public are not necessarily privy to. So I would really look forward to the opportunity to get in there and assess all of that information and see what makes sense from a lifecycle costing perspective. If selling it is the most sensible thing to do… I mean, it could be. But we need to look at all the information that’s on the table and make an objective decision.
Smith: I’m pro the sale of Mile One. It is not a position that was overnight. It was a position that I felt consistently. You can use the verbiage that I stated prior.
It’s a fact that the city has a budget shortfall. In what specific ways do you propose to solve the problem?
Burton: I don’t think there is an easy answer to that question. I think that we need to continue to make this an attractive place for people to move to and to live in. Ultimately, we have to have enough people here to support the services that the residents have come to expect. We need to make sure that people don’t feel like they have to move elsewhere in order to have a life that works for them. St. John’s needs to have things like a modern, accessible transportation system. People don’t necessarily want to own two cars for one household. We want to be able to afford to rent somewhere that’s nice: like not just affordable housing, but also adequate and nice housing. So there has to be enough here to entice people to come here—and then when they come here, to stay.
Partnerships with Memorial University, for example, which can make sure that the city is an attractive place, is really important to me. The economic development of the Downtown and the rest of the city is something that will help with the tax base. But I also think that the Provincial Government, as I’ve advocated for during my term, should be providing us more support through grants in lieu of property taxes for all of the provincial government buildings that are within its limits. So other cities across Canada get quite a bit of money each year from the provincial governments for the grants. That’s something that I’ll continue to advocate for, as I have over the last four years.
We have a sprawling city that’s really car-centric. We have to make it more compact. That means that we have to navigate a lot of complex questions around development and what we want the city to look like in the future. Neighborhood-level plans is going to be something that I’m going to focus on. We just passed Envision and the Development Regulations that I worked on for the last four years.
Combden: Sell the Mile One Center. That would take almost $6 million out of the budget. That’s $6 million we’re spending each year to keep this place going. Sell it. I don’t know, you make it 20, 50, 200, I don’t know the exact number of what it’s worth. But that would take care of, I’m sure, a lot of our deficit within the city.
Davis: I know I already said this, but reduce cost by 4.2% across the board. That’s it. At the end of the day, I recognize most politicians don’t have cutting costs as the main priority of their platform. I realize I’m a little unusual in that way. Unique.
Ellsworth: Back when we were pushing the 2016, ’17 budget, we were getting pushback from some councillors and staff—”oh, no, you can’t do this, you can’t do that.” We did a deep dive into the operations of the city, changed some of the operations, made some improvements in service levels and those things. Really, you need to go through the budget line by line. There’s somewhere around 70% of the budget that you have no control over. There are simple costs that are cost of operating: keeping the lights on, snow clearing, water, garbage collection, the basic ones. When you go find efficiencies, you got to find a better way to do business. You got to learn to adapt. We had a great working relationship with the union and our staff.
I understand from talking to staff members and union members, that’s not there right now. They don’t feel they have the same ability to have that conversation, which is sad because ultimately, staff, management, union, elected officials—we all got a mandate for our taxpayers to operate for them and to do our best for them. When we’re working as a team, we get much better results. So for me, it’s that. On the other side, you create new revenue or you create revenue sooner.
York Development was trying to do a development down there off of Hebron Way. They were slowed down in the process. By slowing down development projects—now, it’s not about allowing them carte blanche—but by delaying these things, you’re delaying revenue coming in. So we need to fine tune the development process so that when we have projects that are permitted in zones, that we move those quickly through the system, meeting all criteria. Working to move projects forward rather than to stymie or slow down projects will create new revenue, but also will create a sense that we are open for business. You want to attract new business within the city.
Hanlon: I’ve run so many businesses, including a family business, which was myself and my three kids. I used to have to make do with what I had coming in on social assistance. There was only so much money there, so whenever we needed to save, I had to look within my own budget. That’s the same thing I do with my businesses.
I will look to the budget to see where I can save. I will not be voting for a tax increase. Absolutely not on my watch. I will find it within the current budget. There are always ways that you can save—it’s just a matter of drilling down. Unfortunately not everybody’s going to get what they want. There’s lots of people that are looking for increases in this or more grants for this, and there are all good, great, valuable things that are needed in our city without a doubt. However, this year it needs to be a very tight budget and we need to run our budget and our city as tight to the bone as we possibly can to get us through the effects of the COVID pandemic.
Hickman: Well, the devil’s in the details when it comes to solving budget issues. First of all, the current council has discussed bringing forward some of the surplus that we have from the last couple of years. We may not have as much surplus from 2021, but we will definitely have some and I am a proponent of putting as much as feasible of that into next year’s budget. It’s certainly something we have to do.
Secondly, although most departments have had a good look over the last number of years at their operation, we are going to have to do a deep dive into the operations of every department, of every section of the department and every service that we do and find if there are ways of doing things more efficiently. Or if there’s something that could be done by the private sector more efficiently, or if there’s a service that is superfluous to the city’s mandate as a municipality. So that can happen. It’s going to take teamwork on behalf of the council, and on behalf of senior staff. As soon as the new council was put in place in early October, that will be the first order of business. I’m ready to participate in that.
Hollett: The budget shortfall is definitely a big concern. It’s a looming thing that is over everybody’s head. Again, back to the finances. For the folks that get in there and get to see the detailed reports and have the larger conversations with staff, that is important. Politicians come and go every four years—or maybe longer sometimes. The staff are there oftentimes for much longer than four years. So getting a detailed understanding from them is important. Knowing that property values are down, that means our budget’s probably going to be smaller, which means likely more cuts.
I think we’ve got to have a holistic view when we’re thinking about the budget. We have to think about if I cut X, how is this impacting a larger picture of what we want to see in St. John’s? So for example, if we say less sidewalk snow clearing, does that mean actually we’re going to end up sending more people to Emerge[ncy], which is already facing a really tight situation in our province with healthcare? Does that mean we’re going to have less retention of folks that choose to move to St. John’s? We have to look at things in a larger picture. I hope that helps answer your question.
House: Well, one of the main examples is the $3 million from Mile One. That would be money that could be used in other areas. We have to be more innovative in our snow clearing and try to keep costs down. Some winters, our budget ends up being in the positive because it’s been a milder winter. And in other winters, well, we can be nailed, just like Snowmaggeden. It makes the budget go right out the window as far as snow clearing goes.
I do know that residents, they all want to have clear sidewalks. I hear, well, it seems like Mount Pearl seems to keep their streets down to the pavement and their sidewalks are always clear. Why can’t the city do the same thing? Well, the city is much larger than Mount Pearl and has many more challenges in regard to narrow streets and the way that the housing is, especially in the downtown. It’s a very complicated thing.
We need to be more innovative on how we deal with those types of problems in getting money to be used more efficiently. But also, provincially, we’re in the negative as far as the budget goes. The province is in significant trouble in getting back in the black, so to speak. We have a lot of things that we need to do. The city’s budget is directly affected by what the provincial government is able to help us with.
As citizens, we all have to realize that it is going to be a few lean years. Hopefully by working together, we can get out of the situation that we are in and be able to eventually build a better city.
Malone: Based on the information that I have, a couple of things come to mind. For example, last fall the Mayor announced that the city had an $18 million slush fund. So there are mechanisms for the city to set money aside for day-to-day situations that need to be addressed. So whatever process they are using to accumulate that slush fund may be able to be applied to some of the deficits on the spreadsheet. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is that, again this was while Councillor Lane was still on council, he announced that there was an outstanding amount of $18 million in uncollected taxes and a substantial amount of that money was not a shortfall of residential property taxes. It was in commercial taxes. The city was going to offer some relief by giving some of the commercial entities that owed more time to pay those taxes, including the commercial property owners that owed taxes.
That is great when we have the financial latitude to do that. But right now we don’t. I think that homeowners should definitely be protected, but I also think that if you have large entities, developments or businesses or whatever, that owe extreme in taxes, the decision we need to make is: do we give those entities this grace while telling vulnerable populations we cannot afford to do what they need us to do? That’s the moral question we have before us.
Parsons: [Steve Parsons told The Independent he was unable to make time for an interview.]
Petten: [Raymond Petten did not respond to multiple interview requests.]
Puddister: Well, municipal taxation is regressive. Ultimately what really needs to happen is I would like to see changes to the municipal taxation legislation so that we can look at tethering municipal taxes to income instead of property value in the same way that we do provincial and federal taxation. So, big picture, that’s what I would be pushing for to make sure that we are pulling revenue in an equitable way from residents in the city. But again, there is an imbalance in terms of budget priorities right now when we look at who is benefiting from what money we’re spending and where. There should be some changes to how we’re spending money. Sidewalk snow clearing is an issue that I’ve heard time and time again on the doors.
It’s all fine and dandy to support that from an ideological perspective, but at the end of the day, the budget reflects our priorities. So I think that we do need to prioritize things that are directly related to human life and safety, like moving around the city during the winter, which is four to six months of the year in this place that we live. There’s a lot of information and detail with the city budget that we’re not privy to as members of the public. I would really need to get in there and see that information for myself before I could make any concrete suggestions on where to cut spending if we had to do that.
Smith: The sale of Mile One—making sure that we eradicate the subsidy that’s in the millions down there. If we do sell it, it’s actually going to turn into tax revenue. Make sure there’s clauses in there, too, that protect the city in terms of sale, that benefit both the private owner, whoever that would be, and the city.
Reforming the Business Realty Tax Allowance. My idea on that would be to change it from a 50% subsidy to 25%, only available for one consecutive year. If you were able to make your property more accessible or make it accessible, modify it, make it green, make it energy efficient—if you were to do that, you would be able to retain the 25% subsidy on your taxes for an additional year post modifications or renovations.
I’ve heard this from business owners time and time again that there’s a lot of overarching things and contradictions between some city staff and inspectors on permitting. We need to have more timely, concise and clear permitting. That allows business in this city to not look to the other cities and municipalities in the Metropolitan, but they stay here or they come here first. If we were able to do that, then we’re able to create more tax revenue.
With a few of the ideas that I have there, the first two alone would bring a good chunk of change to the city—in the millions. That the last one really could set us up for success in years to come.
In your perspective, what do you see as the principal area of concern when it comes to getting around the city—from roads, the bike plan, and the bus system?
Burton: We do need to make sure that people and goods can move effectively within the city. Roads are important for getting food to grocery stores or getting emergency vehicles through to the hospital. But the biggest gap that we have right now is with our transit system and with active transportation.
The Frequent Transit Network, that’s proposed in the operational review of Metrobus and a para-transit system that we completed at this council. The Frequent Transit Network will help people get around by providing a bus more frequently. Exactly what it sounds like it does. Instead of having to wait for half an hour for a bus, you can get one every 15 minutes or something like that.
We need to focus on getting people around in a sensible amount of time—so it’s comparable to a personal vehicle. That’s the biggest gap that I see, because if the transit system is not working for people they won’t take it. Why not improve transit if no one’s riding it? If you build it, they will come.
When it comes to extra transportation, we need to make sure that people can get around all year long: not just in the summer and not just for able-bodied people who can afford to take a whole bunch of time out of their day to walk everywhere. We need to be able to make it more efficient for people to get from point A to point B. That means getting to work by bike. That means getting to the shopping mall on your bicycle or your scooter or a mobility device. We need to be able to make sure that people can get where they need to go in a reasonable amount of time because everyone has a busy life.
Combden: We definitely need to invest more in the transportation here. I’ve traveled all over the world, and our local municipal Metrobus needs some money invested in it. It needs to advance. It needs more accessibility buses for wheelchairs and whatnot. The municipalities should come in with some sort of initiatives, so people working throughout the city have major points that the buses can meet and drop you off, so people are not piling all different vehicles downtown, and taking up all these parking spaces and money and what have you.
This is also a part of my platform, a green initiative. We should set up these bicycles in certain areas all throughout the city. Say Village Mall for example, one in Southlands somewhere, one on the East End up near the airport, and you pay $2 or your $5, and people can use these bicycles, drop it off at certain areas. Also, car sharing. In places like New York and Toronto, you pay so much for these electric cars—I don’t know what it is per day. Then you can drop off at certain locations, the same as the bicycle initiative.
Davis: Well, everything is linked together, so Metrobus and paratransit are very important. Public transportation in St. John’s is not embraced like it should be. The city needs to encourage people to make choices about where they live based upon bus routes, and bus routes obviously have to match with people’s needs. We have to make our transportation as efficient as possible and effective as possible. It is very difficult when people don’t use it. We have a demand problem, not a supply problem, but it’s a chicken and egg thing.
Bike plan, again, same thing. We need to encourage people to bike. There are challenges with the bike plan as it relates to shared use trails within mature parts of the city, like Virginia River or Rennie’s River. I’m not supportive of cutting any trees down, especially mature trees. I’m not supportive of disrupting riverbanks, and I’m not supportive of paving something that in a few years’ time is going to have frost heave and bumps and is going to be more of a safety hazard.
Roads. You know, I’m in favor of roundabouts. I know some people don’t, but they save fuel, they’re more efficient once people get used to them. They are safer.
We have to maintain our roads. The heavier the vehicle driving on your roads, the more they wear down. The asphalt and also the rubber ends up in our waterways and then out into the ocean. Studded tires should not be allowed in the City of St. John’s. They’re wearing our roads down, and we need to tackle the size of vehicles, whether they’re commercial or personal vehicles. People need to be educated to the impacts on our roads, on our climate, and ultimately on their pocketbook. As the province and the city reduces its spending and what it can afford to pay people, that’s going to impact every layer of the economy. People need to be educated that if they choose a smaller vehicle they’re going to save money on its purchase, on its operation, its maintenance and on maintenance of the roads. Leaders need to call on the citizens to do their part.
Ellsworth: So I sat on the Metrobus Commission and myself and several members of the paratransit committee are the ones that fought to get the current GoBus we have in place. Transportation is not only an economic piece, it’s a social piece. It’s a mental health piece. It’s a way to access programs and services within our city, so we need to have improved transit operations. Not only for buses and bikes, but across the spectrum. One thing that I’ve talked about before with rapid transit—rather than stopping every 400 meters, you would have buses coming in from Paradise, Torbay, that would hit Health Science, University, Downtown, and do a quick circle to get people into the city. We did some tracking of license plate numbers years ago, and I think like 65 or 70% of the license plates in the downtown were from outside the Metro area. So the question is, how do we get people into the Metro area where they wouldn’t have to be in a vehicle?
We need to come up with a long-term strategy for the bike plan. We need to develop a plan for the city and start moving out with the bike plan. There is concern with biking on some trails. All our trails are not conducive for bikes. I tried to walk up Rennie’s Mill River about three weeks ago. I had my two dogs with me and around the corner come four people on bikes. I grabbed the small [dog] and moved aside with my bigger dog. Now, these folks on the bikes were not racing. They were not going fast. They were not at all apologetic, but because of the twists and turns and trails you have no sight line. Not all trails are going to be conducive for bikes.
There is a great opportunity in the city and other places to build shared access for bikes and pedestrians and people with mobility challenges, be it strollers, be it adaptive devices, what have you. There was an opportunity there for us to build on that and to add something that can get you from one end of the city to the other.
Hanlon: I am vice chair of the transportation committee, but I’m new to that role. I would like to see increased bus services. I would like the bike trails and the walking trails to be more inclusive. I don’t think that we have to destroy our natural paths because I love our walking trails, but I do believe that there could be a happy medium found, so that the people on the bicycles can ride freely as well. And I’m getting older, and I see it. I like to walk the trails. There might become a time when I might need a walker to walk the trails, or you might need a walker to walk the trails. I don’t think that the trail should only be for able bodied people to walk on them. In this day and age, we will be able to come forward with a good proposal and a good plan to incorporate the trail so that everyone can enjoy them, not just one aspect of our community.
When it comes to our roads and the buses, we are moving towards greener buses. We’re trying to encourage more people to use the bus. We were just getting going when the pandemic hit. With our plan, children under 12 could ride the bus for free and hopefully become future bus users. Of course, it’s like anything, when you start using it, then you build it from the young people up. So the idea was that they would stay with it as they got older as well. And of course, the more the bus is being used, then the more money it will be, so we could actually put more into the buses as more people use them. An improved bus service is my plan, which is what I’m working on now with the transportation committee. I would like to improve the walking trails so that they’re more accessible to more people. And when it comes to our roads, do as much maintenance as possible to keep them free and clear.
Hickman: Getting around an old city like St. John’s—people must understand, we’re not talking about a grid pattern that you see on prairies or even in Toronto. We have a very old city, south of Empire Avenue in particular, there are very strange patterns and there’s hills and things fell in contours rather than a grid pattern. The city over the years has had to adjust as best it can to keep things going. It’s gone from streetcars that went along Water Street to a GoBus system for disabled people and people that need rides. And a very good Metrobus system.
But both those systems are very expensive to operate. They’re probably not utilized as much as they should be. We still need to look inward at more efficiencies and better routing, better timing, better services to make both those systems more efficient and more attractive for a user. St. John’s, again, being a hilly city with narrow streets and very little room in any thoroughfare—it has been difficult for bicycling. The city has responded to that [by] developing a plan over the last seven or eight years now. We’ve had various bike lanes, but they have always been going through adjustments based on engagement with people in the city. Even the current plan that’s in place will definitely have to undergo an adjustment.
The city is doing the Kelly’s Brook project—to me a bit of a pilot project to see how that goes. Bicycling has to have a combination of selected roadways that are made safe for users, plus some dedicated trails. It’s difficult. The big question is how do you match—or can you match—pedestrians and people in wheelchairs with a busy cycling route. That can work, maybe some places, but to me we must maintain our walking routes. Those are very important. St. John’s is a great walking city. If we’re talking about getting around our city, it’s a hilly city again, but it’s a great walking city. Every river and pond is ringed and lined with trails and it’s one of the assets of the city.
Hollett: I look at all of those three things within a sustainability lens. They’re all important. Making sure that we cannot have crumbling infrastructure when it comes to emergency services that can get out on the road. When we look at being able to bike or being a walker, we have serious health concerns with aging population as well as a crumbling healthcare system.
To see St. John’s make the Healthy City St. John’s strategy—huge kudos to the people that worked on that because having those kinds of documents takes us to a more holistic approach. We need to think about how can we get around the city in more than one way. Being able to get around safely on a bike is important—safely on a road in a car, or as a pedestrian too. Safety is one of the absolute key features because if we’re only looking at moving around with vehicles, this is not going to keep us healthy.
This is not going to keep us within a sustainability framework and making sure that we’re reducing our dependency on gas-guzzling vehicles. We need to think about this in many ways. One of the best parts about running At-Large is interacting with all the different Wards and seeing how people choose their neighborhoods. Having those kinds of conversations is really fun.
Seeing, for example, in Roncalli and Airport Heights, those bike racks and scooter racks—I’ve never even seen a scooter rack before Roncalli—is reflective of the fact that they have a neighborhood that has a trail that kids can use to get there. They have a bike path as well. Albeit only painted on the side of their road. So that’s amazing. People choose these kinds of things because they can get around safely. If they cannot get where they need to go safely, be that to work, or if they have community mailboxes, they need to be able to get around to these things.
House: We’re moving in the right direction. The bike plan is a really good plan. They spent a lot of time and effort in promoting it and developing it. There are so many good things about the plan. I am not knocking the bicycle plan.
For instance, the development of the Kelly’s Brook area trail where they have paved and they are opening up. How that turns out, that is going to dictate decisions that are made further down the road in regard to expanding other trails. We still need to be cognizant of people’s desire to protect the greenspace in the neighborhood at the same time. There’s got to be balance there.
As far as our roads—look, I did say narrow streets, hilly roads. It is just a fact. Because the city streets were built in a haphazard way back 500 years ago, the city wasn’t laid out in a grid. It would have made much more sense. We’ve had to deal with infrastructure that was set up hundreds of years ago and to upgrade that and make it safer.
Part of a way of improving that is if people got out and walked more and used bicycles, and used public transit. Our bus system could be improved. They have done a lot. They’ve put new buses on the roads. They’ve put in systems that cater to people who are physically challenged. Residents in St. Johns, they need to use their cars less and use public transit more. If we can provide a public transit system that people can see the benefit of and take more cars off the road, that would help solve some of the problems that our roads have.
So I was in Halifax just this past July. Halifax has a lot of hilly areas and has a heavily populated area. They have a bus system that seems to work like clockwork. We can improve on that. We put more buses on the road. But they can’t put more buses on the road unless residents use the buses. So they need to have the funding that comes from people riding transit.
Malone: For anybody who does not have access to or drive a car in the city, it is extremely difficult to get around in the winter time for many pedestrians, including senior citizens with disabilities, young parents with small children, school children themselves. It is actually dangerous to try to move around the city. We have pedestrians of very diverse abilities moving in the streets with moving traffic. We have sidewalks to separate pedestrians from traffic. That safety measure is even more important in winter time than it is in the summer. Our council, as it exists right now—there’s little diversity on that council with regard to life experience, with regard to economic status, with regard to cultural diversity.
It’s super important to have people on that council who know what it’s like to walk around or wheel around this city. To be new to the city as an immigrant. We have a lot of senior citizens in our city. And this is a gender issue as well because we live in a country where women still make 80 cents on every dollar that a man makes. Senior women’s pensions are smaller; they tend to outlive their partners. So it’s a gender issue. This effects senior women, more than it does senior men.
We need more diversity on council, more lived experience with the challenges. If you live with certain middle class privileges, you may not be aware of how difficult it really is for the people who don’t. One of the things that I’m learning is that through the advocacy work that I have done over a period of 50 years, the public is actually becoming more and more awakened to the needs of our community. As a candidate, I speak about these things and I have not come across a single person who has said to me, “I do not agree with you. I think we need to maintain the status quo.”
We’re starting to understand things like institutional bias and we’ve identified worldwide systemic issues that are harming certain populations. That’s a really good shift to values that favour the wellbeing of people over profits. We need the community’s needs met, but we have to do it in a way that is equitable through social justice and a human rights lens. I keep going back to that, I know. But that’s who I am.
Parsons: [Steve Parsons told The Independent he was unable to make time for an interview.]
Petten: [Raymond Petten did not respond to multiple interview requests.]
Puddister: Well, again, I think the way that the city has developed over the last number of years has resulted in poor connectivity. As it stands right now, it is very difficult to live in this city without owning a car. It makes life very, very difficult. I would like to see investment in public transit. I would like to see investment in creating physically separated cycling lanes so that people can have a safe and affordable option that’s climate positive to get around the city, especially given that the largest number of trips that we make in order to meet our needs are within a five-kilometre radius. Generally speaking, the most effective way to make trips of that nature is on foot or on bicycle. So if we can make that possible for people, I think we’d see a dramatic change to the volume of traffic that’s on our roads.
Smith: I think that we prioritize cars and I think we need to also prioritize, equally, pedestrians. There’s no reason that people should be stuck in their house all winter. That’s ridiculous. We need to have clear sidewalks all year round. There should be a priority—active transportation is just a must.
It has an economic impact. If you have a community of people that are able to go to the services in their community, you’re going to have really successful neighborhoods. You’re going to have really inclusive neighborhoods. That’s quite important.
On the bike plan, the consultation process on that with citizens and on the mixed-use trails have been really interesting. They’ve been actually kind of lackluster. A lot of people feel like they’re left in the cold. I support making sure that we have biking across the city. Accessible trails are really, really pivotal for everybody. However, I’m not going to deny that some of the pedestrians that I’ve talked to have felt unsafe by bikes going down on some of the trails.
To be blatantly honest, there are certainly a lot of the trails that can be paved. Maybe there should be some alternate routes for bike lanes. I know it works in other cities and if we could make it work, I’d love to see it work. But maybe some common ground is necessary.
A lot of the trails could be paved. However, some of the river trails, cutting down trees and paving them might also cause some environmental impacts, too, on top of potential safety issues—which could be addressed in certain bylaws. But where I stand is that most of the trail, other than some of the Riverside, should be paved. And I do support paving the public-private partnership at [Kenny’s Pond], as well. And I support Kelly’s Brook being paved.
We need to see more express routes. We need to have increased funding from both the provincial and federal governments. If we want to grow our population and especially retain people that are coming here internationally from the university, then we need to have a city where they can get around and also people that already live here get around effectively.
On the bus system, we need to have more routes. Maybe some smaller buses, if that means that we’re not getting the ridership on some of them. But if we made it more effective, we would be able to have increased ridership. Also, on the weekends—on Friday and Saturday, maybe even Thursday—we should do a pilot project to see if we could have buses that go downtown to key destination areas and that are on later in the evening. It’s an alternate safe way home for downtown-goers, for people that work in the service industry and really for anybody. That could be a project that we could look at and see if it works. We need to pressure both levels of government to help us with the funding on this, because this also affects population growth and retaining people that come to St. John’s.
On a level of accessibility, we need to have audible stops so people can hear what stops they’re getting off at. We need to have visual stops that show people the next stop is such and such: “Kingsbridge Road-Dominion.” We need to see more wheelchair-accessible buses, too. Maybe even the bike racks stay on the buses for longer in the year, because there is times here in December where it is just rain and there’s no snow.
How can the city mitigate the effects of climate change and help residents do the same?
Burton: We need to lead by example. We declared a climate emergency in the last year and we’ve passed, as of May this year, our Corporate Climate Plan to look at reducing our own greenhouse gas emissions. So that’s one really important step.
Next up, we’re going to create the Community Climate Plan that’s really focused on consultation with the public. A lot of that consultation has already occurred, but creating a plan for getting to net zero and helping residents do the same.
I’d like to work on looking at decarbonizing the built environment. So looking at housing, and the emissions that come from that sector (from housing and construction)—that’s something that I would like to work on if reelected. And obviously transportation: people being able to give up their cars would save a lot of money for individuals; also a lot of emissions.
The city has and will continue to support electric vehicles by providing more accessible charging infrastructure. That’s another issue I’d like to work on is trying to figure out where people in the downtown, for example, who don’t have garages, will be able to charge their vehicles. That’s something that I’ve heard from constituents over the last few years. We need to look at it strategically through a ‘systems’ lens to make sure that we’re looking at the whole system of the city, as opposed to a little bits and pieces.
Combden: The city should look for more input from businesses and local citizens on what’s their input on climate change—what would they like to see happen. The city should perhaps try to invest in more green initiatives to cut back on all the horrible things that’s happening in our climate. And I think there should be some sort of committee set up to work on climate change only, where they could put all their time and all their resources into specific climate change within the city.
Davis: The foundation is there within the city to do what needs to be done, but it’s having these difficult conversations with the residents. That’s the hard part. Nobody wants to upset anybody, but you got to tell like it is. If your house is on fire, your house is on fire. It’s not, “Go back to sleep.”
I guess the answer to your question is we have to look at everything we do and build in the cost of greenhouse gases from an operational point of view for the city. Does that truck or car or snowplow or piece of equipment need to go out when we take the big picture approach? Is that a way that we can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions? Can that building be retrofitted? Can we change the heating source? Can we take it from a furnace to a mini split? Do we need that building? Because if we don’t need the building, then let’s get rid of the building. Then the same thing to the residents, just basically educate the residents to the fact that we all have a role to play—for example, composting reduces organic waste going into the landfill.
Organic waste is what breaks down into methane. Methane is a really, really powerful greenhouse gas, and right now there’s a fair bit of methane being produced by our landfill. Now we can try and mitigate it by capturing it and flaring it off, but that still produces carbon dioxide if it’s flared properly, and there’s still a lot that would be escaping that they’re not getting.
It’s a tough question, but we have to set clear targets that are quick. We just can’t study things anymore. Everything’s got to happen fast now. We need to reduce [emissions] by 6% every year. We need to call on every resident to reduce by 6% every year. 6% is not that unmanageable, but the longer we put it off, the bigger that number gets and harder it gets to do.
Ellsworth: I don’t know we can mitigate climate change as much as change how we operate. We see a lot of flooding. We see a lot of torrential rains happening. We see a lot of change in the environment. This is where it becomes strategic in how we develop, what we develop, and the infrastructure we put in place to assist the development. I was chair of public works when we brought in the current recycling program. The idea there was to continue to build a recycling program, continue to build a composting program, continue to build opportunities there for environmentally changing attitudes.
We all know a lot of this is attitude change. Once your attitude changes, then it becomes easy to do things and to adapt and move forward. And also greenhouse gas emissions is important. There’s a lot of work we can be doing and we should be doing, and we are doing small bits of it, but we really need to come up with a, once again, a long-term strategy to address this.
Hanlon: Well, the city has done a lot now with climate change. We’ve hired a consultant or a full-time person that handles all the—I had an actual meeting with him last week and they’ve done a lot with it so far. We know that we can all do our small bit to help, but I think it needs to come from a much higher level. We’ve joined the Federation of Municipalities Partners for Climate Protection. We declared a climate emergency. We’re looking at every department within the city with the lens of climate control.
We’ve got a full department that’s working towards it. It is by far the biggest challenge facing us all in the world today. The city has to be a leader. All levels of government should be working on ways on how to reduce this. The U-Pass at Memorial University, less cars being driven, more walking, more electric cars, other options. It starts with the leaders, of course. The more information that we can get out, the more leading by example that the city can do.
We’re doing a great start by hiring Edmundo [Fausto], our manager. He’s already working with each department, looking at it with the lens of climate control and everything that we do now has that lens as well. Every proposal we’ll bring forward, every building we look at doing, every project we look at doing. Everything is looked at with the lens of how we can improve it. That was never the way it was before.
We should’ve been doing this years ago, but I guess it’s never too late to start. I have grandchildren, I don’t want to leave the world for them in the state that it is right now.
Hickman: Well, again, that’s a worldwide issue. St. John’s has to do its share, and we have been doing our share. We’ve had good awareness over the last seven or eight years. We have a person hired for the last number of years now who’s done a tremendous job of creating awareness amongst staff and council, and also citizens, and has led us through a bunch of great initiatives such as electric car charging stations.
We’re off to a start. The city needs to have specific parking areas with charging stations for electric cars in the near future. Whether or not we could have lanes—I think a lane dedicated to electric vehicles makes a lot of sense. Can we do that? That’s something that we should be checking out as well. The city just needs to take leadership as well as provincial government. There are going to be so many ways we can do that over the coming years.
Hollett: There are so many ways, and I’m really fortunate again to have worked within this industry for a number of years with Conservation Newfoundland and Labrador. The solutions can be big and small. The majority of what needs to happen at this stage in the game in 2021—not just with city of St. John’s but globally—is that we need governments on board that recognize that the hard decisions need to be made. It is not about whether or not Johnny decides to recycle his tin of Pepsi. It’s about people in government that recognize we need to make the hard decisions now for a larger community. Individual acts are one thing, but we need people in government that are going to make these hard decisions. I strongly believe that that means thinking about composting programs and making that possible.
I’m hearing multiple people mention that. So maybe we don’t have the money right now to have composting door to door necessarily. But what if we had that at neighborhood community centers or encouraged these kinds of programs? That also means investing in Metrobus, investing in infrastructure, such as bike lanes.
We are seeing council allow for homes to be built in flood plains and flood plain buffers. I don’t necessarily understand that, especially when we have expert panels making suggestions—and then ultimately it comes down to council choosing whether or not they’re going to listen to those folks. So I get confused about those kinds of things.
The city has done some really great things. Seeing EV charging stations coming into effect in different community areas in parks and everything, that’s great. I’m getting those questions at the doors as well about if I want to have an EV I want to charge, but I live downtown. We can’t have one off solutions for these kinds of things.
We need to make these things easier for people. People shouldn’t have to fight an uphill battle to live in a city that takes climate change mitigation and adaptation seriously. Enhancing green spaces, making sure that we have green spaces in our neighborhood. When flooding happens, we have places for water to go. There’s so many different things, including allowing bike racks in the city. Just seeing those kinds of things, kudos to the city for having bike carrying options on a Metrobus. When people see that kind of stuff, then they can make that change themselves, if they choose. But if you don’t see it, you can’t even go there in your mind to think about the options.
House: Climate change is a result of how people live in our environment. Recycling and being environmentally conscious and getting rid of emissions into our atmosphere from using our cars. Being more innovative in our garbage collection.
But I do think the plastic containers that everybody uses now is a very positive thing, and it has really solved a lot of the seagulls and crows getting into the garbage and blowing garbage all over the place. That has really helped solve a lot of that. Moving ahead, [the city should] add a composting program to the garbage clean up. The less garbage we put in our landfills, the better. And the recycling program has been a very positive thing.
Every major city in Canada has a composting program. That might be the next step that we can take in making to mitigate the environmental issues that we have. By improving our garbage cleanup and by reducing emissions into the atmosphere—people getting out and enjoying the outdoors, by walking or riding without using their cars—all of those things are great for the environment.
Malone: The most obvious way that we can mitigate the effects of climate change is to really place a lot of emphasis on enhancing public transit systems. Are they making it safe and easy for people to move through this city with mobility aids, on foot, or on bicycles? A lot of our carbon emissions actually come from traffic. So that’s one thing.
Secondly, we need to look at housing that the city provides. Public housing, affordable housing, social housing—whatever you want to call it, subsidized housing for people who live with financial inequity. We need to make sure that housing is well-insulated, that it has heat splits and things that mitigate energy usage. As new housing developments are being built by the city, all of the things that would mitigate energy consumption [should] be implemented in those building designs.
Parsons: [Steve Parsons told The Independent he was unable to make time for an interview.]
Petten: [Raymond Petten did not respond to multiple interview requests.]
Puddister: We need to be building complete neighborhoods with mixed-use development so that every time we have to do something to meet a basic need, we don’t have to get into a car. The large majority of our carbon footprint connects back to transportation and the gas that we burn in our cars. So it’s up to us and the city to encourage the kind of mixed-use development that we need in order to have complete neighborhoods. Similarly, complete streets is an urban design principle that encourages and makes space for multimodal transportation so that we don’t have to be burning fossil fuels in order to get around.
Buildings definitely contribute enormously to the carbon footprint. We need to be ensuring that the way that we build our buildings and our homes take into consideration energy use and efficiency. We can do that through the way that we structure our cost proposals for building new buildings and also in the code that we will commit to when approving residential development. Encouraging people to switch over to electric wherever possible is definitely a good thing to be doing to move away from oil-burning furnaces. We can do fuel switching.
The other side of it is climate change adaptation. Even if we stopped burning all fossil fuels today, we know that climate change impacts will still come based on the emissions that have taken place to date. So that means we have to build resilience in our infrastructure to make sure that it’s going to withstand the impacts of climate change that are coming. And in St. John’s chiefly, that impact is flooding. So I’d like to see watershed modeling take place within municipal boundaries so that we can have a better understanding of how surface water moves through our city during intense periods of rainfall.
We know that the projections by the end of the century is for the once-in-100 years storm to be taking place once every 10 years. Our infrastructure is not really built to withstand that kind of thing. Every time a storm rips out a road or bursts a culvert or flows over land and causes basement flooding in people’s homes, that costs money and it’s money that we don’t have to waste. If we can take a long-term planning perspective towards our infrastructure investments to make sure the climate change is factored into every decision that we’re making, ultimately that’s going to save us money. That needs to be where our priorities are because we’re not in a place where we have money to play with.
Smith: One lens is that we are going to have to face the sad reality that we are going to see more severe weather events. There’s not much that we can do about it because they’re already happening. Snowmageddon, Hurricane Igor 10 years ago, which was disastrous. Hurricane Larry. We are seeing more severe storms.
We need to also rely on the federal and provincial governments, mainly the federal government, to say: “You know what, we need increased money from you for one specific area.” There’s many specific areas, making sure that we have electric buses or a cleaner fleet of municipal vehicles, which would be optimal, and having some more electric car charging stations across the city, or even allow them to be outside people’s doors in their houses.
My big thing, though, is that we need them to also invest in infrastructure. We are going to need better storm sewer drainage. We’re going to need a lot of modifications. Otherwise, we’re not going to be able to handle the water that falls, or the snow that falls. We really need to rely on them and pressure them to do so, because we can’t go back in time and redesign this city and change the roads, but we’re going to have to make sure that we modify what we can.
I would like to see some more composting programs, to be blatantly honest. I’d like to see door-to-door composting pickup and stuff like that. Additionally, too, we just need to also have some better educational resources.
Even though it’s more of a beautification lens, we need to additionally make sure that we have more garbage and recycling containers.
I’m glad that we also did declare a climate emergency. It’s important to acknowledge that.
Where do you stand on the issue around snow-clearing sidewalks and what would you do to improve the service?
Burton: We need to put in a lot more resources behind snow-clearing. That means we need capital equipment to plow the sidewalks, we need to pay to operate the sidewalk snow plows, we need to pay people, and we need to prioritize route planning so that there’s a connected network of clean sidewalks throughout the city.
If we put the money into it that we were planning to—with this council, that got voted down—it would represent less than a 1% increase to the mil rate. For a million dollars, you can get a lot of sidewalks cleared. I’d like to add more routes to the system and make sure that people in every ward have safe sidewalks that they can walk on or push a stroller in the winter time or use a wheelchair—that it’s accessible all year round throughout the city.
Right now we only clear about 10% of the sidewalks in the city. That number needs to double, at least in the next four years. We can totally do it. Really, we can’t afford not to. As I’ve mentioned before, being a sustainable city means enticing people to move here, stay here and live here. No one’s going to want to stay somewhere where half the year they can’t leave their house on foot.
Combden: Of course in our key areas, such as the university, the downtown, there should be major focuses on sidewalks. But sometimes you got to make uncomfortable decisions that everyone is not going to like. You can’t clear every sidewalk in the city. That’s going to cost millions of dollars. All the citizens want their sidewalks cleared and plowed. The only way to have that done is increase your taxes, and nobody wants their taxes to go up. So I think we should focus on the key areas.
Or for example, in Calgary—I’ve been to Calgary many times. You are responsible for clearing in front of your house and that sidewalk. If that’s not clear, then you will be ticketed by the municipality. That’s a way that residents can clear the sidewalk. You get a fine, then the city can take money from that. That’s another way of looking at it.
Davis: I will admit to not knowing enough about the issue. I’ve looked at it. People who walk need to be able to walk. Not every sidewalk—if people aren’t walking in an area then you don’t need to clear the sidewalk. There’s an environmental and a physical cost to that. Safety is important, and this is one of the tough things. I think it’s fair to say that this may be a situation where you look at the entire envelope of city services and say, “We have to reduce our spending by 5.2%.” Then you look at that and you say, “Okay, well, is sidewalk snow clearing more important than item B?” You have to prioritize things. If that’s Mile One, for example, then sidewalk snow clearing is way more important than St. John’s Sports and Entertainment. Way more important.
That’s how we need to approach it. We need to draw a circle around the entire city and we need to start making even more difficult choices. Sidewalk snow clearing is important from a safety point of view, from an active citizen point of view—trying to create a physically healthier city. You have to weigh out everything and try and balance your spending. For me, I’m supportive of more sidewalk snow clearing. That’s answer one. Two, can’t afford to spend any more money so we got to find money from somewhere else.
Ellsworth: I was the councillor back in ‘05, ‘06 who championed snow clearing in schools. I fought for 1.6 kilometres in schools. We are challenged here with the climate. We understand that. Where we go from cold temperatures overnight, warm temperatures in the morning, slippery sidewalks, and what have you. Improvements have taken place, but we still got more to do. Simply salting the sidewalks, getting them salted in time, so that people get out in the mornings and we have those ready. We need to go out and look at best practices elsewhere.
I know a lot of people talk about what happens in Montreal, but a lot of communities don’t have the same fluctuation in temperatures we have. The suburb challenges are unique. Newfoundland Power replacing the poles should be mandated. The pole’s got to go back behind the sidewalk. That’s one challenge we have—we have lot of infrastructure between the road and the sidewalk, so it makes it difficult to do a larger scale piece. But we need to keep on investing in improving sidewalk snow clearing throughout the city. If COVID’s taught us anything, is that being active is important for our whole mental and physical health. It’s important that we make improvements.
Hanlon: Well, I live downtown, so I know firsthand how bad it can get to walk around. It was years when I didn’t have a car. So I understand, with three children, I know what it’s like over snowbanks. I’m 56 years old. I know how much it’s improved. I walked those streets and my kids when they were small. I lived on Colonial Street in the 80s, so I know what it was like. I can personally attest to the improvements. Have we got a long way to go? Absolutely. It’s not necessarily throwing more money at it, it’s having a better plan. I’d like to see us do the routes we do right now, really, really well.
After we get our systems down to the point where people are satisfied with the routes we’re doing right now. Rather than make promises that we can’t keep, I want to focus on doing the sidewalks that we do right now, improving their efficiency, making sure that what we do, we do really well. And then in each budget, increase the snow clearing budget and routes as we move forward, after we get our system down to a science.
Hickman: What I want to see is continuous improvement. The awareness of snow clearing has really even picked up over the last number of years. You look back 10 years and you could not compare. We just did not do sidewalk snow clearing in the city. We just didn’t think that way. Thinking has completely changed in the city on sidewalk snow clearing. However, there are many people who think there’s still not enough sidewalk snow clearing, and I would agree with that. We are moving in that direction, trying to find the right way of doing that. We must continue to buy better equipment that doesn’t break down as often so that more can be done and we can satisfy more of those needs more quickly.
That includes better attachments for salt and sand application. The newer ones are doing a much better job of that, and more efficiently. So we have made progress. We’ve also gone through a process of identifying other sidewalk areas that could be undertaken. That’s a very expensive proposition and something that needs to be addressed in the very near future through finding the budget money to do that.
We need to continue our research on this and continue to fund it. We all know that St. John’s has fickle winters. One winter could be continuous snow from mid December till the middle of March, and other winters could be off and on. If you have storm after storm, it’s impossible to do things very quickly. And it does impact the accessibility for people. So accessibility year-round is important. Sidewalk snow clearing is a big part of that.
Hollett: Clearing sidewalks is something that I’ve been speaking about for years. I’ve been fortunate to have a platform in different ways with that particular topic. We often hear from council that this is just a downtown issue, or this is just a college or university issue. But I’m seeing this to be something that is a concern of people in every neighborhood.
Frankly, I believe we need better and more sidewalk snow clearing. I appreciate the efforts of council to have tried different things over the past four years. I appreciate new machinery having been bought and trying a different approach—basically like puzzle pieces. Let’s do one side of the road here and then the other side of the road here. I appreciate creativity. That’s important. But quite frankly, I think we just need to invest more in this.
House: As a resident of St. John’s, it’s imperative that we keep the sidewalks clear. But it’s also expensive for the city to keep the sidewalks clear.
If residents want to have the snow clearing and the sidewalks clear, we have to be willing to pay for it. Myself included. Every citizen of St. John’s deserves to have clean streets. We deserve to have clean sidewalks.
But we also have to realize that it is a very fiscally challenging thing to accomplish. There could be a significant portion of the budget just spent on snow clearing. Then we have less money for other areas where we want to improve things in the city. So it is a very complicated issue. As long as Newfoundland exists, it’s always going to be a complicated issue unless we can stop the snow falling. It’s an evil thing that we have to deal with, especially on nasty winters. A lot of people don’t like it, but we love our city and we want to continue to live here. So we have to be able to put up with the pain of sometimes our streets not being clear the way we need them to be.
But I do believe that the city is really trying to do their best. All residents want it to be safe and they want it to be good for families. It’s a very complicated issue. But I think everybody wants what’s best for each resident of the city. I know I certainly do.
Malone: I am a stakeholder in that particular issue because I move through the world with the guide dog who is trained to keep me away from traffic. I’ve moved around the city about six times since 2012, trying to find the one neighbourhood where I can walk safely to the things I need—like a bus stop, a supermarket—without having to walk in traffic. I have not yet found that neighbourhood. Mobility justice actually is a human right. It actually is in the Human Rights Declaration of the United Nations. So I think this has to be a priority. People have been hurt, people have been killed. The traffic problem in St. John has exploded with the population over the last couple of decades and pedestrians sort of fell behind. ut we’re at a point now where this is a critical situation.
In the last consultation that the city did on this matter, there was a record number of respondents. A significant majority of those respondents stated that they would be prepared to pay extra tax to have this done and the city ignored the response. Democratically, citizens have spoken. Pedestrian safety is every bit as important as the safety of drivers and possibly more because physically they’re more vulnerable. We’re not wrapped in metal. So I’m adamant, this must progress at a much more energetic rate than it has been. We can’t just add a few kilometres a year. We need to access all of our city now.
Parsons: [Steve Parsons told The Independent he was unable to make time for an interview.]
Petten: [Raymond Petten did not respond to multiple interview requests.]
Puddister: Yeah, it absolutely needs to be improved. It needs to receive more of the municipal budget. I don’t see any way around that. People’s lives are directly implicated when they’re having to walk in the street in order to access a bus stop, in order to get to work, in order to feed their families. There’s a need for both more sidewalk snow clearing plows, the actual equipment needed to do the work, and also more labour. So whether that’s hiring additional workers during periods when that’s needed, or being able to pull workers from, I don’t know… I’m rambling now.
Smith: We need to have clear sidewalks. Mobility’s a human right. Being able to get around actively in your city or municipality should be a right. It shouldn’t be just for some areas of the city. I wouldn’t support people being able to clear their own sidewalk in front because then we the other lens of some people in the Downtown who are unable to do so. Where are you going to put the snow? Then you got somebody up in Kenmount Terrace that can throw it on their lawn, but then they’re paying the same amount of tax and then it’s a whole other snarl.
We’re going to have it just done by the city. I’d love to see the whole city done. But the cost of it would be quite a lot. So if we can make sure that we have some really key areas done and make sure that for the most part, everybody can get out of their house, that’s huge.
The way that we can do that money-wise is to actually find the other streams of revenue. If we balance the books effectively and correctly, we would actually be able to have better revenues as a city and we could reinvest that money back. It would be hard to support a raise in taxes to do so. We have other means to address this problem first. That should be the last resort in order to deliver better sidewalk snow clearing. It needs to be done, but there’s other revenue streams that we can have that money come from.
In your opinion, what’s the best decision the past council made?
Burton: Passing the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the city was a really positive step forward for our relationship with the urban Indigenous community. That’s what I’m probably most proud of having worked on. I think it’s the best thing that this council did. It’s the first council that really made strides towards achieving meaningful relationships with the urban Indigenous community and working on reconciliation and decolonization within the city. If we continue down this road that we’ve started on, I think we’ll be in a much better place in a few years.
Combden: The whole recycling program has been a major hit. We were, just a few years ago, throwing out our garbage regularly and not recycling anything. No plastic, no bottles, no electronics, anything. I think that was a major, fantastic progress decision that our council had made.
Davis: Well, they did not increase taxes last year. They did do a small amount of employee reduction, so they sent a signal that they are sensitive to the economics factors. They allowed people to defer their property taxes. I think recognizing the physical situation that we were all in was a good decision.
Ellsworth: I don’t know if any one decision really stands out for me. They’ve kept them moving along and similar, right? So some of the pieces that I’m really glad that they’re continuing to move forward is the affordable housing piece. They continue to move forward with sidewalk snow cleaning. They’ve made some good initiatives there. The development regulation changes. Some of it I really like, some of it I’m a bit challenged with. I don’t really have one thing that stands out saying, pop, this is what defined this council. And really, I don’t think we should.
Hanlon: Oh my goodness. I don’t know, the best decision? Oh, I don’t know, there’s been so many decisions. I can’t really say which one I would say was the best. My favourite decision… we made so many in the last four years. Personally, I like the Pedestrian Mall—I could see us do more with it, but I do like the decision. Oh, I like the Parklet Program. It took me seven years to get that through so that people could rent the spaces in front of their businesses to put parklets, not just in the Pedestrian Mall, but everywhere. I think that adds a lot of value to the tourism and the overall feel for Newfoundland. So I was very pleased with that decision. That is not my favourite decision, that’s just one I was pleased with.
One of our biggest decisions and the best one was probably hiring Edmundo as the climate control specialist. That’s probably the biggest and the best decision we made.
Hickman: Jeepers, I haven’t thought that way. I think the best decision is that, compared to five or eight years ago, we are doing a much better process of public engagement. We are hearing from the people in all ways and at all times, on issues and services that the city undertakes, and that’s really important. From that, we have a program that we’ve called “continuous improvement.” That is something that attaches to every program and every employee, really, of the city in constantly motivating them to look for ways to enhance their program and their service.
That’s the best thing that we’ve done because it hits all our programs and all our services. It’s very difficult to say, “Look, we do a better job of paving roads,” or, “We do a better job of snow clearing,” or, “The best decision we made was to shut the city down for COVID and send everybody home,” or that the best decision was to shut the city down for Snowmageddon. Those are very specific things. Overall performance is what that decision was, to go forward with all that kind of stuff, that system of engagement leading into enhanced performance.
Hollett: Well, I want to say two. If I had to choose, I would say the council’s statement on climate change and declaring the emergency. That particular statement opened up space for more things to breathe and for people to be able to point back and say, if you make that decision, how does that reflect on this? If you’re actually concerned about climate change and our city and our commitment to mitigation and adaptation, then how does this square with that? It helps a lot of other conversations and it’s a reference point.
If I were to choose another, it’s the great work that was done with Citizens’ Assembly for Stronger Elections NL. Financial caps are great. I’m glad to have seen so many recommendations put forward. There is more to do. I’m glad I was in council chambers when they said we want to see the council engaged with Municipalities Newfoundland Labrador to determine if we can have permanent residents vote. I want to see that change. That’s huge and I think it’s a reference point as well that people can build on.
House: Being willing to improve our greenspaces, our city parks. I think our city parks have really improved over the last several years. That’s a huge improvement. Residents are using them more all the time because they had been in disrepair. They had been left out of city planning for some time.
Being over in Bannerman Park the other day, I was really impressed with the water pad, the splash pad they have for children and the walkways and the ice rink, the ice trail around the park. All of that is great. It looks really, really good. Victoria Park has also had significant improvement. And Bowring Park, I love that park. I think residents are really appreciative of that. The city did a good job of improving those parks.
Malone: The best decision the past council has made was to extend free bus passes to people who live with financial scarcity.
Parsons: [Steve Parsons told The Independent he was unable to make time for an interview.]
Petten: [Raymond Petten did not respond to multiple interview requests.]
Puddister: Oh my gosh. Can I say two? The Pedestrian Mall was an excellent move for the city to make that has resulted in such positive results for human relationships and local businesses and our sense of community, and our ability to value human-scale interactions and pedestrianism. It’s just been so, so positive. It should be a permanent thing going forward. I’d like to see it expanded actually from maybe June to January. But that was by far a standup decision for the council.
I’d also like to highlight the fact that they hired a sustainability coordinator. Edmundo Fausto was able to produce a corporate climate action plan for the City of St. John’s. So that was really impressive. I was really glad to see that happen. There’s a lot of fantastic suggestions in that plan on how the city can mitigate and adapt to climate change. There’s more steps that have to take place. I don’t see any costings in that plan yet, or any concrete steps in how we get from A to B, but it was an excellent place to start. I’m really proud of the city council for doing that.
Smith: Pedestrian Mall. Without a doubt. The Pedestrian Mall was a great thing done by the previous council. There’s other good things that this council’s done and there’s things that every government, municipality, federally or provincially that I agree and disagree with, but I think that one has actually transformed our downtown.
There’s other lenses on how we can address the vacancy rates of the downtown with the Business Realty Tax, etc. But I think what they did was incredible. Change that I’d like to see on it is to allow it to be longer in the year. But the initial idea was great. It’s actually brought a lot more life into the downtown and a lot of people that probably spent their time in big box stores to go downtown. Yeah. Without a doubt, that’s where I am. I love the Pedestrian Mall. I love it. I think it’s wonderful.
What specific committees are you interested in participating in and why?
Burton: Currently I’m the lead for Planning & Development and Heritage. I’ve done that for four years now. I’m interested in continuing, but I’m also open to looking at other areas such as community services, which involves the programming that the city offers to residents. I’m also interested in looking at any inclusion committee or affordable housing. Those are the areas that I’ve got my eye on. I love all of the aspects of being a city councillor. I’ll be really happy to have any of those portfolios.
I also sit on the urban Indigenous coalition with Councillor Froude, so I’d like the two of us to be able to continue that work together. I’ve served on lots of subcommittees over the years too, like Electoral Reform, built heritage, Healthy Working Group. I’d like the work that I’ve done there to continue as well. And I want to stay on the Metrobus commission. Being on the St. John’s Transportation Commission gives me a really good opportunity to try to improve the bus service here. We made the bus free for children in this term of council. That’d probably be my number two favorite decision that we made.
I also really love the youth portfolio because the youth engagement in the city has really improved a lot. I would like to keep working on that. I want to do all of those things.
Combden: I would love to be on Sports and Entertainment. Why? Obviously to tackle this Mile One issue, and to deal with this appropriately and in a very prompt manner. The second one I would like to be involved in would be the traffic committee. I worked with the planning engineering department at the City of St. John’s for a few years, and enforcement. I have a great amount of experience in enforcement and bylaws and working with the city. I think the city can make a lot more extra money in these tickets that they have been passing out.
For example, water conservation. When I worked in that department, they used to issue these notices, but the bylaws are extremely old. They would never ticket them, even though some of them say that they can be ticketed. We used to issue letters upon letters, so I would love to be on the traffic committee for those reasons. I have a lot of experience in the enforcement side. Possibly enforcing LIDAR and radar on some of our busy intersections. A lot of our accidents that happen is people going through red lights.
Davis: To be honest, I’m not even sure what the different committees’ names are. I obviously want to be involved in budgeting, strongly involved in budgeting. I’m not sure there’s a committee for interacting with our employees because I don’t want to demonize them, I just want to try and be there to be able to speak passionately to where I believe we’re going.
I believe society has apexed. When you overlay climate change on top of the damage that COVID has done to the world’s economies, we’ve peaked. We peaked years ago, but it’s going to be very dramatic in my opinion. I want to be in the room to explain that to union representatives, to management, because I believe I have a unique perspective. I will not watch the city burn, which is what I feel like is going to happen, literally. To pay people more than we can afford to pay them. The only reason anybody in this land ever makes as much money as they do is because the oil industry came in and inflated labour values because of deals that the government made to incentivize oil companies to hire Newfoundlanders and pay them more than the general economy would support. Then that trickled down to public service as well as the private sector, and hence we have employment compensation levels that are not sustainable.
I don’t know if there’s a committee for healthy living because that’s a huge thing that I’m supportive of. We’re the unhealthiest people in the world pretty well. We are the most wasteful, climate damaging people in the world. Right now, we’re the highest spending people in the country. We get the most money. We earn the most money and we spend the most, and we’ve got to tackle all those things simultaneously and we don’t have a lot of time to do it.
Budgeting, for sure. Transportation and employee relations, or something. HR. I don’t know exactly what that would be. That’d be my three big things.
Ellsworth: Finance, obviously. I have over 30 years in business. Most of the community groups I volunteer with, I assist with the finance and budgeting. From a business person’s point of view, but also tax planners point of view, but also from community and what community needs are—you understand the balance in finance and budgeting.
Transportation. I got grave concerns about the lack of interest or concern under paratransit and that system. We have an aging population. Close to 30% of our population are going to be seniors who will need a better transportation system. We really need to focus on that.
Then it’s youth and senior engagement, making sure that we’re doing what we need to be doing to engage, meaningful engagement. Not just a portal where you go in and make comments, but meaningful engagement—where we’re on the doorsteps, we’re in the community centers, we’re in the schools, we all work together to build a stronger community.
Hanlon: Right now I’m very busy. I’m on several. I’m on arts and I will stay with arts because it’s near and dear to my heart. I’d like to see more money in the pockets of artists and more ways of being able to be creative in how we can send more work their way. Some of the projects we do jointly now, we involve the arts. I think the city could be even more enhanced with beauty, because the artists we have here are amazing. So I would like to see more cooperation of projects going forward, because I think that we’re not capitalizing nearly the talents we have.
I’m very involved with the seniors. And I do know that we have a rapidly aging population. So in the next term, I would like to be a lead on seniors so I could work more with their issues. I’m very close to a lot of them. I’ve always volunteered with seniors and here I am knocking on seniors doors.
I would also like to be very much more involved in development. I would like to be lead on developments in the next council, if possible. My background in real estate is one thing, but I’ve also developed and I’ve also had to go through the toils and troubles of getting something passed through City Hall. I know there are things that can be improved. There’s a more efficient way to do it. I’d like to work closely with people in the development committee.
And I’d also like to put my lens to heritage. I’ve restored, myself personally, many beautiful downtown homes. And I’ve been involved in some projects that were larger, like commercial buildings, but I’d actually like to look at it from the lens of preserving the heritage that we have and capitalizing on that as part of our tourism too. I see the mix between development and the heritage going hand in hand.
I’ve been very fortunate this term that I got to create a new committee, which was immigration, which we hadn’t had in years. Immigration is also very near and dear to my heart because I know with the aging population, and us not having babies, immigration is going to be the key to our success and growth. I would really like to work longer on that.
So heritage, development, immigration, and of course climate control is on everybody’s mind, and seniors.
Hickman: My interest and my experience is in public works and environment. I definitely worked in tourism for many years and tourism is a big interest of mine. Related to that, arts and culture is really important to me as well, and sport. St. John’s Sports & Entertainment, I chaired that for a couple of years. While I don’t have to chair it, I’m very interested in activities and entertainment for the people of the city and in attracting conventions to the convention center and some shows, trade shows, etc.
I’m very interested in all that. That is a huge economic boost for the city. That’s new dollars coming into the province, and we need more of that. As I said, we had a good year planned before COVID hit. And we were going to slowly build that up again over time. And I will say, one of the things I’m very interested in now over the next four years is the 2025 Canada Games.
Hollett: There are so many. They’re a really great gift. From built heritage to housing—housing is more and more something that I’m really interested in. It’s not just affordable housing, but affordable living as a larger piece. I have friends that live in a variety of different housing stock, in a variety of different neighborhoods. Understanding that very challenging piece—much like The Independent has written, understanding how federal, and municipal, and provincial governments can play a part in that.
House: Well, I’m an educator, so I’m very interested in children and youth programs. I used to work with the parks and recreation department when I was going to university. I worked with the city for 10 years working in the parks and recreation department. So the city parks are near and dear to my heart because I was a playground councillor when I first started off. Then I worked as a coordinator for West End playgrounds. Keeping parks upgraded, keeping them safe, and keeping them open for kids to use, all of those things are very important.
I would like the city to be safe and secure for young families. Providing a safe environment in neighborhoods for residents to go out and enjoy safety. We can continue to do better in improving the presence of police in our area. I know that they are doing a great job. But I do think that we need to continue to support them in their efforts to protect our neighborhoods.
I’m a music teacher, but I’m also a musician. So I’m a huge advocate for continuing to develop arts programs for our children and youth, but also for musicians, for the live music that we have in our city, theater programs, musical theater, all of that has been near and dear to my heart for my whole life. I hope to continue to be an advocate for the arts community.
Malone: The Inclusion Advisory Committee, obviously. First of all, because it would give me the opportunity to really advocate very strongly as a council member for and with those organizations and individuals who represent the disabilities community. Secondly, I’ve been very involved with the Social Justice Co-op over the past few years. I am on several coalitions, including the Green New Deal Coalition, which oversees and explores things related to the climate emergency, including Anti-Racist NL, including Black Lives Matters NL, including First Light and Idle No More. So I have a pretty good understanding how all of these issues and these communities actually intersect.
When I talk about mobility justice, I’ve mostly been talking about access for people with disabilities and other people who encounter mobility barriers in the city. But I’m very well aware of the fact that mobility justice also encompasses addressing safety issues in areas where vulnerable people may be more likely to experience harassment or harm. Queer folks, or folks of color, or Indigenous folks. There may be areas in the city that need enhanced lighting, enhanced monitoring for safety for people. All of these things are part of the same mobility justice umbrella. And I can work really, really beautifully with the other minorities that are represented on that committee to support each other and get better results from the city.
Parsons: [Steve Parsons told The Independent he was unable to make time for an interview.]
Petten: [Raymond Petten did not respond to multiple interview requests.]
Puddister: Definitely planning and development, that’s for sure. From my perspective, that one has the greatest implications for quality of life in the city as a whole, for all of the reasons that I described previously. Yep.
Smith: I would like to be on the St. John’s Transportation Committee. And I would also like to be on the Inclusion Advisory Committee. Those two are ones that I would really want to serve on because I think that I can add a lens of personal experience on both of those things.
And I think that’s quite pivotal, being able to have people on Council serve on committees that they’re not only interested in, but things that they can actually offer because they know about them personally and they’ve lived through it. I’d love to be on both of those and be able to hear other peoples’ opinions and also add my own and make some real changes on those, too.
What initiatives would you include to make St. John’s a more accessible, inclusive city?
Burton: The number one thing that we need to do is to look at the built environment. Then secondly, we need to look at our services and see what programming is offered and how we can make it easier for people with disabilities, for example, to use these facilities and city programming. But things like fixing up all the curb cuts in the city and making sure that you can get on and off the sidewalk and cross the road: that’s super important.
Of course, winter mobility is a big issue. We need to look at the way the city is built and whether or not people can access their work, their leisure, their shopping and everything like that without the use of a vehicle. So curb-cuts seem like small potatoes, but it makes a huge difference. If the whole city would have curb cuts that were appropriate, people could get around a lot better.
Metrobus stop announcements are a really important next step for the city, so that you can get on the bus and a voice can tell you what stop is coming next. I don’t think there’s really a substitute for that service. It’s disappointing that we haven’t got that yet. I’d like to really work on a few of those really basic gaps in the city before we move on to other things.
Combden: We need to work on a lot more within our city in terms of transportation. Getting around with the car sharing, and the bicycle sharing, and implementing more buses and more routes. Try to reach out to businesses and people within the downtown core to try to cut back on all the parking downtown so people can use public transportation.
In terms of inclusiveness, in terms of public committees and council too, we need more diverse people on council. We need people of color. We need the LGBTQ+ community. We need people from the women’s council. More people from more diverse communities, the Muslim communities and what have you, all those people should get involved more with the municipality.
Davis: The first thing is to talk to the people who know. I know there are really strong advocates. I know there’s one lady who’s running who’s a strong advocate for accessibility.
For me, it’s needs versus wants. People, regardless of their physical situation, should be able to go to work, they should be able to go shopping, they should be able to go out on the street themselves. That’s a need. St. John’s Sports and Entertainment is a want. Paul Reynolds Centre is somewhere between need and want.
For me, accessibility is a need. There’s opportunities for building code adaptation but, again, bearing in mind the economic environment that we’re in, you cannot expect businesses to shoulder expenses that they can’t. We have to continue to find the balance, leaning on the side of maintaining our core services and the needs of the residents.
Ellsworth: Build on our transportation first. We’ve done some good work on accessible bus stops and accessible buses. We need to do better on our infrastructure and allowing people to be safely out and about.
We hear a lot of concerns on the doorsteps about safety, about kids, young adults, seniors out riding bikes, and then adding safety challenges. For me, I’ve towed it for a long time—a police force focused on transportation. I lobbied my first term of council to have a partnership with the RNC. Didn’t get support from council at the time. I think it’s time we look at our own municipal police force. You look at Carrick Drive, you look at Kenmount Terrace, you look at Goulds’ main road, the fear of people being out and about. When you’re not comfortable being out and about, you’re more inclined to be shut in. So we need to look into having a municipal police force where it can be funded from the tax, from the revenue, from tickets. We focus on making our city a safer place for all.
No one group, no one organization should be the only focus. We should be looking at the community as a whole, be it our seniors, be it our youth, be it persons with mobility challenges, be it our new Canadians, be it dog walkers, be it whatever. You need to work better to make it easier to move around.
Hanlon: Well, I’ve traveled a lot and I’ve seen a lot of cities—Toronto is horrific. This is very close to me too, because my niece has cerebral palsy. My assistant has cerebral palsy and my best friend in the world has MS, and she’s at St. Pat’s home. So I’m the plus one that goes out. So I experience firsthand the trials and tribulations of trying to get around this city. Now there’s some things I don’t think we’re going to ever be able to do with the hills and things like that. But I think we should look at every single aspect of what we’re doing within the city with the lens, not only of climate control, but definitely with accessibility.
Accessibility is not a privilege. It’s a basic right that sometimes is denied to people. That’s totally unfair. And we have an aging population, so there’s going to be more people availing of it and we need to be ready. We do have an inclusion committee, but sometimes departments don’t talk to departments and things slip through.
So I want to see it so that every single thing goes through the inclusive committee so they can put their two cents in and we can take that and work with it to make it a more inclusive city. Everybody deserves the right to walk around the city. Everyone deserves the right to be down at the Pedestrian Mall. Everyone deserves the right to be in our parks. Especially on our trails. Who are we to say that only able-bodied people can walk on the trails? Wheelchairs should be able to be on the trails, walkers should be on the trails. They should be able to go everywhere we could go.
Hickman: Many of those are related to transportation and, of course, sidewalk snow clearing. People have to have a choice of how they get around the city. That’s where the city takes leadership on that, and that is promoting the sidewalks, the roads, the walking trails, the bus service and the GoBus service. All modes of transportation have to be supported. We also have to be aware of people that have disabilities and try and support them, whether it’s visual or hearing or ambulatory disabilities. One example would be the technology that we’ve installed at some crosswalks for the visually impaired. That seems to be working very well and expanding on that is going to be very important. Smoothing surfaces of sidewalks, having sloped curbs, corners, etc. That’s being done over the last number of years all around the city, and slowly but surely that’s been being enhanced.
Inclusion, I think that is a given in today’s society. The city has reflected that in its policies and I certainly feel that way. I’ve always been a person who understood people of all walks of life and genders and disabilities or whatever. Always welcomed them and worked well with them over the years, and I won’t change. I’m that person, and the city needs people that think that way to be involved in its governance. Once you have that, then it becomes the norm, and it is becoming a norm in St. John’s and in society. So we have to continue with that and it’s all about the thinking, the mindset—everything will evolve from that. You can’t really get too specific on an inclusion. You just have to have that thinking. You just have to be that way. So I guess that’s the way I am.
Hollett: Accessible and inclusive—oh my God, those are really loaded words. They’re really big words, much like housing can be understood in different ways. If we’re talking about physical accessibility, we need to absolutely recognize that this is not an afterthought. Again, I come back to the inclusion committee of the city of St. John’s with so many great members that are part of that. They are a gift to the whole City of St. John’s. Their lived experience and expertise is so very valuable. Their work has really pushed the current day council to take things very seriously.
We need to think about seeking out people outside of those committees, building those relationships with folks, and recognizing I am an able-bodied, privileged, white person. How can I make sure that I better represent this city for people that aren’t at the council table? Back to my key interest and past work with immigration and refugees—how am I making sure that I represent this city for people that can’t even vote, but still walk on our sidewalks and still pay rent in apartments here? So going out and seeking out individuals and groups to make sure that we understand, as a council, their concerns and making sure that we make things equitable and accessible is absolutely important.
There’s a lot of work to be done with that. We’ve a lot of really great strong community members that work within these kinds of things. But I’m so hopeful that the city can do better with this. The fact that we have folks like Anne Malone and Brenda Walsh that are running, this is a great marker that we are doing better in St. John’s. There is always room for better, but making sure that we see people reflected in council that reflect the entire community is so important.
House: I’m the last of six kids. And my eldest sister, she was paraplegic. So accessibility in the city is near and dear to my heart because I’ve seen the challenges that she had in the city. So I’m a huge advocate for making sure that businesses and schools and public areas in our community are accessible to all.
But as far as the challenges my sister had when she was younger—she had a lot of challenges, but she still went on. When I think about her growing up, I didn’t see her disability. She went on in spite of her disability. She learned to drive a car and had hand controls constructed in a machine shop before hand controls became a really big thing. She was the first paraplegic to graduate from Memorial University back in the day. There were very few things for wheelchair accessibility at the university back in that day. My brother used to carry her up and down the stairs to her classes in between his own classes while they were going to university. There’s lots of stories like that that I heard growing up. I want to be a huge advocate for accessibility in this city.
Malone: The city needs to be a universally designed city. Universal design is a design approach whereby the architects and designers take into consideration every single element of the environment. They approach it in a way that the needs of all human beings are met. Regardless of their ability, regardless of their identity, and regardless of their age and other sort of individual factors. So that if you walk into any public space, whether you are disabled, whether you’re a vulnerable person who might be more likely to experience harassment or harm, whether you’re a senior citizen, whether you’re a child, regardless of what your gender identity is, all of these things are taken into consideration and that the environment is designed to accommodate all of these needs.
What we have now is some lanes that are wheelchair accessible but they’re not sensory accessible, or they’re sensory accessible but they’re not wheelchair accessible. Almost half the year, there are no sidewalks at all in many places, which by the way represents half a person’s life in isolation if you need those accommodations, right? That’s my stand on accessibility—like, uncompromising.
We’re an international city now. I would like our public art to show that. I would like to see murals and programs under the program with the city. Create opportunities for the international community to come together and set aside projects for them, for mural painting, for sculptural work. Our own Newfoundland cultural representation is beautiful. We are such a rich corner of international artists that initiatives can and probably will emerge to invoke them and include them in how our city represents itself n that artistic domain. Whether it be visual art, musical art, theatrical art, right across the arts. One of the things that identifies us as unique in the world is that kind of arts community. So let’s go there. Let’s really go there.
Parsons: [Steve Parsons told The Independent he was unable to make time for an interview.]
Petten: [Raymond Petten did not respond to multiple interview requests.]
Puddister: Oh gosh. That’s a really important one. I’ve spoken to lots of folks who have disabilities and are able-diverse in the city right now. It is very difficult for folks to get around the city and access the things that they need. I would like to see more audible crosswalk signals. I’d like to see audible transit stops so that folks know where the bus is actually going to collect them, and they can hear it. There’s a lot of issues with respect to pedestrian right of way in our city, which makes it inaccessible for folks who are in a wheelchair or using a mobility aid or using a stroller.
Or light poles in the middle of the sidewalks that an able-bodied person can just walk around, but that doesn’t leave the required width that’s needed for folks who are not able-bodied to move through that space in a safe way. I’d like to work with Newfoundland Power to get those poles repositioned and make sure there’s policy in place to make sure that in any new development, that kind of practice does not continue. Curb cuts is a similar thing. If there’s a sidewalk that crosses the road, the sidewalk should dip down to make it barrier-free in order for folks to continue on their way.
Some of this is also bottlenecked by provincial legislation. If you look at the decks in the downtown Pedestrian Mall, lots of them are inaccessible. The city was able to put forward a checklist of suggestions on how people can make their decks and public spaces accessible, but they’re not required. I’d really like to work with the province to make sure that universal design and barrier-free design is prioritized and required.
Smith: Infrastructure for accessible transportation and infrastructure for traffic-calming as well. Those are key to safe neighborhoods. We need to see more audible crosswalks across the city. We need to see visibility lines on stairs. We need transit in our city to have accessible buses. The audible stops, the visual stops that tell you the next stop is such and such. Have them wheelchair accessible, too.
Accessibility should be a forethought, not an afterthought. We need to make sure that new developments in this city are always accessible. The Pedestrian Mall was an amazing idea, but for people with mobility issues, it’s been absolutely a nightmare on some of the decks and patios. I don’t think they should get approved if they don’t have accessible ramps, if they don’t have a layout that is accessible for people to get around safely and comfortably.
There’s many things that we can do as a city. Even just making sure that we pressure some existing businesses that have the opportunity to put a ramp towards the building. I know there’s convenience stores that are just absolutely not even negotiable to get into. That’s not good enough. So we need to pressure current businesses that can modify, to modify.
How do you propose to make life more affordable for residents, particularly the most marginalized?
Burton: Affordability has to include the total cost of living. That’s where things like the low-income bus pass that the City and the Province worked on together is really important. During the pandemic, during the time when the numbers were restricted to how many people could get on at once, a lot of people were using the low-income bus pass. So that was a real indication that transit is a core service and it’s something that’s super valuable and there’s no substitute for it.
We need to make transit more affordable and in some cases we need to add more routes. For example, you’re a low wage earner, and the bus stops at 10:00 PM and you get off work at 10:30 PM—your only choice is to get a taxi to get back home. Right now we know that there’s a bit of a shortage of taxis. That issue is called ‘span’ in the transit world. I’d like to see a ‘span-increase’ and offer transit service a little later in the evenings or an hour in the mornings as well so people doing shift work might be able to get where they’re going. Those are a couple of transit-related points.
I’d like to see our affordable housing investments increase. I also want to see us approve more housing in general, right? So we need to have more market-level rental housing in St. John’s. We need to be able to have suitable places to live where you feel safe and you have everything you need within a 10 minute walk of your house. That kind of bold vision for the future for St. John’s seems really far away, but it’s actually quite achievable. Council needs to vote ‘Yes’ more often on housing development applications.
Combden: I know it’s more on a provincial level in terms of housing, but the city does own some municipal properties around. I do know of some down Quidi Vidi area, and I think just next to City Hall. I think they should work with the provincial government, for example, getting the old hospital up there across from the Shoppers on Marshall Road. That’s been vacant for years. It’s an eyesore, it’s horrible, it’s a big location. They could put in some apartments and rezone it. They could put in some housing or affordable housing for low income people. Make some more development within the municipality. The city can see if they can buy up some land—use their own land somewhere, or buy some land from private citizens who are selling to put these houses on.
Davis: The City of St. John’s obviously has subsidized housing. One idea that I floated is the concept of putting high speed internet into those with wireless routers, blocking a lot of the high use services like, say, the Netflixes or whatever else in the world. But then residents would be guaranteed—no matter what your situation, you would be able to do school online, you’d be able to apply for work or to have meetings online. If you needed to do your driver’s license, that kind of thing, you’d be able to do it. So everybody, no matter their situation, would have access to internet and it would be affordable because that is a big expense for a lot of people.
The other thing along the education front is that we need to get into seniors groups, into marginalized groups and offer them financial and health education. With COVID one of the first things I did back in March, I went through every part of my spending—business and personal—and cut expenses. One of the things I did is I put my wife’s and my cellphone back to pay as you go. It’s a plan that renews monthly but we’re paying $40 a month for our cellphones. I have employees who work for me who live on the margin, and they pay $90 a month for their cellphone. The reason is because they want to get the latest, greatest cellphone, or they break their cellphone and they want another cellphone. I believe we can help people by educating. To start with, everything is educating people who haven’t had good role models in a lot of cases, or haven’t had the opportunity to learn these things.
I mean, I think the city’s job is to try and elevate their citizens, not by giving them things but by educating them so that they can make better choices.
Ellsworth: That one, for me, is a very tough personal one. As I said, most of my work is in socioeconomically challenged communities because of the way we grew up ourselves. You understand that every dollar counts. I would like to see us moving the threshold for tax relief up so that individuals who have their own homes and are struggling, we work with them. We need to do better on making transit more accessible to individuals who have financial barriers to getting transit. We need to work better with the provincial government and the federal government. Affordable housing is another piece we need to look at to make and empower people to have decent living accommodations.
Hanlon: That’s a hard one because the city can only do so much. What we can do is keep costs down. Don’t raise the taxes. If you raise the taxes, people say, “Oh, well, they don’t pay taxes because they’re renting.” But yeah, they’re paying taxes because the rent’s going to go up when the taxes go up. Finances are tight, especially since the pandemic. So my biggest thing that I want to contribute to is I want to make sure the taxes do not increase. And still maintain the level of services and find creative ways to make things work for everyone that does not increase taxes, but also affords us to give the money that we need to these stakeholders and the community groups that need them like the Food Sharing or Thrive.
Those organizations, when they apply for their grants—make sure the money is there for them, and that the city can do what it can to help them. A lot of times, if they’re doing projects, we don’t charge for permits. The city is very creative when it comes to social groups that reach out to us.
Hickman: Well, that’s a broad question. The most marginalized, sometimes they may not be taxpayers. Hey, listen—if you think about it, they may not own a home. So the city has to be creative. First of all, yes, taxation has to be reasonable. The system that all governments have given to municipalities is that you basically have to assess the value of the house and apply a mil rate to every single house. The ones that have bigger houses will pay a lot more taxes on those than smaller houses. I guess there’s some fairness in it, but it’s still difficult for those that maybe have bought a small house, a new house, or just starting out in their careers, etc. It’s still difficult to have a high tax rate.
So fairness in taxes is one way. But those that are renting or that are living in affordable housing or supportive housing, the city has to continue its role in providing space for that, land for that, policy towards that, and also financial support for that. Usually with the three levels of government involved. Affordable housing is a big issue in this city, and it is probably the biggest social issue that our city government has to concern itself with. We have really good staff in that area. And we have some councilors traditionally that are very conscious of this. I rely on their expertise to take leadership on that, and I am a supporter of that. But when it comes to all that stuff, again, it’s a mindset. We must develop policy and continue to enhance our support.
Hollett: We all know people that have moved away from St. John’s, probably ourselves at one point or another, for school or work or whatever. St. John’s is facing a terrible situation with our population—if we all had a baby tomorrow, our death rate is still outpacing our birth rate. So if it’s not affordable here, people aren’t going to stay. If there’s no jobs, people are not going to stay. If we don’t have affordable housing stock, affordable transportation, safe walkways, or sidewalks, people aren’t going to stay. It all comes down to a lot of different things. Making the hard choices when it comes to the budget is key. Celebrating the services that we do have so that people can choose to make St. John’s a place to live is also key.
But affordability also can come in the scope of long term decisions. So choosing to invest in something that like Metrobus or sidewalk clearing—recognizing that this isn’t just an investment for one person, this is an investment for the whole community, is really important. Making sure that we can make these kinds of decisions in St. John’s is so important, and hearing these kinds of conversations at the door is heartbreaking. It’s really hard. So many people I’ve met are like, “I’m living in a three-bedroom and I really want to downsize. I don’t need all this space. I’m here by myself, but I can’t find an apartment or something to go into that’s cheaper.” We need to recognize these challenges.
There are larger issues when it comes to making sure that people have food security. What can the city do within development regulations or zoning or whatever? What can we do to make sure that people can grow their own food, if they want? There can be community programs that allow these kinds of interactions. That means that you don’t have to travel so far to get these kinds of things. There’s so many larger, bigger pieces that can make St. John’s affordable.
House: I know that affordable housing is a huge issue in the city. But that goes hand in hand with just the state of real estate across the country. Things are very expensive right now. We need to have affordable housing for everyone. Everyone deserves to be able to live in a safe and secure environment.
There’s housing in downtown St. John’s, there are vacant buildings that really need to be razed entirely, because they are empty. We need to take down those buildings and put up new structures for the marginalized and for the people that have less than other more affluent people in the city.
Homelessness is an issue. It has always been an issue and it always will be an issue. We still have people that are living on the street and we need to protect the least of these. We need equality in that people that need more, they need to be cared for more. And people that need a little bit less, maybe they can give a little bit more to those marginalized parts of our community.
Malone: We need a really accessible transportation system, including sidewalks. If walking is not an option, if you have to get a taxi or a bus to get to where you want to go, then you cannot save money that you might be able to save if you could just walk. People might say, “Well, a return bus trip, if you had to take a bus to work every day during the winter, and then a bus home again because you don’t have sidewalks, that’s another five bucks a day.” Five bucks a day, to me, is $150 a month. That means something in my house. And I’m one of thousands of people in the city who live with that same kind of challenge, right?
So, again, it is very much a question of: we have a lot of people who are making these decisions who may not be acquainted with the experience of living with scarcity. I would argue that just providing pedestrian and disability accessibility will have financial benefits for a lot of people.
Secondly, you know, the rental situation in St. John’s has changed a lot over the last few years. It’s getting more and more difficult to find one and two bedroom apartments for a price that fits within a modest income. There’s not enough subsidized housing. There’s certainly not enough housing for people who need a wheelchair and other accessibility. We really do need more accessible, affordable housing.
We have to keep in mind what is going to be needed over the next 10, 20, 30 years. We have the highest rate of diabetes per capita anywhere in Canada, which means that we have a lot of people right now who are in the early or milder stages of diabetes, who will definitely in the future experience sight loss because one of the leading causes of blindness in Canada is diabetes. One of the leading causes of loss of mobility is diabetes. I haven’t heard anybody talk about this. So we can logically expect a higher percentage of people over the next decade or two to begin to self identify as having disabilities. So we need to start preparing for that now.
Parsons: [Steve Parsons told The Independent he was unable to make time for an interview.]
Petten: [Raymond Petten did not respond to multiple interview requests.]
Puddister: The best thing that we can do is make it possible to get around the city without a car. Owning a car is a very expensive thing. If it’s not really possible for you to own a car, that makes it very difficult to get around the city. It requires you to spend hours of every day planning and using the transit system, which has implications for mental health as well. So if we can invest in transit, if we can make it possible and safe for people to move around the city on foot or on a bicycle, through policy on physically separated cycling lanes and making sure that folks can get themselves to a bus stop in a safe way, that’s where we should start.
One thing I have heard is that the affordable housing stock, both public and private, is largely not accessible. That’s a really big problem that needs to be addressed. There is a really big need to retrofit the existing stock and ensure that new affordable housing is built using universal design principles so that people can actually have a place to live that’s affordable and that they can age in place.
It’s deemed that your housing is not affordable if you’re paying more than 30% of income on housing. A lot of people in St. John’s are paying more than 30% of their income on housing. There are things the city can do to try and bolster and support better access to affordable housing, one of which is co-op housing. Before this campaign, I didn’t even know that co-op housing was a thing in St. John’s. But there are several co-ops that exist and folks who are members of the co-op could sometimes pay as little as $300 a month and have access to their own home.
The homes within the co-op are collectively owned by the organization. But oftentimes when those co-ops are looking for ways to repair the homes in their co-op, or expand by purchasing more units, they can’t access the same kind of financial opportunities that individuals can. The banks don’t look at their collective equity in the same way, because it’s not associated with a person—it’s associated with the co-op, which is an organization. I would like to see the city better support co-op housing so people could have that as an option.
Smith: We need to make sure that taxes do not go up. The cost of living in St. John’s is hard for people. I was raised on social housing and I was raised on low income social assistance. This is an issue that I get to speak to with personal experience—going to the grocery store and having to budget, finding it hard to get fresh produce. We need to have more community gardens around. We need to have more things like Tessier Park, where there’s fruit trees.
And more affordable housing and more single-unit affordable housing. And higher-density affordable housing because that doesn’t just address the issue of housing, that also addresses the issue of the urban sprawl and climate change. If people live closer to the services, they’re going to be able to get to them, too.
On another note, as a city, we should pressure the provincial government to see a living wage. We should pressure them to mandate a $15 an hour living wage for the people of this province, because in my opinion, they deserve it. I don’t think it should be even a question. It’s something that we need to, as a city, step up onto.
What ways would you like to improve accountability and transparency at City Hall for residents?
Burton: The steps towards electoral reform that was taken has been really positive, and I don’t see why we shouldn’t continue to make improvements to our elections’ processes at the city.
When it comes to transparency, we also started live streaming council meetings on the website. You don’t have to have a TV to watch it. People can tune in and then see what the council is saying. That was a really big thing that we did, and I think it was worthwhile. Being able to access the council meetings themselves—hopefully we’ll be able to have people back in person in the council chambers.
Getting more people to pay attention, watch the meetings, listen to the meetings after, and read about the meetings—make sure that people are actually able to notice what’s happening, right? Trying to meet people where they’re at is crucial. I think we have made big improvements.
Combden: The council meetings, I think they should be broadcasted live of some sort. A lot of people now in this day and age, with all the media and social media, are connected. I know Newfoundland and St. John’s has a lot of older population and may not have access to those type of things, but I don’t know if they could have it on our local channel. Maybe the city should get involved with NTV or something and have their council meetings broadcast live on that. Or YouTube or Facebook, or Zoom or something. We should be more engaging in the public and make it more accessible in terms of people coming into the City Hall. I know now with COVID, you have to have certain restrictions, but it seems like that’s changing. And advertise it more, saying we’ll have our meeting on Twitter and Facebook, and the public can come in.
Davis: I believe that all employees who make $80,000 or more should be published in the City of St. John’s, firstly. Especially overtime, because overtime reflects on management and reflects on resource utilization. That’s the first thing. I think the salaries of our employees should be publicly available. We pay them, we should know what they make. When I look at the financial statements, I don’t know what labour is. I can’t tell because it’s not broken up.
There needs to be transparency on labour. It’s the largest part of our spending, and labour needs to be broken up. That’s number one. Transparency—someone should be able to drill down through the financial statements of the City of St. John’s and know how much we spend on everything, specifically so that there can be nothing hidden. What does St. John’s Sports and Entertainment truly cost? What’s its revenues? I’d like to see financial statements for everything, so that we can look and see how we’re spending our money.
Ellsworth: Well, I’m hearing some concerning pieces last few weeks on doorsteps. Residents tried to get minutes of meetings, and council’s directive was that minutes of certain meetings are not to be released. I don’t think that’s transparent. I don’t think not allowing residents to have all the information about decision-making is good for anybody, because then you become skeptical, you become afraid of what’s being decided without the information. I do understand there are certain pieces of legal or human resource related things. That’s fine, but when you’re making decisions, full transparency should be there.
Bit concerned about engagement. I know that COVID changed some of it, but we need to have public meetings. We need to have public contact. We need to have public involvement. As much as it’s uncomfortable for some people around the table, people need to have an opportunity to raise their voice and to have a good debate and discussion. Those who are elected should not be afraid to sit in front of the room and defend your decisions. We’ve really moved away from that.
We see it again with council moving to this ‘council lead’ piece. Ultimately nobody’s really responsible for anything and council as a whole is responsible. If you watched any of the Committee of the Whole meetings, you kind of shake your head sometimes. There are things talked about but no direction given to staff. So I’m not sure that we’re offering good leadership. If you’re not engaging with the community, having good debate and discussion as elected officials with the community as a whole, I’m not really sure you get a good grasp of what communities are looking for.
Hanlon: For residents? Well, it’s pretty good. This is my third time being on council. Back in the day, it’s like night and day to what it is in this council. I’ve really, truly enjoyed being with this council. There’s not one of them that I don’t respect. I don’t agree with everything they say, especially the newer councillors. I enjoy the banter and I learn from them, and I hope they learn from me.
The more public engagement we can have, the better—as long as it doesn’t slow down the entire process. We’re having meetings that are just people wanting the same voices heard. But the more new voices and the more people that want to express their opinions, the better. It does not always have to be in-person. Make it more accessible for people to actually put in their opinions, and make sure they have the facts. It’s like anything, power is knowledge and knowledge is powerful. So the people are aware of what’s going on. They might or might not agree, but at least they would be informed. So the more information that we can make available for people the better.
Secondly, more engagement, earlier engagement. So it’s not just another document, but to actually hear what the people say is the major important thing of making the city run well, because we all have to work together. It’s probably going to be the most important time for care and respect going forward, because I think we’re in for a rough ride for the next 12 months.
Hickman: We have to be accountable, there’s no question about that. We have to have a balanced budget going in and we have to provide audited statements at the end of the year, both to the provincial government and to residents of the city. That’s always published and put on websites and everywhere, so people are aware of where it goes. We’re not allowed to have a deficit. We have come out of most years with a bit of a surplus because we’ve been—I can’t say we’re conservative budgeting, in my experience, but we’re trying to be spot on with our budgeting and mostly things worked out a little bit better.
But transparency in this day and age is an automatic thing. Whatever platform is available, the city is using now and will use as other platforms evolve. We will have to provide information on every program, every service and engage the public and get their feedback on what we’re doing. Part of transparency is gaining feedback and engagement from the public. That has been improving over the years for sure. It will continue to improve and evolve as times change. We can’t predict how people communicate in five years time, let alone 10 or 20 years time. Who knows what platform will evolve and where things will go.
Again, all this stuff is all about a person’s mindset. A councillor’s mindset is what counts when it comes to engagement and transparency and change. We have to have open-minded people—people with a background of municipal responsibilities. I guess I’ve been sort of consistent in my responses, but that’s the way life has to be.
Hollett: My work with Happy City St. John’s has me well-versed in that kind of stuff. I’ve been watching and participating in different ways and not just Happy City, but just being one of those municipal nerds that participates in so many consultations and everything else. Making those connections with the community helps accountability and transparency. When we’re proactive in how we engage and have those conversations, people are more amenable to change.
Change is hard. Not a lot of people love change. But when we’re open and transparent with different consultation processes, being proactive and going out to people—saying, would you like this? What do you think about this? If this happens, then what about this?—that helps people. Also: ultimately, standing by your decisions, explaining how you came to your decision, is important. Being transparent and showing how you came to that decision and standing by it. Knowing why you made the decision you made and coming back to that and being able to say with conviction and say openly, this is why I chose that.
Doing early consultations on as many things as possible and discussing the options. Agendas come out on Friday afternoon and then the meeting is Monday afternoon. Personally, I think that is a concern. When your agenda comes out at 12 o’clock or 1 o’clock on a Friday, and then you’re having your meeting at 3 o’clock on Monday—even the time of meetings is something for us to be thinking about. That’s one piece of it. When do agendas come out? When are meetings held? Who is able to be there? Are we welcoming people? Are we making sure that any kind of accommodation is possible for people? That is another part of improving accountability and transparency.
People want responsive members around the table. Even if you can’t give them the best answer, being able to be responsive, I think is a really big thing that a lot of people want.
House: Transparency is extremely important. Anyone working on council should be transparent. They need to be open to what residents have to say and they need to be accessible to all residents. I want to be as transparent as possible. I have no plans to go in and to cover causes that only I am interested in. That is not what the city needs. We don’t need people in council that are out for their own personal interests or the interests of certain particular groups that they may be involved in.
People that work for council need to want the best for the city. As councillors for the city, we can’t do what’s best for ourselves unless everybody in our city is also being cared for.
People want to be heard—their point of view and their perspective and whatever their particular issue may be, is valid. It is valid for them. So if it is valid for them or for their families, we all as council members should accept that and be willing to be able to put ourselves in their position and to then be able to work from their perspective rather than just looking at it from our own personal agenda.
Malone: That was a really good question that I haven’t really given a lot of thought to. Because I’m so transparent, I just assume everybody else is.
I wish that individual councillors would give a sort of deeper analysis, verbally, in meetings as to why they are voting in the manner that they are voting. One issue that completely lacks transparency for me, was the consultation on snow clearing, where we had a record number of respondents, and the majority of them voted in favor of doing whatever needs to be done to advance efficient snow clearing—and the results were completely ignored. Why have the consultation in the first place? It looks like a performance, not a real thing.
Things like that make voters wonder if the consultations have any real value. If it could be so easily pushed to one side and a decision made that clearly is not in alignment with the results of the consultation—like, that’s a transparency problem.
Parsons: [Steve Parsons told The Independent he was unable to make time for an interview.]
Petten: [Raymond Petten did not respond to multiple interview requests.]
Puddister: I’ve heard from a lot of people on the doors that they’ve not been pleased with the way that public engagement happens at the city. That causes a really big disconnect between the general public and the elected officials. It creates a lot of apathy. It creates a lot of mistrust in the system. So when we do public engagement, it has to be meaningful. We have to be able to go back to folks who participated and say, “This is what we heard, but here’s the raw data of what we heard.” Not just a summary that someone who has access to the data drafts up. We should have access to the raw data of public engagement. It can be anonymized, of course.
We also need to be able to hear how that information that was collected actually plugs back into decision-making—that people can feel like it was worth their time to actually engage with city council. In terms of faith in government as well, I took a stand to not accept corporate and union donations this time round, even though it won’t be required until 2025. That is a change that is already in the works. That’s a really positive step the city is taking in terms of accountability.
I’d really like to see further changes to allow permanent residents to vote in elections. I’d really like to see more debate take place during the council meetings. I feel like there are special meetings, I guess, that take place prior to the public council meetings. I understand the importance of those meetings for sure, but it does often feel like a lot of the decisions are already made when folks show up to the public council meeting. We don’t really get to see a lot of the debate that takes place that brings council to where they arrive on certain decisions. So I think we could stand to have more of that debate taking place during the public council meetings and Committee of the Whole meetings.
Smith: We just need to let the citizens know what’s going on. There’s going to be situations that we’re not able to. But for the most part, we can’t have things like what just happened with St. John’s Sport and Entertainment. We can’t have it.
We also can’t have trees going up in an area where kids are playing and then we have to take them down. A, the cost of that; B, it just makes no sense. We need to have better engagement. We need to be effectively telling our citizens what’s going on in situations. Not to hinder bargaining agreements or not to hinder negotiations, but just so they’re not out in the complete cold. That’s kind of where we need to go. Maybe there needs to be some increased policy on that. Actually, not maybe—for sure, there needs to be increased policy on that. This is what the city is supposed to let you know on something, and if we don’t do that, then that is back on us. We need to have a lot less closed doors.
[Candidate responses have been edited for length and clarity.]
With files from Hope Jamieson.
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Elizabeth Whitten is a St. John’s-based journalist and one of The Independent’s 2021 municipal election reporters. She’s previously worked for allNewfoundlandLabrador and Downhome Magazine, and her work has been published by CBC, The Overcast, and the Toronto Star. She’s currently writing a book about how Dr. Cluny Macpherson invented the gas mask in World War One.