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Who will lead St. John’s?

in Featured/Journalism by

Residents of Newfoundland and Labrador will go to the polls this month to elect their town and city councils.

Big things are happening in the province, and fast. As we invest more and more in the natural resources and energy industries we find ourselves entrenched in the national and global economies to a greater degree than ever before, and with that comes benefits and consequences – some which can be managed, others seemingly beyond our control.

The Northeast Avalon is booming, with an influx of new residents flooding the suburbs and surrounding areas of St. John’s, while other communities around the province continue in their struggles to maintain or even acquire basic infrastructure. Today, it seems, St. John’s has it all: more shopping malls, bigger movie theatres, new box stores and restaurant chains, a cruise ship port, a healthy summer tourism industry, and to those who’ve visited or lived in other Canadian cities, an increasingly familiar metropolitan character. More people are making more money than ever before – they are building bigger homes, driving luxury cars and SUVs, spending their earnings on lavish goods and opulent pastimes. But the prosperity has also presented us with certain challenges, such as how to manage the proliferation of people, money, and social problems.

Perhaps more than ever before, traditional or customary ideas about the ways in which we ought to organize and manage our communities effectively are being challenged. New and greater problems require new and greater ideas, which require greater collaboration, creativity and innovation.

So who will lead our towns and cities for the next four years? What qualities will they possess? Do you value a mayor or councillor with experience over a newcomer with fresh ideas?

How many of us are even paying attention to the election campaigns? Will we vote this month to elect the people we believe will help us build and maintain healthy, happy communities?

Spotlight on St. John’s

Today we put the spotlight on St. John’s, where 30 candidates are vying for a seat on city council. The ideas and visions that are shared in the council chambers over the next four years are of the utmost importance if the capital city is to maintain its cherished character in the face of urban sprawl, rapid residential and commercial development, lack of affordable housing, and apparent surges in drug use and violent crime, all of which are just some of the challenges and problems it faces.

“All we were trying to do was get from one year to the other because we basically had no money,” recalls Ron Penney, who retired in 2010 after 16 years with the City of St. John’s, including stints as city manager, chief commissioner and city solicitor. “And now council does have quite a bit of money; taxes have gone up and there are more businesses and more buildings being built and more residences,” he says. “So the financial issues are not as difficult as they were in the past, but the key thing is managing the growth in the city and planning properly, and being sensitive to our heritage, particularly in the downtown area, to make sure that what we allow to go there is consistent with the scale of the city.”

Summer tourism from visiting cruise ships & rapid urban development are some of the challenges St. John's city council will continue to deal with in the coming years. Photo by Justin Brake.
Summer tourism from visiting cruise ships & rapid urban development are some of the challenges St. John’s city council will continue to be faced with in the coming years. Photo by Justin Brake.

With the vote-by-mail kits going out to registered voters tomorrow, and the Sept. 24 election day looming, some city residents are doing what they can to ensure voters are ready to make an informed decision when they go to the polls (or fill out and mail in their ballots).

Before he decided to run for the Ward 5 seat on city council, Sherwin Flight created stjohns2013.ca, an online resource for election info where you can find out what ward you live in, learn how to register to vote, and find candidates’ platforms and email addresses and phone numbers.

“When I went looking for candidate information it was hard to find,” says Flight, who at 29 is the youngest candidate running for St. John’s city council. “I know people don’t want to go spend an hour or a couple of hours searching for all this information to figure out who they’re going to vote for.” So Flight built the website and has been moderating conversations and debates over important election issues on the St. John’s Municipal Elections 2013 Facebook group.

“Seeing the issues and stuff come up, it sort of got me thinking that maybe I could do more about the issues and stuff around here if I was actually running in the election, or if I was on council myself,” he says.

“For the most part, overall, people are always looking for the same qualities in a candidate, like responsibility and things like that, and (being) willing to listen to the concerns people have and those kinds of things,” he continues. “But the sort of new feeling I’m getting is that people want to see more youth and younger people in general involved in city issues.”

Flight isn’t the only one doing community outreach around the election. Local not-for-profit Happy City is fielding questions from city residents and voters for a candidate questionnaire, and tonight they’re hosting an all-candidates forum where they’ll ask council hopefuls to share their “big picture visions” with voters through engaging in a “civil discussion that’s not a debate,” says Happy City St. John’s chairperson Josh Smee.

“We want to make sure people really understand what the candidates represent, and what people’s values are and how people are going to act and what they’re going to care about once they’re in office,” he explains.

“We’re hoping that people vote in an informed way and that they vote in a council that’s committed to working creatively with people…and the city’s already been taking steps in the right direction so we just hope that keeps going.”

Timing & Method: Challenges for new candidates and transient voters

stjohns2013.ca creator and Ward 5 candidate Sherwin Flight. Submitted photo.
stjohns2013.ca creator and Ward 5 candidate Sherwin Flight. Submitted photo.

A September election has some concerned its timing places incumbents at an unfair advantage since the bulk of the campaign period takes place during the summer months, with the home stretch – particularly crucial for new candidates – coinciding with the back-to-school blitz and an otherwise busy month for many individuals and families.

“Because the election takes place so soon after the end of the summer there’s really an advantage for incumbents because they have the name recognition,” says Penney. “It’s hard anyway for someone new to break in and get elected because people don’t pay any attention to it really over the summer.”

Since voters can cast their vote as soon as they receive their ballots in the mail, “the amount of time for people to consider who they’re going to vote for is less in the City of St. John’s than it is in other places which do a traditional ballot,” Penney continues. “So there’s a positive side in that it’s easy for people to vote, and the percentage of people who vote is recently good in St. John’s – in the last election it was certainly over 50 per cent – but it cuts down the practical campaign period.”

Voting by mail is a double-edged sword, Smee concurs. “The one concern I have…is that it’s a challenge for people who are younger and more transient, people who are renters,” he says. “People who have moved frequently are less likely to be on the voter’s list, and so that does put up an extra barrier. No matter how easy we make it to get on the voter’s list, it’s still an extra step that mail-in voting imposes.”

Social media to the rescue?

Meanwhile, a number of candidates are taking their campaigns online, though with varying degrees of effort to interact with potential voters. Campaign websites and Facebook pages are standard fare and a few have blogs, but some candidates are going the extra mile and engaging voters through direct and frequent conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

“Generally speaking an incumbent has a better chance of (being elected) because a lot of the time, when people don’t really pay attention to things or they’re not really checking out all the candidates, they just assume things have been going OK, so they’ll just vote for the same person,” says Flight, who is running against Ward 5 incumbent Wally Collins. “But it’s an election and I guess crazier things have happened, so if I can get my information out there and get to enough people, and enough people can see what I have to offer…I might have a good chance.”

The Indy’s Questionnaire: hated, loved, ignored, embraced

Last month The Independent invited readers to share their questions with us for a questionnaire we would send to each of the St. John’s city council candidates. With a healthy response from readers and a few of our own questions thrown into the mix, we fired off the surveys to all candidates who had registered for the election by Aug. 23.

The 'Harbour Fence' has been a centerpiece of controversy over the past year, as it closes off a large portion of the beloved harbourfront to locals. Photo by Justin Brake.
The ‘Harbour Fence’ has been a centerpiece of controversy over the past year, as it closes off a large portion of the beloved harbourfront to locals. Photo by Justin Brake.

While most were eager to participate (many thanked us for the opportunity to delve into the wide range of issues addressed in the questionnaire), some were not as enthusiastic or didn’t respond at all. Several candidates commented on the length of the questionnaire (there are ‘Personal Info’, ‘Multiple Choice’ and ‘Long Answer’ sections), saying it was the most thorough survey they had ever been administered. Still, most candidates submitted their completed surveys by our Aug. 26 deadline.

But in the days leading up to the Aug. 27 nomination deadline more candidates entered the race.

After some deliberation myself, Hans Rollmann and Tom Baird (who has been instrumental in developing the survey) decided it was in the best interest of readers and voters if all candidates had equal opportunity to participate, so we gave all candidates a window of opportunity to complete the survey or modify their responses by our new Sept. 2 deadline.

In the end we received 23 completed surveys from a total of 30 candidates.

One candidate said in an email that he was skeptical readers would trudge through all the responses – a valid point. So we broke the responses down into ‘seats’ to enable readers to zoom in on a particular ward or council seat and compare the answers of the respective candidates. To read the candidates’ complete survey responses, click on the appropriate seat at the end of this article.

So, who’s gonna lead?

“You want people who are capable of working together, not always agreeing; but particularly at the top you want a mayor who’s capable of trying to achieve consensus,” says Penney, who occasionally teaches a course on municipal politics at Memorial University.

“Basically you want to make sure you have a wide variety of people, from all different walks of life, different experiences – some with business experiences, some with perhaps financial (experience), some people who’ve been involved in community organizations. It’s nice to have that mix. And then if you can have a person at the top who can bring that all together, and have people work together and disagreeing in a civilized and democratic way, that’s what you want.”

The effort candidates put into their campaigns, and in reaching out to potential voters, may also be deciding factors worthy of consideration.

“I think candidates have a responsibility in differentiating themselves,” says Smee. “Sometimes if you look at people’s election platforms it all starts to be a bit of a blur of fuzzy, happy community things. And I think candidates have a real responsibility here to try and explain what they would be doing differently and how they see the city and why. The more that happens the more people get drawn in.”

Well, 22 candidates embraced our questionnaire as a way to share their ideas, opinions and intentions with Indy readers and potential voters. To read their responses, click on the appropriate city council seat:

Mayor
Deputy Mayor
Ward 1 (acclaimed by incumbent Danny Breen)
Ward 2
Ward 3
Ward 4
Ward 5
At-Large

Happy City St. John’s presents Think Big St. John’s: an all-candidates forum this evening from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. at Memorial University’s Bruneau Centre.

A special thanks to Tom Baird for his help in preparing the survey.

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