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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.
The Deputy Mayor’s role is perhaps the least well-defined of those on Council. They are effectively an At-Large councillor who chairs meetings and attends events if the Mayor is unavailable, with a $14,000 salary bump over other councillors (about $60,000 to councillors $46,000).
The Independent spoke with Deputy Mayor Sheilagh O’Leary about some of the issues facing the city. The interview was conducted live over the phone, and questions were not provided in advance. Read on to find out her thoughts about transit, climate change, the budget crunch, the city’s relationship with the province, and more.
Elizabeth Whitten (The Independent): What are the main issues the city is facing, and what do you propose to do about them?
Sheilagh O’Leary: Well, there’s a couple of different things. I don’t know if there’s just one main issue, but certainly affordability, accessibility and healthy communities. And when I talk about healthy communities, I’m talking about climate action and environmental sustainability. These are very important issues for me. That’s one of the main reasons I actually got involved in municipal politics. There’s no one trick pony. It has to be a combination of things.
Where do you stand on the future of Mile One?
Well, we have to have more discussion, and certainly look at the reports that have been done. But when we discuss Mile One and we talk about the subsidy that is in place, we have to understand that we actually have operational grants that we provide. We charge the same subsidies to a number of different areas, including swimming pools, recreation facilities, all of the different things that we do to provide quality of life and recreational capabilities for people in the city.
So in the discussion around Mile One, when you hear the word “subsidy”—and I’ll put that in brackets—sometimes it’s misleading because the reason for Mile One and the Convention Center is actually to create economic prosperity for the community in which it resides. We can look at models like that right across the country. We have a very similar kind of scenario. No quick answer on that one, but I think it’s really important that we continue to have the good discussions around it, because there are some major concerns if we were to sell Mile One without having the ample discussion around it.
It’s a fact the city does have a budget shortfall. In what specific ways do you propose to solve the problem?
We have a balancing act in municipal government. We are mandated to have a balanced budget, which the province doesn’t have to have, and the federal government does not have to have—they can go into debt. But we are mandated to ensure that we have a balanced budget, and that means that we have to weigh things out. We have to figure out what services we need to provide. Nobody wants to see their taxes increased, but the reality is the taxation pays for the services that we provide to citizens. So it’s a balancing act between it all. There would be potential areas where we can create efficiencies within the existing system. That’s an ongoing thing that we have to look at—it’s called “continuous improvement.”
So it’s efficiencies on one side, but also we need to balance it out because we need to improve our services as well. We need to become a much more accessible city and one that creates avenues for all kinds of different mobility, including bikes and certainly people who have mobility impairment.
In your perspective, what do you see as the principal area of concern when it comes to getting around the city—for roads, the bike plan, and the bus system?
That comes into a number of different areas. One is that we work for the building code that sometimes does not align with the provincial building code when it comes to accessibility. These are things where we need to have more research done into how we can make areas that have been historically not very accessible, like our downtown, because of the nature of when it was built. How we can try to provide the best accessibility as possible in those areas, that’s one thing.
We also know that bike culture is on the increase. It’s a mode of transportation that I certainly am very interested in promoting. The bike master plan, when it was first developed, was a good effort. But it failed in terms of actually providing safe infrastructure for cyclists. We need to make sure that we create a really safe passage for people to be able to be more mobile with bikes.
And we know that we are a winter city. We could talk about how wonderful it is to hop around in the summertime in a three or four month period. But the reality is that we really have a lot of snow to deal with, and that’s a big part of our culture. So sidewalk snow clearing is something that we have to continue to improve.
People shouldn’t have to walk in the middle of the street—it’s unsafe. It’s something that has been happening for a very long time. But we need to make sure that people can walk safely on sidewalks.
One other thing is accessing intersections. In winter months, oftentimes the snow is piled high. So one of the other issues is push buttons, beg buttons with pedestrian access. Sometimes you can’t even get to them to push them. So having them automated in appropriate areas is really important.
How can the city mitigate the effects of climate change and help residents do the same?
We’ve actually been on a great track in terms of trying to address the fact that the city has hired a sustainability coordinator. We all approved as a council, with leadership from Councillor Froude, a climate emergency. Which means that we are committed to trying to improve. At our last council meeting, we approved charging stations within city facilities. I’m very pleased to see us starting to promote electric vehicles. I certainly hope my next vehicle will be an electric vehicle or at least a hybrid. That means that we need to have the infrastructure in place.
And of course, greening a community. One of the things that I’m certainly best known for in my time has been as an urban forest advocate. I fought very long and hard to get tree development regulations in place in the development regs. That came to fruition and we need to continue to make sure that we not only protect the urban forest, but also continue to proliferate it because that does feed into our carbon footprint.
Where do you stand on the issue around snow clearing sidewalks and what would you do to improve the service?
I think my vote was very clear in the motion that was put forward in the most recent days that I was in full support of putting extra resources into sidewalk snow clearing.
What initiatives would you include to make St. John’s a more accessible, inclusive city?
Really what it comes down to, is no discussion about people with disabilities without them. We have an inclusion committee at the city and there are regulations that we abide by, but I think it’s extremely important that we have the dialogue because I’m not physically disabled. I don’t have a disability that I’m dealing with. So it’s difficult for me to understand fully, unless we actually have people with lived experience advising and telling us. We have seen many come forward in recent times just of their own accord on social media and otherwise and it’s very welcomed. So that dialogue has to happen and that’s how we can continue to do an inventory on where we’re failing and where we are improving.
How do you propose to make life more affordable for residents, particularly the most marginalized?
One of the things that’s certainly been very near and dear to my heart is affordable housing, affordable living. We talk about property tax, it’s an archaic system, but that’s what we’ve gotten. That’s how we actually get the tax base in order to provide the services that people require. Sewage, water, paved roads, all of the amenities, all of the wonderful things in the arts and cultural realm, and recreational realm, that we provide for citizens. All of those things are extremely important.
What was the question again? Sorry, I kind of went off on a tangent.
How would you propose to make life more affordable for residents?
So I’m presently the lead for affordable housing, and we have a ten-year affordable housing strategy. We know that COVID-19 has really not only impacted people, but it’s just exposed some of the most vulnerable people in their communities. Numbers are growing in terms of people who can safely and adequately live in housing. And so it’s really, really important that we pay close attention to our ten-year affordable housing strategy and start picking off all of the mission statements that we have within that plan. We just approved a rapid housing initiative that we worked with them. We came down to the federal government, that’s one avenue. We provide our own housing stock in the City of St. John’s. We need to continue to renovate and improve those units that we are the landlords of.
As well, nothing happens without partnerships. It’s extremely important that we partner not only with the nonprofits who are the boots on the ground in terms of servicing and helping vulnerable populations—but also with different levels of government. So partnerships, partnerships, partnerships are the ones that actually make affordable opportunities happen.
What ways would you like to improve accountability and transparency at City Hall for residents?
There’s a number of different ways. We’ve been moving in the right direction. We have an ATIP coordinator, obviously people who want to ensure that they get the information that they require. We have staff members actually dedicated to that, which we never did in previous years.
One of the things obviously is about engagement, certainly of our council meetings and our Committee of the Whole. There are always improvements to be made. COVID-19 saw our engagement process turned to an online engagement opportunity but not everybody is online. When we’re talking about a younger population, obviously people are very IT savvy. But we have a bulk of our population, actually the majority of our population are senior at this point in time. And many of those individuals are not technologically savvy. Do not access computers, only through their children or their grandchildren. So that limits the ability for people to actually engage. So that was an interesting thing that I think surfaced as a result of COVID-19 because we couldn’t be in person. I’m really looking forward to a return to physical engagement opportunities, as well as continuing the online ones, which obviously are successful for many as well.
How would you describe the current relationship between St. John’s municipality and the province?
I think that we have a healthy relationship. Their responsibility, certainly, is to the province as a whole. The City of St. John’s as the capital city, however, is a major player. I’m looking forward to actually improving our relationship with the Province, making sure that when the Mayor on behalf of Council writes letters to the Province with the needs that we have, that we are taken seriously. I really look forward to the improvements to that relationship.
In what specific ways can that relationship could be improved and what will you do to make that happen?
It has to be a public dialogue. There are many issues that have been on the back burner for some time. I’ll use an example of one particular thing that has been a bit of an elephant in the room, and that’s the Grace hospital site, which is provincially owned. Oftentimes as a city, we bear the brunt of vacancies or parcels of land that are not developed, and really could be used for something beneficial to the community. But unfortunately it’s not our jurisdiction to regulate development. The Grace hospital site has been an eyesore for a very long time. And there’s an opportunity there.
We all know at all levels of government, both in the city, and the province, and the federal level, that affordable living is something that is a very important issue right now. The Province has sites that could be redeveloped. I look forward to the Province coming forward with a game plan of how we can help our populations through projects like that and not just leaving spaces like that fallow.
So what does the city need from the province?
We need to cooperate, we need to be taken seriously as a working partner. The Province obviously cost-shares a lot of our projects that we do. But in terms of vacancies and areas that we cannot have control over, it’s really important that we continue to have the dialogue, and have public meetings about it. That site in particular, as an example of just one thing where a little bit more collaboration could be something very positive for the community.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
With files from Hope Jamieson.
Update,14 September 2021: A previous version of this article stated that “The Deputy Mayor also attends the weekly meeting that sets the agenda for the following week’s council meeting, and is therefore somewhat more in-the-know than the rest of council.” In fact, the Deputy Mayor does not sit in on the agenda setting discussion; that meeting is conducted by executive staff. However, anyone from council can forward an agenda item for discussion. The Independent regrets this error.
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