St. John’s City Election 2021: Mayor

We spoke to Mayor Danny Breen about his acclamation, issues facing the incoming council, priorities for the new term, and regionalization.

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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.

As “first among equals,” the Mayor’s vote counts for the same as all other members of Council. There are some key differences between this position and the others, however: the Mayor’s role is considered full-time, and compensated accordingly. The Mayor has a dedicated administrative assistant as support to handle correspondence and scheduling, and the Mayor acts as a spokesperson and key decision-maker in times of crisis, among others. The Mayor also takes a lead role in determining what lands on the agenda for each council meeting, and chairs regular and special meetings of Council—as well as Committee of the Whole. The Mayor acts as the representative of the City in intergovernmental affairs and, often, as its spokesperson in other venues.

The Independent spoke with Mayor Danny Breen about his acclamation, and 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 his 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?

Danny Breen: Well, I mean, the first issue that a new council’s going to have to face is the budget for 2022. Right now we’re projecting a $13 million deficit. We have to have a balanced budget, so we need to address that. And that’s work that the new councillors are going to have to get up to speed on very quickly. That’ll be our first priority.

You say new councillors, because we’re getting at least four?

Yeah, at least four. That’s one of the biggest turnovers we’ve seen in a number of years. The minimum is four. It could be more depending on what happens.

Where do you stand on the future of Mile One?

There’s been a lot of good discussion. I still think we need to have a lot more analysis and discussion on this. If you’re looking at the sale of the building, I haven’t seen the evidence yet that the sale of the building is the right way to move. There’s just so many unanswered questions with that. I personally think that there’s an opportunity for a new operating model and a new way that we can do that. Whether we do that internally or with third party management is something that we will have to determine going forward.

It’s a fact, the city has a budget shortfall. In what specific ways do you propose to solve the problem?

There’s two ways: you either reduce your expenses or you increase taxes. And I always revert to taxation as being the last option that that should consider. I mean, we have to look internally. We have to look at where we can generate savings. I can tell you that since 2016, when we a did program review and went through our continuous improvement plans, we have made some significant reductions in operating expenses. So we balance that against the demand for our services at the City. Our surveys show that the residents appreciate the level of services that are being provided. They’re important to them. So we have to balance all that. 

The other thing that complicates this going forward—it is a reassessment year, so properties are reassessed. So each property will have a new value. And so therefore there will be changes in taxation just from that.

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?

Well, the bus system—we’ve made some significant investments in Metrobus. Free ridership for children, I think it’s under 12. We’ve also put in some enhanced service and hopefully that will go into act soon. They’ve been delayed because of COVID. 

We need to continue to work with the university on a U-pass. I think that’s significant. We’ve also been able to work with the province on providing Metrobus passes to income support recipients. That’s another area that we’ve been successful in. It’s one of these projects that’s continuous, but I think we need to continue to grow the transit system in the city.

And anything about the bike plan?

My position on the bike plan has been very clear. I think the Kelly’s Brook Trail is a good project. I think moving it off the Rennie’s River Trail portion from Portugal Cove Road down to Kingsbridge Road was a good move. There’s areas in the trail system where a combined trail can work because of the width now. But there’s areas, especially along the Rennie’s River Trail and the Virginia River Trail, where it’s just not going to work.

So I think we’re going to have to look at different routes and different routing and in many cases, separate trails for multi-purpose versus ones that can only be used for walking. That’s a project that we’re going to continue. When we adopted the bicycle plan and adopted the projects that were in it, that didn’t mean that we were going out and doing those projects. It meant that on each one of those, there will be public consultation. So we’ll continue down that path and have public consultation on each project that we come up with and within the bicycle plan. So people that are concerned that we’re just going to go out and do this—that’s just not going to happen. There’s a tremendous amount of public engagement that would be left to do.

How can the city mitigate the effects of climate change and help residents do the same?

Well, we’ll be prepared in the Fall to release our city climate change plan, Resilience St. John’s. We’ve completed the corporate portion of that. And we’ve taken steps in our own facilities that climate change is reflected in. Just last night [7 September 2021], we approved the electric charging stations in the city, for electric and hybrid cars that are going to become very, very popular in the next short periods of time. So, we can do those things. The other thing is we’ve signed the mayor’s declaration on climate change, and we’ve recognized climate change will have, and is having, a significant impact on our city. We’re taking the steps to do that. So the plans that we’ve put in place and all our plans reflect the climate concerns.

Where do you stand on the issue around snow clearing sidewalks and what would you do to improve the service?

Well, I’ve been very clear on my position on that. We have a proposal brought forward to council a little while ago that had two things. First of all, it was expanding the kilometres of sidewalk to be done. And secondly, it was adding a third shift, which is a cost of about $500,000 operating money to do that. By adding a third shift, you will improve the service. We’ll get the routes down quicker and they’ll be done better.

I believe that we shouldn’t expand the sidewalk kilometres done this year. We should first concentrate on doing what we do now, which is 160 kilometres, roughly. We need to do them better. And once we get the system down that gets them done better, then we can look at expanding the system. I would tell them we’ve improved the service, but then we’ve expanded the number of the kilometres that we’re doing. And then without that we never improved the service. You’ve got to do what you’re doing better, and then look at expanding the service after that.

What initiatives would you include to make St John’s a more accessible, inclusive city?

I think we’re challenged a bit by the age of the city, particularly in the downtown. You know, some of the buildings downtown just don’t have the accessibility in it, but we’ve built in very good work in our infrastructure. If you look now at the corners, it’ll have the sensory plates at the intersections, as we’re replacing sidewalks where we have a sidewalk program. Now that’s building sidewalks where there weren’t sidewalks before. So we’re getting the sidewalks throughout the city.

We need to bring improved accessibility into all our city buildings and into the new buildings that we do. We’ve got a lot of work left to do, but our Inclusion Advisory Committee works very hard with the accessible community in identifying the areas where we can improve. It’s certainly one item that’s at the top of our considerations and all the projects that we undertake.

How do you propose to make life more affordable for residents, particularly the most marginalized?

Well, one of the things that we’ve done is, through public transit, I’ve been able to offer in coordination with the government passes for income assistance recipients, having children being able to ride the bus under 12 for free. And we’ve also been able to do a lot of work through our community services department and making programs available to people in the city, regardless of their financial resources. So we want to continue to do that and be able to make sure that everybody in the city gets an opportunity to enjoy the city and participate in the amenities the city has and the services we have.

What ways would you like to improve accountability and transparency at City Hall for residents?

First of all, we’ve got to go back to how we’ve improved accountability and transparency right now. Our Committee of the Whole meeting is every other Wednesday morning. It is live-streamed so anybody can come watch it. Our council meetings are all live-streamed and we’ve been able to make that work. We’ve got a very robust public engagement plan through our Engage St. John’s platform to get people involved and to see and participate in the process. So we’ve made it very transparent, but it’s one of those things that, on every issue, you have to ask that question: are we being transparent and are we giving all the information that we need to give? And I think we do very well in that regard.

Right. You mentioned, with the sidewalks, that you’re always trying to improve it—it’s an incremental thing. So is there another step to improving accountability? Like you’re already on your way, but is there something you have your sights set on?

Right now we need to change as people’s needs change. We’ve been dealing with the pandemic and because of that, we’ve had a lot of meetings virtually, and a lot of our engagement has been done on those platforms. But that doesn’t necessarily include everyone and it’s very hard to be totally inclusive. So as soon as we can, we need to get back from that and be able to get out and reach out to more people who may not have access to that platform. That’s one of the things that we need to do better as we come out of the pandemic and the restrictions.

How would you describe the current relationship between St John’s—the municipality—and the province?

I think that we have a good relationship. The municipalities, by the very nature of the way that we’re funded, we have to have a balanced budget, and 75 percent of our revenue is based on property taxes. We don’t have a whole lot of other revenue generating opportunities. So we need to work and be good partners with not only community groups, but with the other two levels of government. St. John’s provides regional services to our municipal partners. We work very closely with them. 

But we need to recognize that St John’s is an economic driver of the province, and we need to work better with other levels of government, including the province on that. One of the things that we’re working towards with Mount Pearl, Paradise, and CBS is developing a regional economic development corporation—one where we work together to generate economic development in the region and not compete with each other. We don’t compete with Mount Pearl or Paradise or CBS. We compete with Halifax and Aberdeen and Stavanger, and we need to compete on a worldwide basis to grow every economy.

How do you think that relationship with the province could be improved and what will you do to make it happen?

First thing we need done is, we need the new City of St John’s Act. We’ve been over 20 years trying to get that Act. That’s very important to us. That’s one of my highest priorities.

As we move forward, under federal regulations, we’re required to build a new secondary wastewater treatment plant next to the primary treatment plant at Riverhead on the south side. That’s about a $300 million project. We’re going to need cost-sharing from the federal and provincial governments to get that done. That’s a major initiative and that’s going to be a priority of mine to get the proper funding arrangement in place that doesn’t put a larger burden on the taxpayers of St. John’s and region. We need to work better in things like multi-year capital works projects. We need to be able to address the needs in the City that we identify as our priorities. 

What does the city need from the province?

We need to work together, certainly on economic development. We need to have the ability to manage some of the issues that we have through legislation. Many times I have to tell people, sorry, we, we don’t deal with that because that’s in the province’s legislative authority and not in ours. But people see it as a problem in the city and they expect that we should be able to do something about it. We’re restricted.

Like I said, right now, the City of St. John’s Act is antiquated, and it doesn’t reflect a modern city like St. John’s. We need to have that addressed. We really need to get better.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

With files from Hope Jamieson.

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