St. John’s City Election 2021: Ward 5

We asked Ward 5 candidates a dozen questions about why they’re running, the issues facing the city, and what they want to do about them.

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St. John’s Ward 5 covers most of the rural areas of the City, including the Goulds, Blackhead, Shea Heights, and the subdivisions of Southlands and Galway. This Ward has different infrastructure needs and different levels of service than other parts of the City due to several areas being amalgamated within the last 30 years. 46% of Ward 5 five residents make $100,000 or more per year, 79% of residents are homeowners, and 62% have children living at home—the largest percentage of any Ward.

In the 2020 citizen satisfaction survey, residents of Ward 5 identified road maintenance, road snow clearing, traffic planning, and sidewalk snow clearing as primary issues of concern. Ward councillor Wally Collins is not seeking re-election, meaning that for the first time in 16 years, the Ward will have a new representative on council in 2021.

The Independent spoke with Ward 5 candidates Donnie Earle, Scott Fitzgerald, Carl Ridgeley, and Brenda Walsh about why they’re running, the issues facing the city, and what they want to do about them. 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, 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?

Donnie Earle: The reason I want to run is because I’m very passionate about my community. I’ve been involved in many organized sports. I’ve run my own taxi business for the last 25 years. I spent the last 16 years sitting on the board of directors for Goulds Rec. I coach fast pitch softball. I’m the president of the 30-plus softball league here in the Goulds for the last 16 or 17 years. 

I’m used to dealing with people and issues. Because of my taxi business, we used to listen to people’s problems. When you hear their problems in the morning or 9:00 AM and if you pick them up at 2:00 AM in the morning and the story stays the same, then you know that you’re getting the story. You know what I’m trying to say?

Scott Fitzgerald: I’ve always had a strong interest in politics and government. I have a Political Science degree from Memorial. As I got a little older, I got a bit more interested in local politics and city council and how things worked—and how things didn’t really work—and I guess it just progressed from there.

When my kids were born, you start to look at things with a lot more interest and concern to what type of city and province and country we’re going to have for them. I decided that I wanted to try and contribute to that future state of how the city would look. I always looked at it like I would love for my kids to have every reason to want to stay here and raise their families here. That’s where it started.

As qualifications go, I have a great deal of volunteer work. I was the Chair of the St. Mary’s school council for a while. I spent six years on the council and I was involved with things like the West End high school committee. Something like that really gives you an insight into how decisions get made. It was a lot of lobbying to get what is now the Waterford Valley high school built. Things like that sort of give you a bit more energy, when you start to see how government decisions are made.

I also work with the provincial government, so you get a sense of the good and the bad within bureaucracy and you develop ideas about how you can make things work better.

Carl Ridgeley: I’m 54 years old and my two kids are raised, and I’ve always been involved in the community of the Goulds. I spent 18 years at the volunteer fire department—almost seven were as chief. So I’ve dealt with city officials on different levels, from providing budgets to the city to operate the volunteer fire department in Goulds, to dealing with chiefs while I was there.

So, to say, do I know how the city runs? No. This is all new to me. Canvassing the Ward in the last three and a half weeks after knocking on over 7,500 doors, and gathering the issues and all that is actually exciting. I really do feel that I can contribute to City Hall. I’m not agenda-driven. I got nothing on my agenda to go in and fight for, only the residents and the taxpayers of the City of St John’s. That’s the biggest thing. As I said, my kids are raised. They’re 27 and 24, my wife is still working.

So, the timing is the biggest thing and the reason why I’m running. I know I can contribute to the City Hall on all issues, not just Ward 5—but more particular, Ward 5.

Brenda Walsh: As I got older, I’ve always thought I could run for City Council, because it’s closer to the people. I ran in the provincial [election] for the NDP. I wanted to get out and show, make more awareness, to people with disabilities—or as I like to say, differently abled people.

That is number one. It’s high on the agenda why I want to do it now. But I’ve always loved politics, and I was very active in my union, in the politics part of it, so I just thought this was the next step to take, because I am getting older, and I probably can only do it for another few years. Right?

So I just thought, “You know what? Now is the time,” basically. And in Kilbride, this is where I grew up. My mother’s from Shea Heights. My father is from Southside Road, and they grew up in the Kilbride/Goulds area, so it feels like home.

What are the main issues the Ward is facing, and what do you propose to do about them?

Earle: Well, you know my Ward is the biggest geographically in the city. I’ve heard it said that being a councillor isn’t a full-time job. And I’m here to tell you that if you’re not working as Ward 5 councillor full time, you’re not doing justice to your Ward. People over in Southlands are telling me at their door that they want to talk about snow clearing. They want to talk about the fact that they have no Metrobus. They want to talk about the fact, they want to know what my opinion on Mile One is, because that seems to be a really hot topic.

But then in the community of Ward 5 that I belong to, the residents in Southlands don’t understand that we’ve got residents here in the Goulds who have no water. We got no sidewalks. You go to parks in Shea Heights and they’re looking for a speed bump to help keep their children safe. When safety comes into it, our politicians alike and our elected officials should stop and listen and say, “Hang on a minute. If these people are bringing up safety concerns for our seniors and our children and all the residents of Ward 5 alike, we should really take a really hard look at this and give those people the answers to the questions that they’re looking for.”

Fitzgerald: There’s a lot of bigger issues in the city, and then there’s some more area-specific issues. Citywide, obviously we’re facing a budget shortfall and that’s going to be a big concern right off the bat for the next council. I would like to see more of a citizen-centric process put in place to look at the services that are being provided. Are they responsive? Are they accessible to people? Where are the roadblocks that people experience when they have to get a building permit, for example, to put a shed in their backyard? There are a lot of improvements that we could make to make life easier for citizens in St. John’s.

There’s other issues as well, like sidewalk snow clearing. When Snowmageddon hit and everybody was kind of trapped indoors and people started to go a little stir crazy, I started thinking, “Okay, well, let’s multiply that to get a sense of someone with mobility issues who can be stuck inside their home for months because of the lack of sidewalk snow clearing.” I know St. John’s has made great improvements over the last 10 years to sidewalk snow clearing, but it’s something that we definitely need to continue to evolve and improve.

What else? Ward 5 is such a vast ward, stretching from Shea Heights all the way to Galway. It’s a very diverse ward as well. You look at some of the areas in Shea Heights or Goulds that don’t have what you would consider full city services. Goulds, for example—we’re talking about sidewalk snow clearing, the Goulds don’t even have sidewalks on a lot of their main roads. Then you have other areas like Brookfield Plains or Southlands that are newer subdivisions, and they have issues with neighborhood traffic speeds. It’s a huge concern.

Another thing has to be that the decisions St. John’s makes have to be through the lens of climate change and climate adaptation. Like Snowmageddon—climate change is kind of telling us that that may not be a 100 year storm event any longer. We’re a coastal city, we’re looking at the flooding in New York City these last couple of days. What would St. John’s do if it started to suffer that type of flooding? Those are the kinds of decisions that need to be made with climate change first and foremost in your mind.

Ridgeley: Again, in City Hall, it’s not party politics, so you’re not running on a platform. It’s an individual that’s running for City Hall. And in going around the Ward and listening on the doors, one of the issues that I have identified in talking to residents is down on Southside Road.

The biggest one down there is Symes Bridge. The residents of Southside Road want to keep Symes Bridge in operation and they don’t want it gone. So, Symes Bridge—if it’s important to the residents of Ward 5 of Southside Road, it’s important to me. Then in Shea Heights, some of the biggest issues are speed on the roads. That’s a big issue in Shea Heights.

The biggest issue out here in Southlands, knocking on the doors, is speed and snow clearing.

When you’re talking about the Goulds, another one in Goulds is the water and sewer infrastructure and how important that is. Once the Riverhead Water Treatment Plant is complete, then we can really start advocating for upgrading to the services in the Goulds to get streets that are not on water and sewer right now added.

Another big one that, in general, not just for Ward 5 but the city in general, is that I’m going to be a big proponent for regional services. I’m going to speak loud about it. We’re already sharing regional services. We’re sharing water, we’re sharing fire departments, we’re sharing Metrobus, we’re sharing GoBus, we’re sharing the dump. So if Mount Pearl got the streets cleared two hours ahead of St John’s, why can’t they help us get our streets cleared? I know there’s a cost involved with that, and minimum one in comparison, but I’m a big proponent of shared services so that both cities can work together to achieve the best results for our citizens. That’s the bottom line.

There is another issue in Kilbride—the residents in Kilbride, when they’re coming down from Kilbride they’ve got no way to access the Trans Canada Highway without going right into the Goulds, up Ruby Line or going out and doing an illegal u-turn to get back up onto the highway to head back to Costco. So the residents of Kilbride are in favour of a roundabout.

Walsh: Well, it’s like any Ward. I guess that a lot of it is the culverts, having those put in—it costs people so much money to put them in. The city doesn’t cover that stuff. And, again, sidewalks. They’re just putting sidewalks in Kilbride. In the subdivisions there’s sidewalks there, but on the side roads there’s not. In Kilbride they’re finally working on them, but in the Goulds with my power wheelchair, I literally had to go on the road. I’d like to see more bike lanes because people with a wheelchair, or a bike, and stuff, it makes it safer to be using the roads instead of sidewalks.

Where do you stand on the future of Mile One?

Earle: My honest opinion on Mile One from the outside looking in, being a business owner, I don’t know that the city has any business trying to run a business. It should be left in the hands of the people that depend on it to be viable. That makes sure they’re getting it a hundred percent to make sure that it’s booked up every weekend and that things are constantly going on. Because this is what they do, they run businesses. They know how to bring in events that’s going to be profitable for the entire city, taxi drivers—which is who I am—the restaurants, the motels, the hotels, tourism, the gift shops, the breweries. It’s a spinoff that everybody wins from.

So my honest opinion about Mile One, Mile One seems to be a drag on our bank account. Then we’re talking about infrastructure and they’re saying, “Well, there’s no money for this and there’s no money for that.” Don’t tell me there’s no money for sidewalks when we can subsidize Mile One by a couple of million dollars when I’m looking for sidewalks to keep my children safe, because I don’t want to hear that.

Fitzgerald: Mile One has operated in this sort of shroud of secrecy for so many years. You see the subsidy increase every year, yet you never get a real sense of why it has to increase every year, where the money is going. Certainly with the recent developments with the Growlers and the Edge and how all that played out in the public, it just really makes you think that it’s time to look at whether or not the city should be in that business any longer. It might be time to sell that building and get something back for the citizens of St. John’s, especially given the current fiscal situation that we find ourselves in.

There was a report done on Mile One, and they’ve identified that selling a building like that isn’t always the best option. But sometimes I think it might be the best option. That possibly might be where we are now with Mile One. The public doesn’t have any faith and trust in the operation of that building any longer. It’s not really even filling the mandate that it was meant to. They’re trying to be too many to too many people. And I just don’t know that that’s the business that the city should be in.

Ridgeley: So, listen, that’s a real tricky one. I spoke with Dean MacDonald at length, probably about five weeks ago. If someone had asked me that question four months ago, it would be a totally different answer than what I got right now. But after talking to the proponents of Mile One and the people that are involved with it, sitting and past members, a chairman of Hospitality Newfoundland and Labrador, and business owners downtown, I’ve managed to come into a little bit of a different opinion on it. Mile One, it’s a city asset. It’s difficult to sell city assets, okay?

I don’t have all the information in front of me, so I gathered as much as I could on my own. In 2019, Mile One and the Convention Center put approximately $26 million into the City of St John’s. So, when people are looking at subsidies to Mile One, the government as a whole subsidizes programs. When you look at the subsidies to Mile One, people think it’s professional sports teams. But it’s not just that because, if there’s 100 nights rented that Mile One, our kids play hockey at Mile One, the adults goes down for recreational skates. It’s a recreation facility within the city that’s being subsidized, no different than the Paul Reynolds Centre or the Mews Center—or Bowring Park, for that matter.

Can we keep the subsidies down? I would hope so, with more events. So, I’m leaning more towards leasing Mile One to let someone run it. But again, I don’t have all the information. If I get that information, then I’m up for selling Mile One if it’s the best thing for the city. I’m also up for leasing it if it’s the best thing. But to make a statement to say, “Sell Mile One because of subsidies,” to me, that’s a statement almost like jumping on a bandwagon. I’m not jumping on any bandwagons. I’m going to gather the information and make an educated decision that’s best for our citizens of the city.

Walsh: Well, we need it. I guess I never really thought a whole lot about it. I know people are talking about it and discussing it, and that it’s a thing that we need for the social part of life and for going to concerts and all that stuff. That is a part of life, also, the social part of it—so I am definitely for that.

We need to subsidize it to a point because it’s there. I don’t think we should get rid of it or destroy it. I think we should still keep it up.

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

Earle: What I would like to look into is see where we can make changes. Where can we improve where our money is being spent? And where can we draw back from? If something is working, nobody wants to hear taxes being raised. That’s a no-no. Nobody wants to hear that. Me as a taxpayer, I don’t want to hear that. 

But at the same token, I don’t want to hear that we don’t have money for sidewalks and we don’t have money for softball to use and playgrounds and speed bumps. And I don’t want to hear that we don’t have the money to improve on our snow clearing in our city. But then I’m not naive to the fact that if you’re going to spend more money on those issues, the money has to come from somewhere.

So what I would like to do is see where our money’s being spent and how we can be more efficient on where we spend it.

Fitzgerald: I have no doubt that we can continue to find efficiencies. We’re going to have to do that. We’re looking at about a 4% budget shortfall. It’s not going to be easy, but we have to find those ways to save some money. The sale of Mile One could certainly help in that aspect. But I think we need to start to really tighten our belt and find a way to do things.

Maybe it’s time to dig a little deeper and find more of these efficiencies. Given the pandemic, and the economic climate, in all likelihood we’re going to see tax increases federally. We could very well see some tax increases provincially. I can’t imagine that as a third level of government, we’re going to tack on tax increases to our residents. So there absolutely has to be another way to achieve our balanced budget.

Ridgeley: Yeah, there’s definitely a budget shortfall this year. So, the federal and provincial governments have helped a lot of businesses over the last year. And to say a shortfall for 2020 and 2021, it’s almost unfair because we’re in the middle of a pandemic and the pandemic has crushed our economy, it has crushed restaurants, it has crushed our hotels, it has crushed our cities, and our province. It certainly hasn’t helped them. So, listen, we’re in the middle of an election now, federal election or whatever else—is there monies that we can get because of the pandemic? Can we look federally or provincially and see if we can get some help?

I tell you, I’m a taxpayer in the City of St John’s, and the last thing I want is my taxes to go up. That’s the bottom line. People are concerned about tax increases. Tax increases, to me, would be a last resort. We can’t cut the services that we got because the City of St John’s, they have to maintain recreational facilities, they have to maintain the parents and everything else. So, to me, that’s not even an option. You know what I mean?

So, if we can get some federal or provincial help, maybe… It’s a tough one. But I’ll tell you what, tax increases are not high on my priority. I can guarantee it.

Walsh: Well, it’s kind of like life, isn’t it? It’s a rough time for everybody. So you raise taxes, but that’s a word that you don’t use. I’ll go back to Mile One. If we want to have such things, sometimes we have to raise the taxes a little bit.

So as much as it is a taboo word, if people want this, it has to come, unfortunately, on the taxes.

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?

Earle: I had a gentleman that I picked up at the supermarket one day and he apologized for being such a short ride, but he uses a walker. This gentleman said to me, “I apologize for being such a short ride, but I didn’t feel safe walking home.” This is a 76 year old gentleman who doesn’t feel safe to walk the streets of Ward 5. And the reason you don’t feel safe to walk these streets is because they have no sidewalks. The residents in Southlands don’t have a Metrobus. They live in Ward 5. They’re paying the highest kind of tax dollars and not being treated the same as the rest of Ward 5. That’s not acceptable.

Where do we come up with the money to put a Metrobus back in Southlands? If we’re talking about a deficit, a shortfall in our money? Well you know what? Those people in Southlands, it’s a hard bone to swallow when they’re looking at seeing Mile One subsidized and it’s losing money and we look at the salaries that are down there and we look at contracts being signed. And then to tell them, no, you can’t have a Metrobus because it’s not economically feasible? Not good enough. That’s not what the taxpayers of Ward 5 want to hear. Not good enough.

Fitzgerald: We need to continue to improve our public transit system. We need to start the process of investing in on-street bicycle infrastructure. I know the bike master plan touches on that. A lot of the focus has obviously been on the trail development as part of that plan. That’s getting most of the attention, but I think ultimately what the city needs, if it’s going to truly embrace a bicycle culture, is that we have to start laying down real bicycle infrastructure. Efforts up to this point have been pretty superficial.

They haven’t even come close to establishing any type of real system for bikes in our city. I like the Kelly’s Brook part of the bike plan. I would not be in favor of developing the river trails for bicycles, but in lieu of those, I think there are opportunities to put down real bike infrastructure. There are streets that run basically parallel to the Rennie’s River Trail from Princeville Parkway all the way down to Kingsbridge Road that could be utilized as a perfect starting point for the implementation of real bike infrastructure. That’s where the focus should be.

Once people start to see it in place, start to use it, start to be used to moving around it in vehicles and what not—the sooner that happens, the sooner that the city can really turn a corner and make this a bike friendly city. So much of it is the culture of the city, and it’s difficult to see a culture change without seeing the real, tangible changes that have to go along with that. That’s a key part that needs to happen.

Ridgeley: That’s a really tough question. I live in the Goulds and you see the Metrobus coming through the Goulds sometimes and it’s empty. You see it other times, and there’s 20 people on it. So, maybe we should look at even having a smaller bus or something that we can go and pick up in certain locations.

As for the bike plans and everything else, you hear people talk about the environment and paving bike paths and all that. I’m not a big proponent of paving the paths through parks for a couple of reasons. One is it got to be paid for, so if we were going to pay this, that’s going to cost a lot of money. If we maintain it, probably better, the way it is, that might work. And you certainly don’t want to be putting oils and asphalt through wetlands or any places where there’s rivers or water, because that runoff is going right into the streams and that.

It’s a question that I would have to certainly learn more about. In the Goulds we got Bidgoods Park, and I wouldn’t want to see pavement on Bidgoods Park. There’s a river that goes right through, you see ducks there and all kinds of birds and everything else, and there’s rabbits. So, putting pavement through Bidgoods Park, no, definitely not. They could widen it up more.

As for bike plans for the city streets, you’re talking Downtown St John’s. Downtown St John’s is the oldest city in North America. The city itself wasn’t laid out for bikes. Listen, there’s streets in our city that is a job to get two cars passing on, Southside Road being one. It makes it difficult for any municipality.

My wife rides her bike around the Goulds in the summer every second day, so I appreciate bikes. It got to be done in a diligent way that don’t cost taxpayers a fortune. This is probably not going to sound very good, but to spend a pile of money for bikes, realistically, what do you get? Three months a year that you can drive a pedal bike on the streets in Newfoundland.

And in over 7,000 doors that I knocked down so far, there’s nobody mentioned bikes to me in Shea Heights or Southside Road or Kilbride or Southlands or Castle Bridge. One person did, and what they said to me was, “I’ll vote for you if we don’t pave bike trails, because it’ll pollute the waters around the trails.” That’s what he said to me.

Walsh: Well, the bus thing is the number one thing for me because I use a power wheelchair and try to get around. I have to use the GoBus because there are no other buses. The only Metrobus that comes into Kilbride/Goulds is not as accessible.

We need more accessible buses. There’s only two to three, I think, in the city that actually lower. That not only helps people with disabilities, but it helps new parents, and they’re struggling with a stroller to try to get on the buses, or the elderly with walkers, or just the elderly trying to get around and stuff. It’s hard for them to try to walk up steps.

So with the bus lowering it, then that makes it easier. I definitely think we need more of those.

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

Earle: Well, that’s a big one. I’m not going to make a phony statement. I’m a meat and potatoes kind of guy. I know we can do our part by talking about electric cars. We’re talking about emissions. The city made a great move by removing the plastic bags. So we’re trying to do our part. But then at the same time, I walk into pockets of my Ward where the garbage is being thrown out in the woods because you can only access Robin Hood Bay Dump during business hours.

Make it easy for people to do the right thing. If it’s easy for people to do the right thing, when it makes sense, people will do the right thing. But for me to comment on that, I don’t feel that I’m informed enough. That’s a big issue that I’d have to sit in on conversations with to give the proper answer to.

Fitzgerald: It’s going to take a full collaborative effort, federally and provincially and municipally, but cities play a big part in that by doing things like improving their public transit system and making it a real option for people who would like to make that environmentally friendly choice. Increasing bike infrastructure would go a long way to turning our city around and making it more bike friendly—providing that as a real option for people who might like to take their bike, but otherwise don’t feel safe enough to do it.

Increasing density is a great approach that the city can take as far as not expanding your environmental footprint. St. John’s is expansive and there’s so many opportunities for density that we don’t seem to be taking advantage of. I don’t know what exactly is the hold up, but you just don’t seem to see those more dense proposals come up. Everything is just expansive houses.

Those are the kinds of things that the city can do that are tangible, that help change people’s behaviors and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Cities are much more nimble obviously than provincial or federal governments.

Ridgeley: The city is doing a good job. I heard the city announce yesterday they’re opening up 24 charging stations throughout the city. That’s all good. My only concern with that is that when me and you fills up the vehicle, 36 or 38 cents a litre goes to the province. That’s maintaining our roads. So, what’s the city and the province have in their plans to recoup that 38 cents per litre of fuel that me and you are paying to maintain the roads?

So, what people got to look at is that someone is charging their vehicle at the house. We still got to look at our roads. How are we going to maintain our roads in 30 years? Where are we going to get the money for that? So, if people don’t start planning for that now, then we’re in another crisis and then we got no choice but to increase taxes. Not just municipally but provincially—because the roads have to be maintained.

Our climate and our environment here in Newfoundland, our roads are some of the worst in North America. It’s because of our weather, the freezing and thawing. So, that’s one thing that concerns me. How are we going to maintain roads when everybody goes electric? Because if you go home and plug your car into your house, how is the government going to recoup that? There’s not even an answer to that, right? That’s it.

Walsh: Hmm. For one, we definitely need to enforce the recycling, and have them clear garbage bags. I know it happened up in Ontario, the garbage won’t actually take it if they see a bag out with recyclables. They won’t take it. They’ll just leave it, and then the person has to take out the recyclables. Now, I know that’s difficult here, and we just started with the big bins, but those are things that we absolutely need. They have to be number one and forefront with climate change happening. It’s happening faster and faster. A lot faster than what we thought was happening.

So things have to change. If we don’t do it, people my age probably won’t see it, but our grandchildren will definitely reap the repercussions of it. They’re the ones that are going to end up having to live with it because we’ll be dead and gone. It’s not affecting us as much, but it’s happening faster and faster, and it will affect our children and grandchildren. So I think that’s where we have to step up and do more work into it.

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

Earle: We had big issues with snow clearing on streets in our ward. I had a gentleman 91 years of age who told me he grew up in Quidi Vidi. He moved to Woodrow Street off of Thorburn Road, to spend his golden years in Southlands. He said to me his biggest regret in life was moving to Ward 5 because of the snow clearing issue.

That’s disheartening. For a man 91 years of age, who has spent his entire life living in the city of St. John’s, who moved to Ward 5 in the Southlands where he wanted to spend his golden years, and telling me on his doorstep that his biggest regret is moving to Ward 5. And I said to him, I said, “Sir, I’m real. I’m real, everyday people. Whether I get elected or not in the City Hall… sir, I will come back periodically over the winter and check on your snow clearing issues, whether I’m elected or not. That’s me. That’s me being real.”

Fitzgerald: As far as improving the service, maybe there are ways that we can actually improve the application of sidewalk snow clearing. Maybe there were other jurisdictions that are doing it a little differently than we are, and maybe they started before we did and they’ve already figured out some of the issues that we have with that, and have made it a more efficient process.

I love the idea of looking into other cities and collaborating with them to find out what worked well. Maybe there’s something that we could put in place ourselves. That could even include making the investment in the right types of machinery and sidewalk plows and things like that. 

But ultimately, it’s going to come down to finding room in the budget and reprioritizing to make this the focus that it really needs to be. We’re getting there. It obviously isn’t quite the focus for the majority of city council that it shouldn be. We need to continue to push for its prioritization.

Ridgeley: A couple of questions back, you said that the city is in a critical year and it’s budget shortfall, and everybody knows it. Listen, that’s a question that I don’t have an answer for. Truthfully, don’t have an answer for. Would I like to see every sidewalk in the city cleared? Yes. Is it economically feasible or possible? Probably not. You know what I mean? It’s probably not this year. But if I get in, I’m going to listen to people and…

The bottom line is, listen, we had someone knocked down in the Goulds last night, crossing the road, and that’s in the middle of the summer. So it’s important that we have our sidewalks cleared. I strongly believe that. But to look at the number of streets that are in the city, 1400 km, that’s tough to do.

Walsh: Oh. That is one of my big things. I’ll be out, just trying to maneuver my power wheelchair, and I have to use the sidewalks. Before the snow is cleared, they’re also broken down. They need to be redone. Then some of them that they say are accessible, and they’re supposed to be lower, the sidewalk part of it. The concrete is supposed to be lower, and they’re not.

It doesn’t matter if you’re disabled, elderly, people with strollers, just people trying to get to work and stuff, they have to go walk on the street. Because the sidewalks are not clear. So it’s definitely a priority. It’s more of a priority for me because I know what it’s like for somebody who’s differently abled to try to get around this city, especially in the wintertime.

It definitely needs to be done. And, again, I have to go to the taxes. I’m not saying so much put up the taxes, but maybe look at the budget more and find the money somewhere within the budget because, again, it needs to be done. I see people walking on the streets in the wintertime, and it’s a hazard. It is a hazard.

In your opinion, what’s the best decision the past council made?

Earle: I was impressed with the fact that they listened to the business owners on Water Street and opened up a Pedestrian Mall, which is something that should have been here years ago. Because if he goes to the big city, that’s where it’s at. Let people enjoy our city and just relax and get out for a walk and enjoy it. 

Then they listened to the business owners up on Duckworth Street. They wanted to try it. But then the business owners up on Duckworth Street decided that, “Hey, we tried it and it wasn’t working. It wasn’t working for us.” And the city planning department, they were never in favor of it to begin with. The city councillors of today voted in favor to keep it open six to five. That was the vote on it, if I’m not mistaken. So that tells me that City Hall only got us a little better than 50% right. That’s not good enough when you’re impacting people’s lives and people’s jobs and their very existence. You got to get it better than six to five.

Fitzgerald: I’m sure once I get off the phone with you, I’ll be like, “Oh, right, there was this and there was that,” but I think declaring the climate emergency is probably one of the biggest. When you think about it, that is such a fundamental shift in thinking of St. John’s. It’s a fundamental shift in how municipalities approach the problems that they face every day.

St. John’s, I once read we were the windiest, coldest, wettest, snowiest city in North America. People think climate change means we’re going to get warmer. It doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to get warmer. We could be snowier, we could be windier, we could be wetter. All of these things had to be taken into account when we’re replacing culverts, when we’re buying or making capital expenditures for snow clearing equipment. We need to keep climate change in mind at all times when we are embarking on providing services to the citizens of St. John’s.

Ridgeley: Listen, it’s an unforgiving job. You know what I mean? Whether you’re a councillor for the city of St John’s or you’re a councillor in the town of Petty Harbour or Bay Bulls, you’re never going to make everybody happy. That’s it. You’re not.

In the last little while, one of the best decisions that I think they made is—at least we got the Growlers back. That was a tough one for me. I’m not interested in losing the Growlers. I know people that play for the Growlers. They’re good friends of mine. And listen, I think it was important, not just for the city but the province. And it’s important for Dean [MacDonald].

So, the Growlers, having them back for another three years. I’m looking forward to that. Three years is great, but I want to see them here for 20 years. I think it’s critical. 

For Ward 5 and Councillor Collins—Councillor Collins has secured work to be done in the Goulds for the water and sewer, to get it hooked up to Riverhead. For Ward 5, I think that’s a big, big step in the infrastructure that needs to happen—not just in the Goulds, but all over.

Walsh: Hmm. Anything that they do to help differently abled people and stuff, then yes. I say that that’s a pro. I don’t know if it was the city’s choice 100%, but any new builds, a building or house, buildings and stuff, they have to put accessibility buttons. But old ones, of course, they don’t have to do it. That’s another big thing with me is I go around this city. I go around Kilbride, and the Goulds, and I can’t get into a lot of places because of the doors and the buttons.

But yeah. The best thing is that any new buildings have to have accessibility doors and buttons.

What specific committees are you interested in participating in and why?

Earle: As of right now, the only committee I’m interested in sitting in on is Ward 5. That’s it. I’ve got lots of work ahead of me just to talk to all of the residents in Ward 5, because geographically it’s the biggest one in the city. Which is going to make me, in my opinion, the busiest councillor of today. So for me to tell you that I want to sit in on other committees, right now I’m not interested because I don’t know how busy I’m going to be trying to fulfill my duties or my obligations that I owe to the taxpayers.

I’d like to have a look at this Mile One scenario. I’d like to be educated and informed as to what reasonings they have for keeping it or not keeping it. But for now, I don’t see how I would have time to sit in a committee when I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me in Ward 5.

Fitzgerald: You know something? I have, honestly, not given that a lot of thought. I would be happy to dig into anything that was suggested. I certainly would love to be a part of anything that’s focused on the environment, but also anything that’s focused on sports and recreation, accessibility—anything that could be focused on improving city services through making more services available online. I have an IT background, and I think I could really add some valuable input there.

Ridgeley: I know Councilor Collins sat on the regional fire boards. That’s one that I’m familiar with. I know the parties that are involved. I know the importance of firefighting. So, if I could pick a committee at City Hall right now, it would be Regional Fire Services because my background for 18 years in the Goulds Volunteer Fire Department. I can add a lot to the conversation there, not just to the City but to the residents..

Walsh: Can you guess them yet? Definitely transportation. Definitely anything to do with the busing and transportation for people—not just all differently abled people, but the elderly, new parents. The accessibility of this city. That would definitely be my number one.

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

Earle: It comes back to Metrobus. We have a Metrobus that brings residents into Bidgoods so they can do their shopping. We need more of that. The park and ride is awesome, when people can park their car. We need more of that. 

We need more wheelchair accessible taxis. We need more wheelchair accessible vans, wheelchair accessible businesses where people can get in. Getting into these establishments is one thing. How do they get there? I spent years picking people up and leading them to the side of my taxi cab and folding up their wheelchair and putting it into the back of my car. That’s just not ideal.

The city needs to look into how we make it easier for our seniors and people who are not able to hop on a Metrobus or who are not able to jump in a taxi to get out and enjoy what St. John’s has to offer.

Fitzgerald: Certainly sidewalk snow clearing is something that is key. I would love to see St. John’s change its focus when it came to buildings or special events, things that don’t always have a lens of accessibility applied to it.

One thing I think about this year that really surprised me was the Pedestrian Mall. I loved the Pedestrian Mall, and I know a lot of people love the Pedestrian Mall. It was fantastic in year one. There was some hiccups because it was kind of done through really quickly, and a lot of the structures that were built down for restaurants and things like that weren’t accessible. But it all happened rather quickly, and we can maybe forgive it in year one.

But in year two, I’ve seen so many posts online about places that their outdoor eating areas are still not accessible. And to me, that’s something that the city needs to take responsibility for. If somebody is making a modification to an existing structure or putting up something new, there’s absolutely no excuse for it not to be accessible. Those are the kinds of things that I think the city can control. That really stood out for me this year with the Pedestrian Mall.

Ridgeley: That is huge. It really is. Some of the heritage buildings and everything in St John’s—it’s shameful in a way, but something that’s 150 years old didn’t take into account accessibility issues and everything else 150 years ago. So, some of the buildings are really tough to work with, and some business owners have done an amazing job in making them accessible. But going forward, the bottom line is that there’s no building, there’s no park, there’s no nothing that should be built in this city right now from 20 years ago, let alone to now, that shouldn’t be accessible to all. The bottom line: they got to be fully inclusive to include, from braille to wheelchair-accessible. It should be accessible to all.

It’s not an issue that’s going to go away. I noticed that, as a city councillor, you got to put a dollar value on everything. But when you look at the programming and what happens within the city, to make one child or adult’s life more convenient or better, then you can’t put a value on it.

Walsh: Exactly. All that I just said. All of the above. We have to get more accessible buttons around for people to get in and out of buildings.

Now, I understand downtown St. John’s is more of the heritage, but I’ve only seen two ramps. I’ve been downtown to the Pedestrian Mall and stuff. Even last summer, trying to get around down there for anybody in a wheelchair or strollers—again, anybody differently abled—you can’t get into them. There was only two stores down there that had ramps. Little wooden ramps to be able to get in the stores. They only had two down there, so I had to go up and down the street and only found two, and they were right together, where I could get up on the sidewalk. People have to get around.

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

Earle: Again, I don’t how I fix that problem as a councillor. I will say that I’m hoping to help and listen anywhere we can make improvements. I got seniors telling me on the doors in Southlands, we only get snow clearing and we only get garbage pick up. How about a tax break? How about a tax break so that the seniors don’t have to worry about turning down their thermostats? We’ve got people that just can’t afford to give the basic needs to their children or to their seniors. We can do a better job.

How do we improve? How do we make sure that we don’t have anybody in our city who is cold or hungry? And if we can continue to lose money on Mile One, don’t tell me that we can’t figure out a way to keep the residents of our province, let alone our city, warm and fed.

Newfoundlanders are great. They’re awesome on supporting their own. Let’s find out a way to understand where are these people that are cold and hungry, and how do we help them? We can lose money on Mile One, we can find a way to keep people warm and fed. I’m convinced of it.

Fitzgerald: One thing that I have heard mentioned in the past has been differing property taxes for seniors. I think it’s a great idea. It allows seniors who are still in their homes to age in place. To stay in their own homes if they’re able, and not be burdened by rising property taxes. So you defer that. When the home is sold or whatever the case might be, then those bills could maybe be paid.

Affordable housing has to be a big focus. It requires a little bit of creativity. There obviously has to be collaboration. It’s a big problem that can’t be fixed by a municipality alone. It would need the help of the provincial government and the federal government to make a significant impact in that area.

I think we need to be a little creative when it comes to the types of development that we need to have. I love the idea of tiny home development and allowing people to get into home ownership at a much, much more affordable price point. There are other models out there that would promote affordable housing, but it’s going to take sort of a multi-faceted, very creative approach. The City of St. John’s is going to have to be open to new types of development to allow the affordable housing problem to really be addressed.

Ridgeley: Obviously, we have to help those who need the help. As a society, we can’t continue to pay, pay, pay. But we definitely need to identify the people that needs help and ensure that they receive that help. And if you took that out of our society, we would go back to The Lord of the Flies. And that’s not where we want to go.

I’m actually seeing, in the last little while, with the businesses in the city, especially the retail and the hotels and restaurants, they’re really having difficulty finding people to work. So, while CERB was great and helped a lot of people, maybe we can put programs in there to encourage people to work.

We got to get people working. That’s the biggest thing. If people are working, our economy is on the boom. There’s work out there, it’s just that people need to go get that work and seek it out. And if they can prove themselves in the workforce, it helps everybody. It helps the economy, it helps the city, it helps the province—you’re paying taxes. There’s so many benefits to it. As a society, we really got to start encouraging people. It’s important that you work because it helps to provide the services that we must provide.

You’re talking more federal policies there and provincial policies. But it all trickles down to the municipal. If the federal government, the provincial government is doing well, well then that’s called a trickle down to us. That’s the bottom line. That includes property taxes and everything else in between.

So, it’s important that people are working. It’s important that people are contributing. We need contribution from all aspects of society.

Walsh: Oh. You would love to increase living allowances and all that kind of stuff, but, again, money has to come from somewhere. It’s either raise that bad word, taxes, or you go around the budget and try to move it around, and move it to where you think it better serves. Everybody thinks their needs and stuff is the number one, but there has to be priorities.

It’s easier just to raise the taxes, but you can’t continuously do that. Sometimes you just have to find it within the budget.

What ways would you like to improve accountability and transparency at city hall for residents?

Earle: Accountability and transparency is something that doesn’t exist. Transparency isn’t there right now. I’m running for Ward 5. We’re losing money. Show the people of Ward 5, what is the plan? What is the plan to give us water and sewer? What is the plan to give us sidewalks? Is there a plan in Southlands to give us a Metrobus? Is there a plan in place? Is there a plan in place to give back to the youth of our ward, the youth of our province? Is there a plan in place to keep our seniors safe?

I don’t see no plans. Everything is close to their chest. We should know what the plan is. When we lose money, somebody should stand up and say, “Hey, you know what? We tried. It didn’t work out. We’re going to try to do a better job in the next four years.”

Nobody wants to talk about selling Mile One. Nobody wants to talk about it. But at the end of the day, I want to talk about it. I want to know what the plan is. What is the plan? Make City Hall more accessible. Make it easier for people to do the right thing. I’m hearing from developers that the hoops and the hurdles that are being thrown in front of them is just mind boggling. These are people that know how to get the job done. How do you think the little guy deals with the hurdles?

I’ve got a gentleman in the Goulds who has a family owned business who’s been in business for 50 years. They had to shut down their business and they completely renovated it, spent an awful lot of money. And every turn, there was a hurdle and an obstacle thrown in front of them. Permits and delays to the point that if it was an ordinary citizen just trying to get a business open back up, they’d be bankrupt. They wouldn’t have been able to accomplish the hurdles and obstacles that were thrown in front of them. That’s not acceptable, not when people are trying to do the right thing. If you try to do the right thing and it makes sense, it should be easy to do it. If you make it easier for people to do the right thing, you’ll quickly find that a lot more people are doing the right thing a lot more often.

Fitzgerald: I really admire when councillors are open and explain why they’ve made the decisions that they make. I don’t think you see enough of that. I would really try and make that a focus of mine to let people know why I maybe didn’t do something or decided to go in this particular direction. Try and make people understand as best I can why decisions were made. The more councillors do that, the more other councillors are going to do that. That leads to more transparency.

So I would love to be able to throw open the books so people could really understand. I know it might be really eyeopening for everyone. Maybe we open all that up and then people say, “Well, maybe St. John’s is not as out to lunch as I thought it was when it comes to the [Mile One] operational model,” because nobody knows. Nobody has any of that information. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but I just think that there has to be greater accountability. Especially when it comes to something like [Mile One], when so much tax dollars go towards it.

Ridgeley: City Hall could be more transparent. Maybe there’s reasons why they’re not, I don’t know.

We’ll talk about Mile One again for a second. The Mile One Convention Center, there’s a subsidy that the City is providing them all with. It’s substantial. There’s no doubt. It is a substantial subsidy. But there’s a tourism marketing levy, and I meant to ask them the question and I can’t get an answer. Is Mile One paid for? I’m thinking it is, but I haven’t got that answer yet.

But there’s a tourism marketing levy that the hotels agreed to, and the city put on the hotels—4 percent. So 4 percent of every room that’s rented from the hotels is collected by the city. In 2019, that number was $3.6 million, or 3.9. It’s either 3.6 or 3.9. $1.3 million of that goes to Destination St John’s, and that’s where tourism, marketing, and everything else. So, tourists are actually paying for Destination St John’s to the tune of $1.3 million, from anybody that stays in a hotel in the city. The other $2.3 million, it’s earmarked for the Convention Center/Mile One. That’s a big number. 

So, is the city really subsidizing Mile One to the tune of $2.1 million, or are all the hotels in the city contributing to that subsidy? That’s the question that I would answered, and I can’t get answered. But if elected, I will have an answer to it, I can guarantee it. But I’m quite familiar with the tourism marketing levy. It’s called a TML and it’s 4 percent on every hotel room that is rented in the City of St John’s.

Walsh: Always it will come down to the dollar. Right? I know you can watch them on the cable, and see how they’re doing things. But people that are not in council and stuff, they have to be asking more questions, and being out there, because that would put the councilors where they can’t—I don’t want to say the word hide, but the councilors, they’re accountable…

They’re going to know they’re going to be accountable because people are going to be asking. They want to see where they’re doing their work, and what groups they belong to, and what their take is on the budget, and where they try to save money.

Most of the stuff will all come down to finding the money within the budget or raising taxes. People have to understand that everything comes back to them because that’s who pays the taxes. It’s us that pay the taxes, and if we want these things, it all comes back to us because we are the tax people. We are the ones that pay the taxes.

[Candidate responses have been edited for length and clarity.]

With files from Hope Jamieson.

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