Ward 4 representative Debbie Hanlon says elected positions should be full-time
© Illustration by The Telegram
A St. John’s city councillor says anyone elected to city hall should be paid full-time wages.
Ward 4 Coun. Debbie Hanlon said the workload of the job requires a full-time commitment.
To illustrate her point, Hanlon invited The Telegram to spend a day with her getting a first-hand account of a councillor’s duties and responsibilities.
Hanlon knows her idea will be unpopular with some, and will bring accusations she’s looking to line her pockets.
Not so, she said.
“I believe that if people saw the work (councillors do) they would say ‘wow, she does all that?’” she said.
But Hanlon said if they were paid full-time, councillors would have to be more accountable to the public.
Voted in during a June 2008 byelection, Hanlon sad she was overwhelmed for the first couple of months until she got her bearings.
“I think it’s more work than I thought it would be,” she said. “I thought if I put in an issue (to staff), it would get straightened out. But what I (found) was you have to chase that issue.”
When asked if there was orientation provided for new councillors, she said yes.
“But that’s like the first day of university. Now, go find the cafeteria on your own,” Hanlon said. “The way you learn is baptism by fire.”
Hanlon said she had to learn quickly and admits she made some mistakes in the early days. That’s why she does her homework before speaking out or voting on issues now.
She spends a good bit of time asking questions of city staff, getting historical context for rules, and getting updates on outstanding issues.
Hanlon credits two former senior staff members with helping her in the early days — former city manager Ron Penney and former director of engineering Art Cheeseman. Both have since retired.
She said the public only sees the tip of the iceberg of what council does and what goes on at city hall, and adds no one can prepare you for the amount of correspondence.
Unlike an MHA, a councillor has no assistant beyond a BlackBerry, which Hanlon considers essential.
She was already reading and replying to emails before her first meeting of the day when The Telegram met up with her last Monday.
Besides getting calls and emails at all hours, she uses her BlackBerry to forward constituents’ concerns to city staff right away to get the ball rolling.
Without the BlackBerry, she said, she would get behind very quickly.
But no matter the amount of work, Hanlon said the satisfaction of solving issues for a constituent makes it all worthwhile.
She said it’s all about building relationships.
“If you take care of an issue for someone, then they call you back,” Hanlon said.
Retiree Morgan Colbourne was thrilled to finally meet Hanlon last week. Colbourne sharpens skates in his backyard shed, sometimes getting $5 for his work, other times a bottle of moose or seal flippers.
A while back, the city viewed Colbourne’s hobby as a business and wanted him to install male and female washrooms and a wheelchair ramp in his shed, which is only about 10 square feet.
Hanlon was able to convince the city that wasn’t necessary and it backed off. Now the city wants Colbourne to move his shed away from a utility easement.
Colbourne told Hanlon the current position of his shed actually makes it easier for workman to get to the pole, as compared to where the city wants him to move it.
Hanlon, Colbourne and city staff will all meet in the near future to resolve the matter.
During meetings, Hanlon occasionally has to take a call from someone else, be it a private contractor retained by the city to do snowclearing, the mayor’s office asking her to attend a luncheon, someone calling in about a streetlight not working on Kelsey Drive or a complaint about snowmobiles in Airport Heights.
Yet she said the only exposure some people get to city hall is the few minutes of a council meeting covered by reporters.
“I think people draw their own conclusions from what they see in the press. They don’t see what goes on behind the scenes and they don’t see the work that we do,” said Hanlon.
She admits she didn’t even know who her ward councillor was before deciding to run.
Besides dealing with constituents’ issues, members of council sit on committees which takes up several hours a week.
Hanlon chairs the economic development committee, and sits on five others.
“If you don’t get to the committee meetings then you don’t know what’s going on,” she said.
Hanlon’s also helping to develop an economic road map for the city, which hopes to project and guide how it will grow in the next 10 years.
“This is the reason why I got into city hall. I wanted to be instrumental in shaping our city,” she said.
And then there’s public meetings, luncheons and city functions, all of which Hanlon tries to attend.
Becoming a councillor has also affected Hanlon’s business and family life.
After 17 years of running a real estate business, she recently turned it over to her brother and walked away.
“I can’t do both. I can’t run a real estate firm and (oversee) 45 people and be a councillor effectively. I could do a half-assed job,” she said.
“It was very hard to do, because it was my baby. It defined who I was for the last 17 years. But I made a commitment to Ward 4.”
She said her argument for full-time pay is not about making more money — she could have done that in real estate.
Hanlon has another reason for advocating for full-time wages. She suggests it might encourage younger people to run for the job. At 45, she’s one of the youngest councillors at the table.
She tries to keep Sundays for herself and her family, but isn’t always able to do that.
Feb. 20, for example, she was scheduled to attend a conference on attracting and retaining immigrants to the city.
As for her future on council, Hanlon said she hasn’t made up her mind whether to run again in 2013.
“If I run, I’ll be running for a different position at city hall,” she said, adding she’s leaning towards an at-large position or the deputy mayor’s job.
She said she loves being on council, and as long as she is, the job will get her full attention.
This is what elected officials at St. John’s City Hall are
currently paid annually:
Position Salary Tax-free allowance Total
Mayor $65,075.40 $32,537.70 $97,613.10
Mayor $30,168.58 $15,087.28 $45,255.86
Councillor $23,341.50 $11,676.60 $35,018.10
Source: City of St. John’s
See What councillors page 2