Four seats on council serve St. John’s residents at a broader level
Over the course of his 23-year stint on St. John’s city council, Gerry Colbert has served almost equal time as ward councillor and a councillor-at-large. Thus, the soon-to-be former councillor certainly understands the differences between each role.
“The biggest difference, clear cut, when you are a ward councillor, the people in your ward consider you to be their go-to councillor. They vote for you and you alone.”
Colbert’s decision not to run this year and Coun. Sheilagh O’Leary bid to become mayor guarantees there will be at least two new at-large councillors present for the first council meeting following election day Sept. 24. There are 13 candidates vying for the four at-large positions.
For Colbert, the decision to vacate his role as the councillor for Ward 4 and instead serve one term as deputy mayor beginning in 2001 (followed by two terms as a councillor-at-large) stemmed from a desire to serve the entire population of St. John’s.
“At-large, you tend to get involved with bigger issues that are more widespread across the city,” he said, going on to cite a variety of common issues that include taxation, municipal infrastructure and city services.
Marie Ryan, a former councillor-at-large and deputy mayor for the city in the 1990s, agrees that the at-large position offers the opportunity to represent citizens at a broader level.
“It may be that there are sidewalks that need to be addressed in a particular ward, but that can also be construed to be an overall issue. Recreation facilities, snowclearing, infrastructure, housing — these are generic issues to any thriving municipality. So as a councillor-at-large, you’re really more responsible for that broad view.”
This can lead to being seen as all things to all residents, a challenging position, according to Ryan. Based on her own experience, the deputy mayor position takes on a similar role.
That said, the number of phone calls or emails a councillor-at-large will field does not compare to the volume of correspondence ward councillors can expect to handle.
“The ward councillor has a significant level of contact with their constituents, if they’re good at what they do,” said Ryan.
Known as Marie White during her time on council, Ryan’s decision to run for councillor-at-large in 1993 and not in her own ward was influenced by the fact she was making use of a wheelchair.
“It made it difficult to think about being in a ward, because I really couldn’t do some of the individual homeowner-related issues,” said Ryan. “It would have been hard for me, for example, to go up to someone’s backyard.”
Additionally, her own interests in serving on council were less ward-specific.
“I was really running more because I saw a need for a different vision for the city,” said Ryan. “For me in particular, more accessible facilities, more inclusion, more diversity, an opportunity to demonstrate to youth with disabilities that anything is possible, and in some ways, to be an eye-opener for municipal government and its structure.”
Offering her thoughts on this year’s race for the councillor-at-large seats, Ryan expressed disappointment at the lack of new faces coming forward. When she first ran for council in 1993, there were 20 candidates in the councillor-at-large race.
“I would suggest that there are fewer new people coming forward. There are a number of people who have run before, and while it’s good to see ongoing interest, to me I think it speaks to some degree of apathy in that we’re not seeing more new faces.”
Ryan also said the candidates fail to represent a cross-section of society, be it women (there is one female out of 13 candidates) or people with unique professional backgrounds.
While he’s not seeking re-election for councillor-at-large, Colbert has his own vested interest in this year’s race — he’s former Ward 1 councillor Art Puddister’s campaign manager.
Without discussing his own thoughts on specific candidates, Colbert said the race for those four seats will likely come down to five or six candidates.
“Those five or six people have a couple of things in their favour. One, they are an incumbent. Two, they have good name recognition. Three, they have the ability to be able to mount a solid campaign. You’ve got to have one of those three things or all three ingredients to be successful. Otherwise, people don’t know who you are.”
Successful candidates who are new to the job of serving on council should check their ego at the door, according to Ryan.
“It’s the lesson I learned in the first week. You’re not really an expert in anything that you think you’re an expert in, and … that’s why you have such amazing staff.”
She also emphasizes the importance of recognizing all perspectives in a debate and understanding the city has a full slate of responsibilities to manage.
“There’s a balance to be achieved,” she said. “You have to recognize that a city is a puzzle with many competing pieces and they have to be balanced.”
Colbert said successful candidates need to keep in mind the interests of all five wards.
“They’ve got to balance sometimes (what) is the best way to spend the taxpayers’ money (and) where’s the best bang for the buck,” he said. “We can’t just pick and choose one ward over another ward. It’s got to be more of a balancing act.”
Councillors-at-large do deal with items that are more ward-specific. Colbert said ward councillors will regularly lobby at-large councillors about issues facing their residents, knowing full well their support is necessary to address those matters.
“You’ve got to get (the at-large councillors’) support, because the bottom line is six rules the day. Six votes, and it happens.”