Deputy mayor will attend her final council meeting after more than 30 years on council
During the late 1970s St. John’s Deputy Mayor Shannie Duff didn’t like the way things were progressing downtown, so instead of continually trying to fight the establishment, she joined it.
Thirty-six years after first being elected to public office, today will mark the last council meeting for St. John’s Deputy Mayor Shannie Duff, who is retiring from politics.
— Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram
After more than 30 years of being part of the group who have shaped St. John’s into what it is today, she returns to the sidelines.
Duff’s decision to retire from politics didn’t come lightly, but she says it was time for her to vacate her position and focus her attention on her family.
She told The Telegram Friday she’s taking a seven-week trip around the world to hug her five children.
Elected in 1977 — one of the first two women to be elected to council; Dorothy Wyatt was the first one in 1969 — Duff said the driving force behind her decision to run was the much publicly debated construction of Atlantic Place.
“In 1975 there was a huge public battle over it,” she recalled.
“It really drew out the citizens and it was very polarized. Some people thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread, because it was going to bring jobs and taxes. And I think the intention at the time of the council of the day was to start the revitalization of the downtown, but it pretty near killed it instead,” Duff said.
She said people weren’t angry with council for wanting to provide parking downtown, but it was more about the way they went about it that hit a sore spot with some people.
“They started to tear down the commercial downtown to put up a very ugly building, one of the ugliest buildings in North America, and it was a very inappropriate new development and people were upset that a lot of public money was going into providing parking for private development,” Duff said.
During that time she said she was heavily involved as a volunteer in the people’s planning program — a group Duff describes as one of the first strong citizen advocacy organizations that actually stood up to council.
The people involved, she said, took a stand and said, “‘No, we don’t like the way things are happening. We don’t like the secrecy. We don’t like the behind closed door way things are happening,’ and at that point what struck me immediately was the weaknesses in the system in that the city had no planning office — no planning staff, no municipal plan, no vision, no safeguards for trying to manage growth and development,” Duff said.
Even though the municipal parking garage was built, paid off and eventually sold for $1, Duff’s life was never the same after it.
“It was the turning point for me. Instead of being on the outside as a citizen’s advocate, which I was for many years, I said if you can’t beat them, you got to join them,” she said. She recalled being at city hall so often with briefs and papers as an advocate that the commissionaires thought she worked there.
From when she was first elected in 1977, Duff has been re-elected in every municipal election — except for in 1993.
Coun. Gerry Colbert, who has also decided to retire making today’s meeting his last, said that year was a tumultuous time for the city.
“It was a dark time. We had a vicious strike in 1993,” he recalled. “I was there and was re-elected but we had a lot of councillors who were not re-elected that year. It was a very tough time, and unfortunately she was one of the victims of it,” said Colbert, who was first elected to council in 1990.
Duff said the 1990-93 was the hardest term she served on council. She was mayor at the time, and when the election rolled around in 1993 — which was cut short by one year because the province was dealing with the amalgamation of many smaller communities — she was replaced by the late John Murphy.
She said municipalities were dealing with big issues at that time — downsizing by the federal and provincial governments who were pulling money from municipalities, while at the same time downloading more responsibility to towns as well as dealing with amalgamation.
“We had a tight budget, high debt and a 100-day strike. I did not survive it, so I was off for four years and then came back again,” she said.
“I think anybody who served at that time knows that was probably the hardest period on council. We also lost our city manager in the middle of it. It was indescribable. It certainly was the low point of my council career,” Duff said.
Regarded as a vocal proponent for city planning, protecting heritage areas and supporting the arts, Duff announced at a council meeting in May she wouldn’t seek re-election.
She said it wasn’t an easy decision and she wrestled for months with the idea of leaving municipal government.
Colbert said Duff’s hard work and determination will be missed.
“I think, no question, dealing with her all this time, she’s the most competent, hard-working, sincere — if we didn’t have Shannie Duff as the conscience of city hall there’d be nothing but brick and mortar in the downtown,” he said.
Colbert said her unbending attitude to ensure the heritage and culture of St. John’s was protected, sometimes against all odds, will forever be remembered.
Coun. Frank Galgay, who is also retiring after serving four terms on council, said he has always described Duff as a class act.
He said she is one of the most intelligent people he knows, and it showed whenever she took a stand for something on council.
Galgay served four terms on council with Duff. He is also wrapping up his career tonight after spending 16 years in the chamber.
Duff said while she enjoyed most of her career on council she has enjoyed the past two terms immensely due to the prosperity and growth the city has undergone.
“The economy is better, and you have something to work with. We’ve been able to work on some positive things, like the plantation (in Quidi Vidi), the Convention Centre, Wedgewood Park, Bannerman Park project. There has been money to do some things that are long lasting, creative and beneficial to the city, and being involved with those things has been a real pleasure,” she said.
Duff said she doesn’t like to lay claim to any legacies individually, and everything that has been accomplished in the city has been done as part of a team.
But one thing she points to that she said she is happy to see is the new life breathed into downtown.
“The city of St. John’s today is a very different city than in 1977, and in many cases is much improved. The downtown in 1977, people wrote it off. There were people who thought it was going to be completely redeveloped. In fact, it has attracted a huge amount of investment. And I think part of that is due to good planning and stability with regulations and investment, which in turn has attracted immense private investment millions and millions of dollars by private citizens. And I think a lot of them are anxious to see that investment protected.
“I think my leadership was probably important in the total revitalization in the downtown and the older neighbourhoods, and certainly in protecting the city’s heritage,” she said, adding there has never been a day she has regretted running for council, and she will miss it.