‘Vacuum of leadership’: St. John’s councillor

Bureaucrats, not elected council members, run city hall, Coun. Art Puddister says

Published on February 9, 2016
Art Puddister.
Telegram file photo

St. John’s city councillors chose their words carefully Tuesday when asked about the subject of an upcoming private meeting, but Coun. Art Puddister was blunt: “There is certainly a vacuum of leadership.”

The councillor said bureaucrats are running city hall.

“We have a bureaucracy that is extremely strong and we have a council that’s extremely weak, and it’s up to the elected representatives of the people, city council, to be setting policy and for the staff, the bureaucrats, to be carrying policy out,” he said. “That’s not what’s taking place. Right now we seem to have a situation whereby the bureaucrats are setting policy, and I think that’s wrong.”

Puddister said there wasn’t enough council discussion of the budget before it was passed.

“We had one meeting which lasted 90 minutes, and I asked two days later for the mayor to have another meeting to continue to work on the budget to get the expenses down and to get the mill rates down, and he refused. He said the budget was done, the mill rates had been passed at a special meeting of council.”

Mayor Dennis O’Keefe rejected the suggestion that Sunday afternoon’s meeting is a forum on his leadership, saying it’s about council members putting all their issues on the table.

“This is a meeting that all of council agreed to and wanted to have, and the purpose was to find ways to move forward and get beyond some of the issues that are dividing councillors. It’s as simple as that,” O’Keefe said. “It’s unfortunate that it was leaked, and a leadership twist put on it. The meeting was supposed to be private and confidential, just 10 individuals sitting down, hammering out any differences they might have, and moving forward from there.”

O’Keefe said he wouldn’t get into which particular issues are dividing council, characterizing it as 10 personalities clashing, causing “division and dissension.”

“It’s time to move beyond that,” he said. “In the past two and a half years, this has been a good council. We’ve made some very positive decisions — financial ones, economic ones, planning ones, budget decisions — we’ve moved the city forward a great deal in the last two and a half years, and I guess the trigger for some of these clashes in the past short while has centred on the budget and has gone on from there.”

Coun. Jonathan Galgay said he expects the main topics to be fallout over the budget and the mayor’s leadership.

“It’s a discussion that has to be had,” Galgay said. “We need to talk about having a strong leader who’s going to be able to bring us through these issues collectively. We’ve had some challenges as a council — they didn’t come up just since the budget. They’ve been ongoing since the election.”

Other councillors were more circumspect about the meeting:

• Coun. Tom Hann: “There has been some dysfunctionality among council, somewhat divided, and that’s been evident in what’s been happening over the last six to eight weeks, and council has been under a signficant amount of pressure, and that causes problems as well. So I guess the main reason for the meeting is to get in the room and put that all on the table, and solve the problem and come out as a full team, because I have concerns we’re not doing a proper job for the city.”

• Deputy Mayor Ron Ellsworth: “We as a group certainly have been having challenges functioning as a group. For me, it’s an opportunity for us to sit as a group, to have frank and open discussions about any and all concerns that each one of us has individually. … It’s about us as council, it’s about us having to get better, and we have to do better than we have been doing.”

• Coun. Sandy Hickman: “It’s something that I’ve been espousing for a long time, that council should get together as a committee of the whole and get together and just talk as a group of people about issues.”

• Coun. Dave Lane: “After the vote around the budget, where not everybody agreed to it, and then we started making decisions, which threw doubt into whether or not we’re all together in terms of how we’re running this city, several of us have been calling to come together and just talk it all out, and we don’t really get an opportunity to do that as a group of councillors. So from my perspective, that’s all it is.”

Coun. Bruce Tilley declined to comment at all.

“I don’t speak to any leaks whatsoever,” he said., Twitter: @DanMacEachern