Notes from the Rafters: This Week’s City Council Meeting Recap

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I usually try to cover all to most of what the council covers each meeting. But this is not a usual season. It is election season. So I will take some leeway with the usual format and work a little harder to paint for you a picture of not only what happened, but how your councillors do their work.

I think sharing that with you is useful work. And useful work is personally satisfying. And I care deeply about my own personal satisfaction, as do all the candidates (care about their own, not my, personal satisfaction.) There are no angels, only humans who are better or worse at doing useful work and who have, or have not, read their own proposed development regulations. 

Yeah. I’m doing it. I’m going for the development regulations. Again. #draftdevregbookclub 4 eva!

Most of Council Does Not Understand that the Draft Development Regulations are Different from the Municipal Plan: They Don’t Think You Are To Understand That Either.

There is truth, and there is lying. The truth is, I will watch eight straight hours of terrible television, but I will turn my nose up at a 2 hour crap movie (unless it is absolute crap and stars Eddie Redmayne.) But there is, let’s be honest, much in-between. There is spouting nonsense that reveals your fundamental misunderstanding of a subject. There is also spouting nonsense for the sake of humour, best illustrated by my daughter who likes to say something that is contrary to scientific consensus in a very serious way while looking into my deeply data driven soul. She then watches as I morph into a giant information organizing machine about to “teach her things” and, just on the brink of lecture, she yells with hilarity so distilled, and so harsh that it is the veritable moonshine of humour, “JOKING!”

So. There is truth, lying, misconceptions, joking, and, I would argue, many many more forms of untruth that are not as malicious as lying but can be just as damaging, to you, the voter.

Today we will focus on one form of un-truth: the unwillingness or inability to understand a subject for which you are responsible.

This week at council, that inability was flaunted as never before. The city has something called the Envision St. John’s – Municipal Plan. This is a document that was this go-round, built on a solid foundation of consultations and public engagement. It is, at least anecdotally, well received. It was written in 2014 and then revisited and redrafted this year. So that is one thing. Yay! Go municipal plan! Well done.

Now. The second thing is the draft development regulations document that will (or should) support that Municipal plan and give it its bones and its teeth. The Municipal Plan is a vision board of a perfect St. John’s.

The Development Regulations will actually rule all building and permitting in the city. Not the Municipal Plan. If your project meets the Development Regulations as written, then it will be approved routinely at the staff level without having to go to council for approval. This is the basic and literal building of your city. So how well do these development regulations uphold and track the well received municipal plan? I don’t have that answer because that is currently unanswered. Though it seems like a pretty good question.

In Tuesday’s council meeting, all but two of the current councillors displayed (either tacitly with a nod and a vote or vocally and explicitly) that they do not even understand that there IS a difference between the Municipal Plan and the Development Regulations.

Cllr. Hann spoke passionately, almost angrily, about the length to which the city has already gone to engage the public in the drafting of the Development Regulations. Cool. Except. They Haven’t. He was, presumably, talking about the Municipal Plan. The Development Regulations have intersected with the public roughly once, last week at two 3 hour “info” sessions that were designated to pass information to the public and most definitely not the reverse.

I was at one of those sessions. I had read the Municipal Plan and the Draft Development Regulations. (#draftdevregbookclub in the Foran Room! woot woot!) I had many questions about the Development Regulations. I was happy that the city was providing the information session. Information? Questions answered? What’s not to love?

I was directed to Cllr. Hann who was supposed to be my contact to answer all questions. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t answer a single one. He directed me to staff who could. Which is a fair move, I thought at the time. I am much happier talking to a technical person who actually wrote the regulations than a politician who is selling them. The staff was helpful. And the regulations themselves are well written and easy to understand to a lay person who has an afternoon to devote to reading them thoroughly.

But now I fear I was giving Cllr. Hann too much benefit of the doubt. His own words this week belied the fact that he does not understand the difference between the two documents, from which it is not a huge leap that he has not read the regulations. He has publicly stated that they are very “dry”  and “not very light for sure don’t get bogged down.”

That second statement came with a an outdated broken link. Again, broken link? No biggie. But that, along with his inaccurate description (especially coming from a realtor who should be fluent in much more lawyer-ese contract language) of the exceedingly plainly and nimbly written (if still in draft form) regulations, as too technical for us to read, is suspect.

You Want Public Oversight So Much You are Thinking of Bringing Back Andy Wells? How about Just Pay Attention When It is Proposed Without the Unnecessary Name Calling?

How did this #draftdevregbookclub come up you ask? Well, here is what happened. Cllr Lane proposed that staff work out an engagement plan for the development regulations that is “more robust” than the current dis-engagement (my words) plan and bring it to council for a vote. This proposal was seconded by Cllr. O’leary.

Then ensued the most misinformed ranting I have endured this year-o-council-coverage. The entire council (except Lane and O’Leary) took turns loudly agreeing with Cllr Hann and objecting to any prolonging of this already long engagement process. Which, again, has not happened. They all used “Municipal Plan” and “Development Regulations” interchangeably.

My daughter was with me again this meeting, and she looked up from her colouring, confused, to ask me “who are you thanking?” when I audibly sighed “Thank you!” as Cllr. Lane finally stood to conclude debate on his motion and began with “‘The Plan’ and ‘The Regulations’ are two different things!” Hallelujah! I was about to have to break all decorum and yell that myself.

Cllr. Lane also pointed out that, as this is one of the most impactful things the city will do for the next few decades, there should be proper “final public oversight.”

Yeah. Public oversight. We aren’t a bunch of hyenas. I mean, we are, but we aren’t ONLY a  bunch of hyenas. We are, collectively, quite astute when we calm down and perk up for a minute and are given a smidgen of the benefit of the doubt. And some basic tools. I know, we have Engage St John’s. But, being half-hyena we do need some face-to-face opportunities to laugh, rip other animals apart, and bring our spots and our smarts to bear.

Mayor O’Keefe very helpfully remarked that no public engagement is needed since no one has called him specifically to talk about the regulations. Hmmmm. Given that he voted against even the limited two info sessions because he, along with Cllr. Galgay, did not believe the public would be able to digest the regulations, it is possible he isn’t getting calls because what the fuck would be the point of calling a lame duck who doesn’t understand the issues and doesn’t believe we could understand them.

Here are just two of the questions that Cllr Lane and Cllr O’leary have reported getting in regards the Development Regulations:

  1. Is mixed use reflected appropriately? My answer: maybe. In the appendices. which aren’t published yet.
  2. Are the goals of the Municipal Plan enforced in the regs? Uh. Yeah. That’s the big one. My answer: lets find out, together!

While the rest of council raged about “how much engagement can we possibly stand?!” (again for the umpteenth time, they clearly did not understand that the plan and the regulations are two different documents and that only the plan had suffered significant engagement), Lane said with some frustration, “the regulations were practically divulged to the public by mistake” via a planning committee meeting.

He also pointed out that the city had spent the last four years  “developing a public engagement framework” and “what more important thing” could there be to try that on?

In summation.
Everyone but O’leary and Lane: “Engagement?! grumble grumble”
Lane: “Final public oversight”

I’ve written before about not throwing all of the council out and batching them all together as just a bunch of out of touch maroons. But I swear to God. I’m so cynical after this week I’m almost ready to write for Vice. (wink).

Why They So Crazy? Couldn’t Be Election Season … Maybe the Eclipse?

Cllr O’Leary requested that, in the future, there be some reasonable hiatus of council meetings during this relatively short and intense municipal election season. She mentioned there was something similar provincially and federally. The reasons for her suggestions are so well illustrated they are almost etched into my eyeballs.

Prime example: Cllr Puddister trying to get approval to add a small stretch of sidewalk along the east (northeast) side of Logy Bay Rd via a direct council vote even though, process-wise that request makes no sense. There is no money for such a request in the budget. There are, however, many, many areas where sidewalls are needed. I don’t doubt this is one of them. But where does that $54,000 come from?

The city manager was clear that it was not in this year’s budget and that it is not normal procedure to pull from the next year’s budget, as Puddister proposed, to cover such a specific request that had not gone through any committee process or vetting and is, essentially jumping the queue.

It was a clear election season maneuver, based on pandering and the assumption that no one watching could see through it, so fuck all process and controls; election season rules!

You don’t even know how hard I am working to not go all caps here guys. This was a special meeting.

Basic Lack of Decency and Self Control: Not cool. Not. Cool.

Another special moment? It was a two-parter. In the wake of a proclamation for Sexual Violence  awareness week, Cllr. Galgay stood to get approved  (and to take credit for) something that Cllr O’Leary had put into motion.

O’Leary had previously objected to a provision in the current budget that now said community groups and non-profits had to pay for use of City Hall’s Foran conference room. And, specifically she had recently requested that at least the Newfoundland and Labrador Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre (NLSACPC) not have to pay for their use of the Foran room after the annual “Take Back the Night” march this month. This request was referred to the Finance committee which is chaired by Cllr Galgay.

Since that committee would not be meeting in time for the march, Galgay magnanimously stood in this public meeting to waive the fee for that room for that event. Procedure and decorum barred O’Leary from taking back any credit for this small mercy. But, no big deal. Together it all got done.

I would almost not have noticed the power play involved if I hadn’t witnessed a short time later, Cllr Galgay and Cllr Tilley’s utter disrespect for their colleague O’Leary.

When O’Leary stood to speak, during the above mentioned discussion on development regulations, as most of the other Cllrs. were suffered to do, Cllr Tilley audibly sighed, “Are you serious?” Cllr Galgay, swinging around in his swivel chair like a kid in his dad’s office, turned and caught Tilley’s eye and they both laughed. Loudly.

Now, I don’t bring my five year old daughter to the council meetings just as a foil to this sort of behaviour but, if the shoe fits. My daughter spent the entire meeting quietly working on a colouring project and occasionally whispering a very quiet relevant question or a request for me to check out her progress. These two grown humans who were getting paid to be there, could not even behave nearly as well as a child with very recently skinned knees running on an early lunch with no snack.

Thank God for The Ship

I went to The Ship for delicious supper and space to write this up and heard amazing music raising money for Hurricane Harvey flood victims and met polite, interesting strangers who reminded me how much better most humans are than that.

Lane and O’Leary won this meeting. By a gazillion. 

Bonus: While at The Ship, I learned from one of those wonderful strangers (visiting from Denmark) not only that most people are great and don’t assume everyone but them is an idiot, but, that camel populations have exploded in Australia. They were introduced and the climate is perfect for them and they have no natural predators. Also camel racing in bigger than horse racing in the middle east. I am not looking either of those things up because they are more fun to just let stand. Also. Moose racing anyone?

About Author

Emily Deming

Emily Deming is involved in a love affair with St John’s so deep it extends to attending plays, poetry readings, and dance festivals.

4 Comments

  1. Please excuse my many typos above. These council pieces are very quick turnaround at the best of times, and I pulled an election season gaff myself trying to get this in too quickly when I (clearly) hadn’t given myself enough time to edit.

  2. Catherine Dempsey on

    Excellent article, Emily. You caught and presented a vivid picture of a Council Meeting. The only correction that I would suggest is that I don’t believe Councillor Hann is or ever was a realtor. You made it very clear that citizens should read the new Development Regulations and also the Municipal Plan. And even more important, so should the councillors and the candidates who are running in the election.

    The other issues such as election pandering, and rude behavior to a fellow councillor should be noted.

  3. Thanks Catherine! I definitely should have double checked that! Always happy to be corrected. And thanks for reading.

  4. Super piece of writing. Thanks to Overcast – and you – for helping me make some decisions about my vote. Now, if only the councillors would read what you have written and take it to heart.

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