Saint John’s New Beginning

Kurt Peacock’s latest article appeared in today’s Telegraph-Journal, and it is a PERFECT write-up about the outcome of the Saint John 2012 Municipal Election:

Looking relaxed in jeans and a grey T-shirt, Mayor-elect Mel Norton (who had removed his suit and tie once the media horde was gone) addressed a crowd of jubilant supporters at Callahan’s Pub late into the evening Monday night.

“Nothing great happens without amazing people,” he said, turning to his volunteers. “You’re what makes Saint John special.”

Norton added, “Let’s celebrate what is really a new beginning for Saint John.”

The rhetorical call to action was easily embraced. After all, it was a new beginning for Saint John, and across the city a lot of people were ready to celebrate.

Of 11 seats around the council table, eight of them will now be held by candidates who played no part in the municipal turbulence of the last four years. The mayor’s seat, to be held by Norton, will be a fresh start (Norton served briefly on the last council) and among incumbents, only Bill Farren and Donnie Snook survived the tidal pull of the voters.

While much of the evening’s excitement surrounded the mayor’s race, there was also a lot of happy talk around the idea that our city (which has always produced some of the most vibrant female politicians in the province) has added a number of talented women to the council table.

If council tradition holds, our new deputy mayor will be Shelley Rinehart, a well-known community volunteer and accomplished business professor. The incoming council will make the final decision on who takes the deputy mayor seat.

If ever there was a councillor in which Saint John should hand over stewardship of the budget process, it would be Rinehart. Let’s remove the budget-making leadership from staff and hand it over to councillor-elect Rinehart, and make her the city’s de facto finance minister in the process.

The other at-large councillor will be former mayor Shirley McAlary, who – despite her own missteps as mayor – should be a welcome addition to the council table. I’ve been around politicians long enough to observe that if candidates are given a second chance years after an earlier defeat, they’re generally wiser and more humble elected officials. McAlary will likely fit that mould.

The two other female councillors at the table will be Susan Fullerton and Donna Reardon. Fullerton startled (and entertained) many at a recent campaign debate by sitting in front of a piano and breaking into a song. When I first heard of Fullerton’s performance, it re-established my firm belief that Saint John has the most interesting politics in New Brunswick.

Reardon may well be the most compelling new councillor to watch. I’ve sat with her on different city committees, and while we haven’t always been in agreement, I was constantly impressed with her ability to ask very direct and succinct questions. While other councillors may be tempted to launch ego-satisfying speeches, expect Reardon to be the one who asks the right questions of city staff.

Rounding out the new council are Greg Norton, John MacKenzie, David Merrithew and Ray Strowbridge.

Norton is the new mayor’s younger brother, but he is also an innovative principal at Lorne School in the city’s north end. It is his employment in the inner city – and not his family ties – that will likely most influence his time on council. MacKenzie is largely unknown to most voters outside of Millidgeville, but he did receive the early endorsement of outgoing Deputy Mayor Stephen Chase – a significant boost in that Chase was one of the few members of the previous council who still had a reputation for championing taxpayer interests.

Both Merrithew and Strowbridge are newcomers in east Saint John, and it will be interesting to see how they adapt to PlanSJ, the city’s new municipal plan. While the document is absolutely a step in the right direction for the city (in large part because it embraces Saint John’s status as the most urban space in the province), it may cause some short-term development pains in sprawling east Saint John. How they respond to this reality may be an interesting test of the ward system of governance in that what is good for the city as a whole may not be as good for one of the city’s parts.

Among all the fresh faces on council, there is of course our brand new mayor-elect. Norton joined council in December 2010 and more than a year later was seeking the mayor’s chair. Outside of a proven willingness to listen to voters on issues like the boundaries of Rockwood Park, he frankly didn’t have much of a record. What he had to offer was a promise to conduct the city’s affairs in a very different manner.

Because Norton was such a clean slate, in the final weeks of the campaign there was somewhat of a whisper campaign to undermine his momentum with a not-very-subtle counter-narrative. Norton was buying the city’s votes, the argument went. He was more Union Club than Union Street. He was simply the front man to a well-oiled machine.

Since the whisper campaign never grew into a chorus – likely because there was little substance behind the innuendo – Norton ultimately won by a considerable landslide. On election night, one campaign wag even suggested my column headline: Court Dismissed.

At the Norton celebration, I ran into Bob McVicar, a former mayoral candidate who has witnessed all kinds of campaigns. His observation of the last-minute questions about campaign finance?

“The signs of the campaign has nothing to do with big money – it had to do with the broad level of support Mel had within the community,” said McVicar. He added: “A smart city finally voted for smart leadership.”

Over cookies at the Norton victory party, Natalie Godbout (a longtime law partner with Norton) helped me fill in the clean slate that is our new mayor.

“If anyone knew his dad, they’d totally get Mel,” said Godbout, referring to Norton’s father, who served as a church minister for decades. “It’s always been service above anything.”

Amidst the celebrations, I also ran into Sandra Norton, the loving mother of two freshly-elected members of Saint John Common Council. I asked her for her thoughts.

“I’m very excited, and very proud,” said the mother of the Norton brothers. “I’ve always loved politics, and I’ve always loved Saint John.”

At least for now, the feeling is mutual. Norton and all the fresh faces on council have made Saint John and its politics feel brand new once more.

As a historian, I’ve always felt that one of our city’s greatest traits has been its ability to fall down, get up and renew itself time and again. We’ve survived natural and man-made disasters, prolonged economic depressions, and more than one dysfunctional council. Yet we remain standing.

And amid the euphoria of our robust democracy, I can’t help but feel like we’re standing a little taller this week.

You can follow Kurt on Twitter: @kurtpeacock

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