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City Lights: Sheilagh O’Leary, Deputy Mayor, St. John’s

Sheilagh O’Leary, Deputy Mayor, St. John’s, shares what smart city means to her, what’s keeping her awake at night, and more.

Sheilagh O’Leary, Deputy Mayor, St. John’s
Sheilagh O’Leary, Deputy Mayor, St. John’s

Home to over 220,000 people, St. John’s is the capital and largest city of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. The eastern most city in North America, St.John’s contains one of the oldest European settlements.

Although rich in heritage and culture, St.John’s still faces many of the same challenges that all municipalities in North America are confronting in one way or another. Deputy Mayor, Sheilagh O’Leary, was kind enough to share her thoughts on how a city can spur economic growth, increase transparency, and promote a healthier living environment by effectively utilising technology and social media.

What is the main purpose of your role?

Deputy Mayor is an elected position where I sit as second in command to the Mayor. I chair committee meetings in his absence and further support the Mayor in conducting council business. It is an at-large position that enables me to stay involved in many areas of interest while focusing on my particular position as Council Lead for Economic Development, Tourism and Culture.

What does ’smart city’ mean to you and the City of St. John’s?

A smart city is one that continues to move towards progressive methods of creating a healthier, prosperous and more inclusive city. This can often be achieved through improved technology but implementing common-sense practices that foster a healthier living environment is also important – this includes urban forest growth and support for social enterprises that work with our most vulnerable populations.

Responsible and integrated development and heritage preservation is important too, as St. John’s is North America’s oldest city and our tourism industry relies upon this.

What made you want to get into politics?

I never anticipated a political life but I have always had a strong voice and had been a community activist, concerned with issues of social equity, neighbourhood well-being, environmental stewardship and responsible city planning, including historic preservation.

As a cultural producer and art photographer for over 25 years in this city, I believe promotion of our invaluable art producers is also imperative for economic development in St. John’s.

Can you describe a typical day?

A typical day is generally atypical.

Meetings are planned back-to-back in advance with constituents and committees/boards. In conjunction with this schedule, there are media requests and essential social media monitoring that occurs from the time my eyes open, until I go to sleep at night.

Phone calls come to me via my city office and my cell, and queries/complaints arrive through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the traditional media so every day can mean a different series of events and management.

It is truly a juggling act as social media has created modern expectation of immediate answers to questions/complaints. Multi-tasking and being able to work on the fly are essential skills for this position.

What are your thoughts on St.John’s entering the Smart Cities Challenge?

The focus is on increasing mobility in a number of different ways – through public transit, accessibility, more integrated trailway systems, the creation of a more bike-friendly community and using smart technology to make all it all happen.

St. John’s boasts a landscape with incredible physical treasures. Ocean bound, our existence is dictated by the sea. The Grand Concourse trail system weaves throughout the city in conjunction with the East Coast Trail which hugs our incredible North East Avalon coastline. Enhancing this inter-connectedness helps create healthier communities.

St. John’s is raw, beautiful, and filled with cultural treasures from our historic built heritage to the vibrant local arts community; all with a dose of humour. Multiculturalism is becoming a key focus for the city in an effort to promote population and economic growth, all while fostering a diverse and inclusive community. All of these assets can be built upon.

Like many cities, we have growing challenges with increased vehicular traffic dependency so using modern methods to engage mobility is definitely a priority.

What is your #1 priority right now?

Economic development that encourages a healthier city – in particular for the downtown core. Healthier means more mobility, whether it be pedestrian access, safe biking passage, improved and affordable transit or accessibility for those with physical/mental challenges.

We have to concentrate on our assets and enlarge upon them. Our pristine environment and coastal trails, our cultural heritage and our friendly people are assets that we need to further develop and capitalise on.

What is your biggest challenge?

Moving beyond the status quo with minds that cannot think outside the box. I am a pro-active representative, interested in seeing positive change happen that can be an economic benefit to our city.

As someone who likes to challenge the predictable, this can be a tedious task that requires much perseverance and tenacity.

What do you see as your biggest achievement since you started the role?

Environmental stewardship is one of my key success stories since first being elected in 2009. I re-instated the long forgotten Environmental Advisory Committee, lobbied for over eight years to get tree development regulations implemented in our landscaping requirements in new developments (just passed). I also lobbied successfully for a provincial cosmetic pesticide ban and, presently with Municipalities NL, for a provincial single-use plastic bag ban.

Socially, ensuring the most vulnerable folks in our city (i.e. low income, those with mental health issues, drug addicts, new immigrants/refugees/indigenous persons, and women) have proper representation.

What is the best part of the job?

The honour of being in a position of trust – to acknowledge, demonstrate respect and potentially solve problems for constituents as well implement higher level planning opportunities that can benefit all in the city.

What keeps you awake at night?

Social media banter/speech preparations.

Any final thoughts you would like to share?

I also take responsibility to be a strong mentor for women who are interested in getting involved in political life. As a former chair of Equal Voice NL, I spend a great deal of time encouraging women to step up to run for City Council and to help ensure that we have a pro-active and diverse group of voices representing the citizens of St. John’s.

This year was an anomaly whereby we finally achieved gender parity in our 2017 election.

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