Nearly four years ago, shortly after the 2013 municipal election, John Walsh hauled his campaign signs to the dump, determined to serve just one more term on council before retiring.
“It was a ‘Lead us not into temptation’ moment,” said Walsh, laughing. “I said to myself, if they’re gone, that’s going to be thousands and thousands of dollars to replace them - that will take me away from any temptation to run.”
Now, at age 65, the 16 year veteran of Mount Pearl council is sticking with that decision. He won’t run for re-election when the writ is dropped this coming September.
“I’m turning it over to the next generation, that’s kind of where I am with it,” said Walsh. “If you commit, you commit to another four years and I don’t want to be there just taking up space and not putting an effort into it.”
Walsh, who is a retired teacher and principal - he was still working at O’Donel High the first time he ran for office - is also an entrepreneur, operating a consulting company that advises other municipal councils on how to plan strategically and organize their administrations. “I still plan to do a little bit of the consulting work because it’s been really, really good to me,” he said.
There was talk in the community of a recruitment campaign to get Walsh to try for mayor this time around. “Some people were trying to encourage me to do that,” he admitted. “That would have provided even more of a challenge in terms of time. I thought about it briefly, but not too seriously, and I made up my mind not to go.”
Walsh said his “little bout of cancer” in 2014 has nothing to do with his decision to retire from politics.
“Politics are a little bit different now in Mount Pearl than they’ve ever been from my perspective,” said Walsh. “The last time too there was that little splinter group led by Travis Faulkner that is anti-everything, but I don’t think they are going to do very much with it, because they are anti-everything. I’ve tried to tell him, in as nice a way as I could, that that’s just not going to work. If you have a genuine interest and you really have a meaningful intent, go out and let the people know what you stand for and how your views are alternatively a little different from council’s, (do that), but be positive, profess that you want to be part of the team, and that’s how you get elected in Mount Pearl.”
Walsh said the first time he ran, in 2001, there were no vacant seats on council. All the incumbents were running in a field of 12 candidates in total. Walsh managed to beat the well-known and respected former journalist Ken Meeker, who was an incumbent, and stave off a challenge by rising political newcomer Paul Lane to earn a spot on the election night victory list.
“But the guy who ran a very negative campaign, came dead last,” said Walsh, being diplomatic enough not to name him.
Part of the reason negative campaigns don’t work in Mount Pearl is that the City has so much going for it, Walsh reckoned. “We’re such an ideal size,” he explained. “We’re 28 square kilometres in size. If you look at Marystown, that’s 128. And Holyrood is 110 or 112 square kilometres. We are so ideal. You put eight or nine snow clearing routes out in Mount Pearl and you’ve got the place cleaned up in four or five hours... With 25,000 people and 28 square kilometres, it’s an ideal sized municipality. In fact, it’s one of the smallest, best planned, most compact municipalities in the entire province.”
But Walsh said that doesn’t mean argument or dissent isn’t allowed on council. “We do disagree,” he said. “We will have our say, but we always disagree respectfully and politely and we always understand that not everybody is going to see it exactly the same way, in fact it’s not healthy if everybody sees it exactly the same way all the time.”
Sometimes the councillors also disagree with staff, Walsh said. “Ninety per cent of the time, staff will give you the best professional advice, but on occasion we don’t necessarily take that advice and for other reasons, political or whatever, will say, ‘That’s one way to go, but we’re going to go in a slightly different direction.’ The role of staff and the role of council are completely different,” said Walsh. “Our role as councillors is to establish a vision, to set direction, to develop policy and staff’s role on a day to day basis is to implement it.”
Walsh said the honest, upfront relationship between councillors and staff is what helps the City run so effectively. “We do have great meetings in committee of the whole (privileged meetings of the full council) and in our private committees,” he added. “And it is in the committees that you review most of the work and that you usually bring forward a recommendation either for approval or denial. But ultimately it’s council that decides. But the committee is where the most important work gets done... That’s where you’ll have your disagreements.”
Things are usually worked out by the time the matter gets to the full public council meeting, Walsh allowed. “That’s not sanitizing the (public) meeting, that’s just doing your business as it should be done, in committee and in the committee of the whole so that everyone has a chance to ask questions and seek clarification and then the decision is brought forward for council,” he said.
The thing that led Walsh to gravitate towards municipal politics was his involvement with a number of community groups. “I was doing a lot of volunteering,” he said. “I was coaching soccer, while my kids were coming up through for many years, I was refereeing basketball, and I was also chair of the accommodations committee for the 2000 Summer Games with then chair Bob Hillyer,” he recalled. “I think most of our councillors probably came up through the same ranks, they were volunteers, they were givers, they were involved in the community. For me it wasn’t great timing because I ran two years before I retired and when I was principal at the school it was an extremely busy job, but I did run and I did get elected... And after I retired in 2003 I was really able to put my heart and soul into it a little more.”
This week, Walsh is flat out, with plans to attend 17 events in 14 days. But this being Frosty Festival, it isn’t a typical week, he noted. “On a general week, with your committee meetings, your committee of the whole meeting and the (public) council meeting, your calls, e-mails and all that sort of stuff, I’d say it’s probably 16 to 20 hours a week (of work). So it’s busy. Some weeks are a lot busier than that, some are a little less. Summer time tends to be different, the committee works tends to slow down a little bit, but then you’re into the construction season and everybody wants everything yesterday. It’s a cycle.”
Some councillors are known as championing certain causes or interests. Walsh has served as the voice of business on council. “I would never want, and I have never been asked, to break the rules,” he said. But he has been asked at times to spur things along when an issue or application appears to be getting mired in red tape. “The rules are still the rules, you can never violate the bylaws of the City... but you can move things along with a telephone call sometimes.”
Walsh is not afraid to point out that businesses pay their fair share. “The business sector, in any municipality, is the cash cow,” said Walsh, “because you not only have a property tax, but you have a business tax, and even for the property tax, you don’t clear their roads or driveways and you don’t collect their garbage. The business community certainly pay their way and in my opinion they deserve to be well-represented.”
That’s why, Walsh said, he has argued for the past several years that the City needs to start putting money back into the infrastructure at Donovans Industrial Park. “There was a time when we used to put a million dollars a year directly into Donovans,” he said. “We were selling the land in Donovans at the time. But in the last number of years we haven’t been doing that. Three years ago, I put some motions to council to start to reinvest in Donovans. It still is, and probably always will be, the biggest business park in all of Newfoundland and Labrador, but unlike 20 years ago, now there are all kinds of other options; you can go to Galway, you can go to Paradise, you can go up to CBS, you can go to the airport, you can go to Torbay, there’s all kinds of alternatives now whereas Donovans was it before. So we’ve got to maintain Donovans as a preferred place to do business and profile it that way and that’s going to take investment. I can see integrating Donovans with our walking trails and putting in sidewalks so that it’s a true business park and not just an industrial park kind of thing.”
Looking back over his 16 years, Walsh remembers a lot of work, but few things that stand out from others. “I was involved as chair when we brought in the new automated garbage cart system,” he said. “That was really controversial at the beginning, but once it was implemented it was a piece of cake, everybody very quickly seemed to appreciate it and enjoy it.”
Walsh said he will remain a fully active member of council right to the end of this term. “After that, I don’t think I’ll be bringing forth my opinion very often” he said. “Because you don’t really have access to all the facts. Sometimes people will say this or that, or ‘shame on council.’ But the truth is they generally don’t have all the information, and when you have all the information, and you have all the facts, most times the decisions that council makes, based on the information that they have available to them, are generally correct.”
Walsh won’t be endorsing anyone who is running for office this year. “I think we have a splendid council and I wish all the people who are there the best of luck, those who choose to run, and I think most of them will,” he said. “My intent is to just step back. I don’t want to get involved with one against the other, that would be unfair. I like them all, I get along with them all, they’re all colleagues, they’re all great people, so I don’t think I’d be able to come out and endorse one over the other.”
So is he glad he spent the last 16 years as a councillor? “I have no regrets at all,” Walsh said. “It was a privilege to serve.”