Sheilagh O’Leary

A St. John’s native, I have been a dedicated, energetic and active voice supporting our community for decades. I was honoured to be the recipient of this year’s CMHA-NL’s Pottle Award for Outstanding Volunteerism with mental health and sat as board member with NAACAP, CMHA-NL, St. John’s Clean & Beautiful, Irish Newfoundland Association, St. John’s Native Friendship Centre, and Equal Voice NL to name a few. I sit as liaison to the Environmental Advisory Committee and am active on all standing committees of City Council. In business, volunteer and council work, I work towards a leadership style that encourages a collaborative, consultative, and enthusiastic approach to solving problems.

Contact Information

Survey Responses

What is your full name?
Sheilagh Ethne O’Leary
What role are you running for? If it's a ward councillor position, please specify which ward.
Deputy Mayor
If you are currently on council, or have served previously, how many years in total have you served?
I have served as Councillor at Large from 2009-2013 and have been Ward 4 Councillor since February 2016, winning in a bi-election.
Why did you decide to run for office?
I am a strong believer in social engagement, community betterment, and taking action beyond just talking about problems. I’m a lifelong community activist who loves St. John’s. I was born and raised in Churchill Square area in St. John’s by parents who taught, through example, that we all have a part to play in the betterment of our community. They taught me the importance of having a strong voice and to speak out on matters of inequality. If you want things to get done, their advice was to do it yourself and not wait for someone else to step up.
What do you think makes St. John's unique or special?
I dearly love this unique city because of our invaluable culture, our history, our phenomenal landscape and natural environment, but most of all because of our people. There is no doubt we face challenges today because of our present provincial economy and geographic location, but I firmly believe our city and province can flourish if we support our local economy, and promote and enhance the unique resources we have as North America’s oldest city.
If you were elected, do you plan to hold another paid job while serving on Council? If so, what would it be and how will you divide your time?
Since I was first honoured by being elected, I have worked in a more than full time capacity in the supposedly part-time councillor position, and will continue to do so. I feel strongly that the city merits full time council attention. For me personally, that has meant pulling back on my 25-year career as a professional photographer and teacher. I am also a mother of three and balancing a lifestyle where I can raise and support my family in conjunction with seeing progressive ideas enacted is key. I am very dedicated and action oriented which comes from my own creative production history and the understanding that helping to run a city requires my all.
What changes or initiatives would you advocate for at Council?
I will continue to advocate for better consultation methods and transparency. We’ve started down that road but there are still many people who are not being heard. Inclusion and support for the vulnerable in our communities is a primary focus. Increased mobility, environmental stewardship and affordable housing are all key issues I am concerned with. I want Council to encourage business development, with an emphasis on sustainable, locally-focused economic activity. I want to finalize the long overdue update to our municipal plan which I and former Deputy Mayor Shannie Duff called for years ago. In our growing city, it is imperative that we not work in silos rather, look at best practices world-wide and not spend badly needed resource re-inventing the wheel.
What, to you, is the most important kind of decision City Council makes?
This is a difficult question because I know that even the smallest decisions by Council can have a large impact on residents. Progressive city planning and affordability are the most important overarching parts of the position, but working for individual residents who are working through day to day residential and neighbourhood issues is also very important.
Questions for at large councillors...
Increasing density and mixed uses are priorities in the new municipal plan. Where would you like to see more density in St. John’s?
The city’s mandate for creating more density and thus less urban sprawl is crucial. Having said that, I am an advocate of heritage preservation and enhancement and will continue to respect the height restrictions of our heritage guidelines in the downtown core that Philip Pratt’s report has identified and that are our present policy. I have also advocated to update our wetland policy as development should not encroach upon these significant areas throughout our city. Paving over wetlands is senseless and causes flooding issues for neighbourhoods aside from the natural environment benefits. Development within a city is a delicate balance between livability and increasing density requires discretion and listening to the needs of residents has to be carefully balanced. Looking at our existing vacancies and incentivizing these areas is where we need to begin.
Without a ward responsibility, at-large councilors have more space to focus on specific issues. Do you have one issue you would like to prioritize?
I have been both an at-large and a ward councilor. Now that I have experienced and seen the benefits of both positions, I know that I love balancing working one on one with constituents and am certain that I am qualified for enacting larger issues in a stronger leadership capacity. Now having had the experience of working on City Council, I know that realistically only so many things can be tackled by an individual representative in a 4 year tenure, so teamwork and building good working relationships with colleagues to ensure progressive agendas can be realized is my mission. I have several projects that would be exciting, sustainable economic drivers that I would like to get off the ground, because affordable living in this tough economic time has to be our priority in St. John’s.
Have you been out canvassing? If so, what are the priorities you’re hearing most loudly?
Yes, I have been canvassing on the doors and regularly at community events and larger social gatherings and people are frustrated with the overall productivity of the present council and are quite vocal about it. People want new ideas, more attentive representation, more diversity on council including women representatives and change!
What would you like to see included in the new Regional Plan?
We need to focus more on regional development and sustainability issues. Development supersedes boundary lines and active transport between and within communities is essential. This includes vehicular traffic, Metrobus service, as well as other modes of accessible transit. We do share some resources, ie: water and waste water, fire services and landfills, however, we need to continue to improve and expand these relationships. Environmental sustainability is one of my keen areas of interest and these issues know no borders. Supporting enhanced traffic flow initiatives like roundabouts constitutes progressive traffic planning for the city and its neighbouring communities. More effective community design is important as we have seen the negative impacts that for example, residents of Kenmount Terrace have been dealing with as a result of this deficiency. This growing community is in need of safer roads, and walking trails systems not implemented in the original planning stages. Integrated community design for all our population, including our growing senior population is an important planning aspect to consider.
What, if anything, would you want done to establish better communications between citizens and developers before development is proposed?
I like the idea of establishing communications before development is proposed! Let’s face it – change takes getting used to. If developers discussed possibilities for a site with neighbours before making applications to City Hall, we could increase our chances of development that everyone can get behind. I don’t know if, realistically, it would be possible to require this type of engagement, but I could personally get behind encouraging developers to do it.
How would you use the Engage! process and system?
“Engage!” exists to increase citizen involvement in city decision-making. It is good to see this tool developed, but in order for it to be effective, people must actually feel their opinions are being taken into consideration. I will be interested to see if the recent survey shows whether people they are actually making a difference by participating in “Engage!” or whether they think it is another empty exercise.
In your opinion, what are the three best decisions the outgoing Council has made, and why?
1) The reinstatement of the Environmental Advisory Committee which is actually part of our city mandate but was ignored until I brought it forward to council. Climate change and environmental impacts such as wetland preservation are key issues nation-wide and we need to get serious about its importance.
2) The creation of a Heritage Experts Panel who are working diligently to identify and designate our valuable built heritage structures so we can protect and preserve our heritage while we continue to grow a modern city.
3) For more than six years, I advocated for tree development regulations for the City of St. John’s – and with the support and advocacy of the Environmental Advisory Committee, we now have regulations that require every new residential lot to have a tree planted as part of the landscaping requirements. Urban forest development and protection promotes sustainability and is imperative for healthy neighbourhoods, beautification and most importantly, flood mitigation.
In your opinion, what are the three worst decisions the outgoing Council has made, and why?
1) There is a constant resistance to almost anything that helps residents be more physically mobile: improving transit options, support bike trails, optimizing sidewalk snowclearing. We need to concentrate on helping residents be more physically mobile.
2) to repeatedly vote to demolish historically significant built heritage structures and to do little to address this ongoing issue in our city, North America’s oldest city.
3) the increase of transit fees which seemed insignificant to some of our more privileged decision makers. Even the slightest increase in Metrobus fees adversely affects many people for whom the bus is the only commuting option. This is a system that needs vast improvements and downloading it onto our most needy citizens seem unfair to me; this is why I voted against our recent budget based upon this decision.
Quick response questions! In 100 characters or less, what is your position on...
Creating a regional government
Regional transport, emergency services, and environmental cooperation saves money and resource.
Amalgamation with surrounding municipalities
Regional cooperation is my priority.
Making City Council a full-time job
It’s been my choice to do so.
The mail-in ballot system
It’s important to have voting options. Keep mail-in and expand to online so even more will vote.
The new Municipal Plan
Let’s have the new council review it, make it and stick to it!
Grants to community and arts organizations
Culture is our city’s personality. It must be supported, financially and otherwise.
City employee salaries
City employees do important work. Pay their worth while addressing efficiencies.
Creating more bicycle infrastructure
It’s vital to do this. I’d combine it with increased safety education for drivers and bicyclists.
Increasing public transit service
Transit is a must in the modern city. Let’s find workable solutions for our lack of density.
Corporate and union donations to candidates
Those who have access to corporate money have an advantage. Capping donations is important.
How often do you use the following ways to get to work or errands?
Walking: More than half the days in a month
Riding the bus: Once a week
Biking: Once a week
Driving: Almost everyday
Please rank the level of attention you think council should pay to each of these transportation modes in the coming term (1 = most important, 5 = least).
1. Walking
2. Public transit
3. Driving
4. Cycling
5. Other: Taxi service
What could the City government do to make St. John’s a healthier place to live?
We could embrace measures that will make any form of transportation other than driving in personal cars realistic choices. We could discourage development models that force people to travel long distances to work, shop, or eat. Building communities with interwoven trail systems and recreation facilities is essential. We could encourage more community and home gardens, and help people grow healthy local food.
What changes need to happen to have more diversity in age, gender, race, and life experience on Council?
For people to run for Council, they must believe that they can make a difference and that diverse voices are welcome around the Council table. Mentorship is key to encouraging new perspectives. I have worked to encourage women to ‘step up’ as former Equal Voice NL Chair. Persons with disabilities and diverse cultural backgrounds have much to offer and need encouragement to run. Council needs to consult more, and really take into account the opinions people present to us.