New Brunswick

Out with the old, in with the new for Saint John council

A new mayor and several new councillors are on their way to Saint John City Hall after the municipal election Monday night, signaling a desire for change in the port city.

New mayor and mostly new councillors elected Monday

Mel Norton greets a supporter at his election headquarters Monday night. (Connell Smith/CBC)

A new mayor and several new councillors are on their way to Saint John City Hall after the municipal election Monday night.

Mel Norton ousted incumbent Ivan Court to claim the mayor’s seat, signaling a desire for change in the province's largest city.

Court, who hadn’t lost an election in 14 years, conceded defeat to relative newcomer Norton less than an hour after the polls had closed.

By that time, Norton, 38, had already taken a clear lead with 4,910 votes to Court's 924.

Court, who walked to Norton's headquarters, told CBC News he accepts the decision of citizens and wishes the new council all the best.

But he suggested negative media coverage about him and the amount of money spent on Norton's election campaign were behind his loss.

"A group of people decided they wanted somebody else. A lot of big people are behind this," said Court. "They got their campaign. They bought a position."

Court refused to name the people he believes are involved.

The unofficial polling results show Norton earned 17,309 votes, while Court garnered 3,494.

The other mayoral contenders, construction firm owner Matthew D. Thompson and retiree Joseph Alan Callahan, earned 1,278 and 827 respectively.

Mostly new faces

Saint John voters also dumped three incumbent councillors in what was arguably one of the province's most interesting races.

Of the five incumbents who sought re-election, only Ward 1 Coun. Bill Farren (2,768) and Ward 3 Coun. Donnie Snook (2,303) were successful.

They will be joined by councillor-at-large Shelley Rinehart (15,153), who will likely be the new deputy mayor, and former mayor Shirley McAlary (9,861), another councillor at large after sitting out the past two terms.

Also representing Ward 1 will be the incoming mayor's brother, Greg Norton, a middle school principal, who earned 2,908 votes.

Ward 2 will be represented by Susan Fullerton (3,163) and John MacKenzie (1,891), while Donna Reardon (1,941) will join Snook in Ward 3, and David Merrithew (3,588) and Ray Strowbridge (2,068) will serve in Ward 4.

Saint John had the highest number of people running for council at 32. It also had the longest list of fresh faces putting their names forward at 26.

Defeated incumbents included Gary Sullivan, Patty Higgins and Peter McGuire.

About 46 per cent of eligible voters went to the polls, casting 23,142 ballots.

'Opportunity to turn the page'

Norton is moving up to the mayor's chair from a councillor position after just a year and a half on council.

Norton, a partner at the law firm Lawson Creamer, won the Ward 3 byelection in December 2010 with 516 votes, beating his closest competitor in the six-way race by 124 ballots.

He credited his success Monday to his "incredible" campaign team, made up of hundreds of people of "all political stripes," from all walks of life.

He said they focused on running a positive campaign and hopes that resonated with people.

"People want that kind of positive message. They want to work together. They want a different way of doing things," he said.

Norton said the city has gone through some tough times and faces some tough challenges, including the estimated $193-million pension deficit.

"The really good news is we've got an opportunity to turn the page," he said.

Norton said he plans to work with the labour groups and provincial government to solve the pension issue.

He has said he plans to continue to practice law, but his civic duties will be his top priority.

Norton campaigned on the need for change, with the mayor and council, unions, and city staff all working together, along with citizens, neighbouring communities, and the provincial and federal governments.

He also pledged to fix the pension deficit, improve water quality, roads, and public transit without introducing any new taxes.

Rinehart could be deputy mayor

Shelley Rinehart will likely be the city's new deputy mayor. (CBC)

Meanwhile, the city's new deputy mayor could be another newcomer to politics — Rinehart, whose campaign urged people to vote for a fresh start.

"I think that they know that Saint John is at a turning point and that there's lots of opportunity out there. And I think they voted for change to try and get that opportunity," she said.

Norton described Rinehart, a former business professor at the University of New Brunswick, and current provincial government employee, as a "wonderful person.

"I couldn’t be more excited to have a person like Shelley right beside me and a part of that team," said Norton, who had hugged Rinehart.

"No one is more capable or more talented for something like that than Shelley."

Tough term

Ivan Court was first elected in 1998. (CBC)

Court, a 62-year-old retired teacher, won three straight victories in councillor races since 1998 and a fourth, hotly contested mayoral race in 2008.

But he has been subjected to widespread criticism this term over the city’s handling of the troubled pension fund and the pension board’s recent failed defamation lawsuit against former city councillor John Ferguson.

Court, chair of the pension board, has maintained the board has done a good job and was unapologetic for the board's five-year legal fight against Ferguson, which cost the board about $2 million in legal fees.

He was also accused by outgoing deputy mayor Stephen Chase of allowing a "culture of intimidation" to fester at city hall.

Chase, who didn’t re-offer, also claimed Court allowed too many city business items to be handled behind closed doors, and that Court had made those decisions based on an "employee-centric viewpoint."

Court voted against the city’s 2012 budget, which cuts thousands of dollars across most city departments.

His election platform included fiscal responsibility, ensuring clean drinking water that is publicly owned and operated, improved roads and sidewalks, protecting public safety, and continued economic development.