David Sollows and Phil DeMille discuss ideas for using surplus school buildings during a meeting with Mayor Pam Mood. On any given day, if the mayor is in town, she’s entertaining people – and their ideas – in her office. BELLE HATFIELD PHOTO
By Belle Hatfield
She strides into oncoming traffic and is across the street, leaving her more-hesitant companion to await the passing car. Behaviours are always open to interpretation, but it seems neither arrogance nor recklessness is propelling Mayor Pam Mood across the road. Decisive is the word that comes to mind.
She’s just left a breakfast meeting at the Rodd Grand Hotel. It’s 9:10 on Tuesday morning, March 19. A third of the year has roared by since she took the oath of office last Nov. 8. Stretching ahead of the mayor is a day peppered with appointments, staff meetings and appearances. She’s already absorbed a 45-minute appeal from the province’s chambers of commerce executive director for municipal taxation reform. She’ll have a reporter tagging along for much of the day, and she knows there will be lots of questions about her first months on the job. Like her walk across the street, she is prepared to confront them head on.
The first months have been something of a trial by fire. A self-acknowledged neophyte to politics, she rode a well-organized campaign to victory and three other newcomers joined her around the council table. The euphoria of victory soon evaporated as reality set in.
“Probably for the first month I would just have that sense of dread, that I couldn’t just make everything work for everybody,” she says.
The first council and committee meetings were fraught with tension. To observers it appeared to be a council split in two factions – old and new.
And then there has been the social media chatter.
“I don’t know how it happened, but … that stuff just doesn’t affect me anymore. I know that if I just do my best job … what’s best for the town, then –” her words peter out. For a moment her eyes look beyond the walls of her office, to some inner space, before they swing back to lock on her questioner’s.
“They say the honeymoon’s over? Well, the honeymoon is over,” she proclaims.
She is expected to preside over Yarmouth’s return to prosperity. That it will be a long journey is highlighted during a tour south on Main Street through downtown Yarmouth, past derelict and vacant commercial buildings. She’s driving a well-broken-in Volkswagen, a clear signal that, in her choice of vehicle at least, service trumps style.
She makes the turn in south end at the neighbourhood grocery store and drives up Argyle Street. The buildings, once the heart of Yarmouth, have seen better days and are a cancer that is spreading to Cliff Street and beyond. Some are victims of the town’s infamous mortgage caper. The mortgage meltdown has left a legacy that town staff and council continue to deal with. It has been expensive, both in human terms and financially. The outlay of public dollars and staff time needed to fix the mess is not expected to end any time soon. The ramifications on the town’s tax base are still not known.
Along Green Street she stops at the corner bungalow, still neatly tended, that was her first home. A casual observation as they pass a property on Highland Avenue brings home the reality of the town’s collapsing tax base – properties are just not worth as much as they were five years ago. On Aberdeen Street she is introduced to the disparity in property values that puts an exclamation point on the subject of tax reform. Within eyesight there are properties whose assessed values differ by as much as $100,000. They are paying vastly different amounts of property tax for the same services.
Planning rears its head as she turns onto Clements Street. There, a small bungalow perches awkwardly between the corner lot and a beautifully restored Victorian Queen Anne that used to be the home of another of the town’s mayors. It’s an infill development. She offers it up as an example of why the town needs rules that govern how property is developed. It isn’t just what you do with your own property. It’s also important to consider its impact on the neighbours and the broader community, both now and in the future, she says.
Nowhere has the inexperience of the new council been more apparent than in how it has handled decisions at, and flowing from, the planning advisory committee.
In the first three months, the citizen advisory committee, on which all four new members of council sit, has ignored the advice of the town’s planner on several occasions. In one notable instance they refused to recommend the planner’s proposed amendment to open up commercial development east of Pleasant Street. Then a couple of weeks later when it came up for consideration at council, it was obvious that the council’s planning committee representatives had had a change of heart and were prepared to support the planner and his recommendation, but not before having to suffer criticism from the three members of council who don’t sit on the planning committee.
Back in her office, which overlooks the waterfront, Mayor Mood opens up about the frustrations of dealing reactively with development issues instead of building a vision for the town and then basing decisions always on how it moves the community closer to achieving the vision.
“The Municipal Planning Strategy, the downtown revitalization plan, all the policies that are in place, the question I have learned to ask is, why is it like this? Why is the bylaw there?”
She has come to understand that there are ramifications for the town in every change that is made.
“It’s not about doing something for one person and one business. What we do for one