Saint John

Feb 11

To whom is the City of Saint John responsible?

Note: My comments in this blog regarding PlanSJ are mine alone as a citizen and Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC) member, and are not intended to represent the views of the CAC as a whole.

What’s wrong with this picture?

This is a page from a petition to the City of Saint John Common Council from the Friends of Rockwood Park, submitted last fall. Look at the addresses. On this page almost all the names are those of people who live outside the City.

Think that’s just one page? I looked through a number of other pages from this petition. See below. The yellow tags below flag  non-residents. (I give some credit to those signatories who actually disclosed that they lived in Rothesay, Quispamsis, Grand Bay or elsewhere; shame on those who didn’t.)

These few pages are just a sample, but in fact the petition is filled with signatures of people who don’t actually live in Saint John, but obviously think they should have a voice in the conduct of the City’s affairs. (I can only hope that Councillors didn’t take this particular petition at face value.)

Don’t get me wrong. My article today isn’t about Rockwood Park. I’m simply using the Rockwood Park petition as an example of another problem, and that problem is the sense of entitlement that many outside Saint John seem to have regarding their right to participate in City policy-making. (The Rockwood Park petition neatly demonstrates that attitude, as do many online comments under a typical Telegraph Journal City Section article.) Many residents of Greater Saint John also think the City has an obligation to provide them with services, even if they don’t pay municipal taxes in Saint John itself.

So who is the City actually obligated to serve, and who are its Councillors responsible to?  This is a key question underpinning the very definition of PlanSJ‘s mission, and it’s one that’s already being challenged as PlanSJ begins to c0mmunicate a vision for Saint John that some outside city limits seem to find either inconvenient or threatening.

This isn’t a trivial issue. A municipal plan that optimizes the outcome for the region as a whole would look very, very different from one that optimizes the outcome for Saint John and its citizens. Unfortunately, prioritizing the interests of non-residents means — at least to some degree — compromising the interests of Saint Johners themselves. So it’s absolutely essential that PlanSJ be clear in its mission, both in its execution of the municipal planning work, and in its dealings with various stakeholders inside and outside the City.

I’ve personally run into this issue when the topics of PlanSJ or City politics have come up during conversations with  people who live in outlying communities. More often than not, non-residents I’ve spoken with expect to have a voice in City affairs. They also expect the City of Saint John to look after their interests. That expectation is clearly reflected in the opinions of non-residents about what PlanSJ should and should not be doing, and what Saint John should be putting its money into.

It’s hard not to get a little angry over this. The fact is, residents of Greater Saint John want to eat their cake and have it too. They don’t want the burden of Saint John’s finances, but they certainly expect the benefits of its services and infrastructure.

And it isn’t just individuals. We’ve seen a prioritization of regional interests over City interests in discussions with the Saint John Board of Trade, and that issue also lies at the heart of PlanSJ’s resistance to the demands of the Saint John Airport (which is a regional facility and should be supported regionally). It’s even a key element of Enterprise Saint John’s current dispute with Saint John Common Council.

Regionalism isn’t a bad word. Regionalism and cooperation is the ideal, as long as every party involved gets benefits that outweigh their costs and risks. But regionalism that’s based on investments and compromises made by Saint John alone is unacceptable.

PlanSJ’s mandate is clear. We’re here to help make Saint John sustainable, and to serve the needs of citizens of Saint John. While I wish the residents of Grand Bay, Rothesay, Quispamsis and other outlying suburbs well, the sustainability of their communities and the interests of their citizens are not the responsibility of the City of Saint John or the PlanSJ team. We’re here for the citizens of Saint John, and that’s it.

So my message to all those good people of Greater Saint John who want a voice in City policy … If you aren’t allowed to vote here, then you’re out of the game. That’s one of the many costs of choosing to live outside the City.

Residents of Grand Bay, the Kingston peninsula, Quispamis, Rothesay, Westfield, Hampton, Sussex, St Andrews, Black Harbour, Musquash, Norton, Baxters Corner, St Martins, et al … please think about that the next time you’re signing a petition, pontificating in the TJ, or going mad dog at a dinner party. If you really want a voice in municipal affairs, camp out on the doorsteps of the people to whom you actually do pay taxes.

Jan 11

CBC TV turns its back on Saint John

The CBC has decided that Saint John no longer deserves terrestrial (over-the-air, or ‘rabbit ears’) TV coverage. In its application to the CRTC for digital television, the CBC is proposing that it abandon Saint John altogether. (Link to Wire Report article here.)  This means that starting in the summer of 2011, Saint Johners will no longer be able to watch CBC TV unless they subcribe to a cable or satellite provider.

What’s unexplained in the application is why Fredericton will continue to get terrestrial CBC TV coverage, even though its population is only half that of Saint John. Given the income demographics in Saint John, I would expect that the need for terrestrial TV is far greater in Saint John than in Fredericton, regardless of population. (More homes in Saint John are challenged to afford the $50+ per month of a TV subscription.)

I find it offensive that the CBC has decided to ignore one of the most densely populated areas in the province and has chosen to rob many Saint Johners of a service that we all pay for through our tax dollars.

The CRTC is looking for input from stakeholders and the public. The deadline is February 17th. (Link here.) If you care about this issue — either because you watch CBC, you use it to reach others, or you simply care about those in our community that can’t afford subscription TV — make yourself heard.  Make a submission to the CRTC on this issue. You should let the CBC know what you think too: contact page.

UPDATE: It looks like the proposed digital footprint will also cover Oromocto, which combined with Fredericton roughly matches the population of Greater Saint John. That takes some of the sting out, but it still doesn’t explain why the Fredericton area gets to keep its terrestrial while Saint John loses out.

Nov 10

To blog or not to blog

Note: My comments in this blog regarding PlanSJ are mine alone as a citizen and Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC) member, and are not intended to represent the views of the CAC as a whole.

There’s been a good discussion going on regarding CAC members blogging on PlanSJ issues. In general, I think the CAC is in consensus that individual committee members should feel free to engage with and communicate with the public, whether through social media, blogging or other channels.

However, there have been concerns expressed by some CAC members:

  • Dissenting opinions from different CAC members might confuse the public about what PlanSJ is trying to do.
  • CAC members speaking on their own about PlanSJ must make it clear that an opinion is theirs alone, and not the position of the CAC as a whole.
  • Confidentiality may be an issue. Some of the inputs the CAC receives may be considered private communications. There must be an assumption of confidentiality unless that confidentiality is waived by the originator or the communication is already in the public domain.

A specific point of discussion has been my response to the Board of Trade earlier this week, which is why I raised the issue of public communication and blogging at the latest CAC meeting. There were several criticisms by another CAC member (see Facebook) of my Board of Trade response:

  • That my blog entry was more an attack than a rebuttal.
  • That it isn’t appropriate to single out a specific stakeholder for criticism when other stakeholders have also expressed similar views, even if that stakeholder was the only one to put its feedback in the public domain.
  • That the CAC’s approach and language should always be constructive, and never confrontational.

Those criticisms are worth consideration and there was a useful debate during the CAC meeting.

My position on this is as follows.

At the time I posted the blog entry, I hadn’t seen the other inputs mentioned in the Facebook discussion linked above. (And I’m still not certain I’ve seen everything the other CAC member is referring to.) Regardless, the change in my response would have been minor, and my post still stands.

However, it’s important that I clarify why my response this week was directed to the Board of Trade specifically:

  1. Other stakeholders voiced concerns similar to some of the concerns that the Board of Trade identified, but those stakeholders were more balanced and had taken more considered positions. Some of their comments might not have been convenient or actionable, but I believe the comments were made in an honest effort either to support the PlanSJ process or at least work within it. I applaud their effort, regardless of whether I agree with specific positions. (Since those inputs are not yet in the public domain I can’t be more explicit.)
  2. The Board of Trade’s letter didn’t simply state positions I didn’t agree with, it stated some positions that appeared to have no basis (putting it mildly). And in that way, so far as I know, the Board was the outlier. Read carefully, their letter challenged the very idea of Saint John taking a planning approach focused on its own needs. At best, the Board did not take the time to research their position adequately or to consider the framework in which PlanSJ must function.
  3. Whether they were required to do so or not, the Board did make their challenge in the public domain. That not only gave me license to respond publicly (as there was no presumption of confidentiality), it compelled me to do so. Enormous effort and cost has gone into PlanSJ, and the future of this city relies on the creation of a municipal plan that will serve Saint John’s citizens first and foremost. It would be irresponsible to allow the PlanSJ process or its very basis to be criticized unfairly without providing an equally strong counterargument. As much as I dislike conflict and controversy, this is simply too important.
  4. To have made a general counterargument without critiquing the Board of Trade’s specific position would have implied falsely that these outlier concerns are more broadly represented than they really are. Context is important, and that context would have been lost without a direct, specific rebuttal.

The real question here isn’t what to do in response to criticism or negative opinion in the public domain. Bring it on, as long as those criticisms and opinions have a basis and are useful.

The question is how to respond when a stakeholder either rejects PlanSJ’s underlying goals or ignores the City’s very real constraints – or simply can’t provide considered input – yet wants a real voice in the PlanSJ process.

My hope is that the Board of Trade will accept the realities that this city faces and provide more considered feedback that can be translated into action within the plan. I also hope the Board begins to work more collaboratively and consistently within the PlanSJ process. If the Board can do that, I’ll be as fervent a supporter in future as I have been a critic these past several weeks.