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.

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.

Nov 10

American Iron and the Lower West Side

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.

I attended the presentation and open house that American Iron and Metals (AIM) hosted in the Lower West Side on Tuesday evening. AIM is proposing an enhancement of its metal recycling facility on the Port of Saint John lands on the west side of the Harbour, and is entering the permitting phase of development.


I have to commend the AIM representative for the quality of his presentation, particularly given the challenging environment of the Carleton Community Centre. The presentation addressed all the questions I had in mind when I arrived, and the representative and his associates seemed equipped to answer most of the questions asked of him by the audience.

I also have to commend the citizens who came out. It was a viciously windy, rainy night but the turnout was good. And the audience was respectful. There were mixed perspectives in the room but for the most part things remained civil and constructive. (Mostly.) The physical space and noise level was frustrating for many, yet people stuck it out to the end.

With respect to the proposed expansion, I’m not sure what to think. The facility is basically a metal shredder used to reduce cars, fridges and other large items into small pieces of metal that can then be shipped off to be re-used in new products. At first blush that doesn’t sound like a good thing to have right beside a residential neighbourhood. Personally, I like industrial spaces and I’m realistic about noise in an industrial city. (In fact, I love the sounds of the trains being shuttled down the street from my house.) But I’ve heard a car shredder before and there’s no way I’d want to be living anywhere near one. I’m very sympathetic to the residents of Lower West who are concerned about this proposal. Especially those close to Market Place, only a couple of hundred metres from the site.

On the other hand, the Port has been an industrial space for a very long time … longer in fact than that part of Lower West has been residential. And there’s already a metal shredder in operation at that site, first commissioned in 2002.

Furthermore, if you trust in AIM’s engineering assessments, the design of the upgraded facility will produce the same noise level as the current facility — while providing 23 additional jobs. I have trouble imagining how that can be, but then, I don’t know how loud the current operation is.

It’s also important that we don’t say no to business outright in this city. While we need to be a lot more careful about the types of business we promote, Saint John must remain ‘open for business’. Not blindly open, but open.

The audience the other night was mixed. A couple of people spoke out strongly for and against the proposal. Some simply had questions about environmental protection, jobs, hours of operation, and AIM’s somewhat questionable assertion that having a metal shredder in one’s neighbourhood would actually increase property values.

The AIM representative addressed the proximity to residential, noting that only one other of its facilities has similar residential proximity. That proximity does seem like an obvious problem, particularly given the topography — with much of Lower West looking down into the Port property, not just sitting alongside it.

But the fact is, Lower West is already colocated with an industrial park. And here’s where PlanSJ comes in. The PlanSJ process has led to a vision of enhanced residential development in the Lower West Side. PlanSJ calls it a residential ‘urban opportunity area’ (see the red blob in the slightly out of date PlanSJ map below).

Option 1

Becoming an opportunity area would mean that the neighbourhood would benefit from incentives and zoning criteria to promote appropriate infill with quality housing, greater investment in infrastructure, strategic promotion of local retail/commercial to create a ‘ complete community’, and so forth. In effect, the City would spend a lot of time and money to try to restore Lower West as a complete and vibrant neighbourhood.

That effort may be fruitless if at the same time the Port is transforming itself into an industrial park for heavy industry.

The challenge here is larger than whether to accept this specific proposal; at some point very soon the City and the Port are going to have to strike a balance between the desire of the Port to find new sources of revenue, and Saint Johners’ vision for the Lower West Side.

This city was founded on its port, and any reasonable vision of this city’s future will continue to include a working port. But is the Port’s vision for its future consistent with Saint Johners’ vision for their city? A Port that has transformed itself into a heavy industrial park that just happens to be beside the water is going to cripple this city’s ability to achieve any kind of urban transformation.

The issue isn’t just in the Lower West Side. We can expect to see more of this type of usage conflict throughout the Port lands, east and west.

The Port is under federal jurisdiction, so the City’s options as a municipality to influence these types of developments are limited. It’s important that the City and Port work together to achieve a compromise both can accept, but the motivation to drive that compromise will probably have to come from citizens themselves. Regardless of what happens with this AIM proposal, I think we’re seeing just the beginning of a much larger challenge for this region. Saint Johners will need to be vocal with both their City and their federal representatives to protect a balance of interest between Saint John as a working port and Saint John as a place where someone would want to live.