Feb 11

Fool me once …

The current spat going on between Rothesay and Saint John over water serves as a clear example of how cooperation and partnership can go wrong between neighbouring municipalities. The incident provides a lesson in how every municipality needs to ensure protections are in place to defend its own interests and citizens from the competing interests of neighbouring communities.

What happened?

In the early 1990s, Rothesay asked Saint John to extend its municipal water service out to Rothesay’s Kennebecasis Park and Hastings Cove, neighbourhoods near the boundary between Rothesay and Saint John. The significant infrastructure costs were to be born by Saint John ratepayers, but the service fees paid from Rothesay would — over an extended period — defray the cost of that infrastructure.

However, ongoing customer complaints regarding perceived water quality and pressure problems eventually led Rothesay to decide to provide K-Park and Hastings Cove with municipal water from its own water system. On February 8th, Rothesay switched the two neighbourhoods over to its own water supply, effectively dead-ending the large pipe that had been coming in from Saint John Water.

This created two serious problems for Saint John:

  • The small number of Saint John residents also served by that large pipe were suddenly at risk. Due to stagnation of water in the now dead-end line, the effectiveness of chlorination was reduced, which meant that water quality could no longer be guaranteed. See the notice sent to residents. (This issue was made worse by the failure of Rothesay to notify Saint John Water in advance that the change was taking place.)
  • The bulk of the infrastructure cost of the dead-end line has not yet been paid off through fees from Rothesay, as that amortization was to occur over many decades.
Is Saint John’s water bad?

Saint John drinking water is not great. But it’s no worse than the drinking water in many communities across the country, and it continues to meet the current safe drinking water standards.

Periodic boil-water orders have occurred not because contaminants have been detected or health problems reported, but because of the City’s defence-in-depth strategy of water protection (referred to in the industry as a ‘multi-barrier approach’). New measures, standards and technologies have been put in place to monitor water quality more aggressively in order to address potential risks before they become health risks. (For example, trends in source water temperature or turbidity — cloudiness — have triggered some past boil water orders, even though no increase in bacterial count was detected.)

In other words, the increasing number of boil water orders have occurred because Saint John Water is being more careful, not because the water is getting worse. The fact is, the quality of Saint John’s water has not changed significantly during the period in question. Public awareness, however, has increased — in part because of the greater vigilance of Saint John Water regarding potential threats and thus the greater number of advisories and boil water orders.

Saint John Water’s caution regarding water quality should be a comfort to Saint Johners. (See Public Health Inspector Phillip Webb’s op-ed from December 2009.) However, negative perceptions created by a lack of understanding among the public about drinking water management (and to a great extent by tabloid media coverage of the issue) have created a lot of community anxiety about water quality. This anxiety was felt by Rothesay residents on Saint John water as much as by Saint Johners themselves.

However, when it comes to contractual obligations in the agreement between Rothesay and Saint John, the issue of water quality — whether the risks are real or perceived — is moot. Saint John was obligated to provide Rothesay with the same water Saint John was providing to its own citizens. There were no thresholds, action levels or standards specified in that contract and violated by Saint John, and thus, Rothesay cannot use water quality as an excuse for walking away from its own obligations.

Did Rothesay do the right thing?

Rothesay’s city council must serve the interests of its own citizens, and it was right to invest its own tax dollars in its own infrastructure in order to put K-Park and Hastings Cove on Rothesay water.

However, that isn’t the end of the story. Rothesay needs to accept that the cost of switching water source includes not only the cost of its own pipe, but the cost of the infrastructure that it had asked Saint John to install back in the days when Rothesay didn’t want to spend its own money.

The cost of that infrastructure was to be defrayed over many decades through service charges, but to date very little of that cost has actually been paid off. The pipe originally sized to serve K-Park and Hastings Cove is now unusable in the long term, and Saint John will likely need to lay entirely new, appropriately sized lines to serve its residents on Rothesay Road. The cost of the original pipes should be born by Rothesay taxpayers, and not Saint John Water ratepayers. It isn’t right for Rothesay to think it can simply walk away from that expense.

And Rothesay wasn’t right to simply turn a valve and catastrophically degrade the water quality of Saint John residents without first coordinating with Saint John Water. The notification to Saint John Water came after K-Park and Hastings Cove had been isolated from the Saint John water line, leading to a scramble as Saint John assessed the impact and notified residents.

It’s hard to see Rothesay’s failure to consider the health of neighbouring residents as anything more than a screw you to Saint John and those living on Rothesay Road.

The merit of lawsuits

Many have suggested that Saint John abandon its lawsuit and (1) try to work with Rothesay to resolve the situation, and/or (2) simply lay new pipe to give its citizens on Rothesay Road potable water.

There’s definitely a ‘feel good’ sense to those suggestions, but unfortunately there’s no reason to think further attempts at collaboration with Rothesay would work (especially since such attempts have already failed miserably).

Rothesay doesn’t want to pay, plain and simple. If the alternative to a lawsuit is Saint John Water ratepayers being left with a whopping bill for the joy of having supplied Rothesay neighbourhoods with water for the last 14 years, then suing doesn’t sound like a bad idea.

There’s also no need for residents to have to wait for a legal resolution. Steps should be taken as soon as possible to restore potable water to those homes.

What needs to happen next

Lawsuit. Rothesay should do the right thing and pay Saint John Water back for whatever costs remain unpaid for the now dead-end water line. If Rothesay isn’t willing to do that, Saint John should pursue its lawsuit aggressively and make all relevant records available to the public so its citizens can gain a full understanding of this situation.

Water for Rothesay Road. If the idea of having Rothesay supply water to Saint John residents on Rothesay Road is practical, that option should be explored quickly, regardless of the lawsuit.

If that option isn’t immediately viable — in terms of engineering or politics — Saint John should prioritize new, appropriately sized lines to get potable water to those residents along Rothesay Road who now rely on municipal water service. Asking citizens to wait potentially years for a legal resolution with Rothesay is unacceptable and unnecessary. (In the meantime, see Saint John’s contingency plan in response to this incident.)

Lessons for Common Council

Trust is essential to any partnership, but blind trust leads to the types of problems we’ve seen here.

Saint John Common Council screwed up back in the 90s when they agreed to provide water service to Rothesay neighbourhoods. The cost of that screwup is inconvenience and depreciation of property values for citizens along Rothesay Road, the need to lay new lines to serve those citizens, and the costs and public relations nightmares of a lawsuit against Rothesay.

Common Council screwed up not by providing bad water (as many have suggested) but by trusting a neighbouring community to honour its contractual commitments (something Rothesay has proven unwilling to do). Common Council screwed up by acting in good faith and expecting the other party to do the same.

The fact is, municipalities act in the best interests of their own citizens, and not those of other communities. They will always do this. That’s good governance. And so, Rothesay town council was always going to put the interests of Rothesay citizens and taxpayers over those of other municipalities (if they even considered the welfare of other municipalities at all). To expect anything else was unrealistic.

Saint John Common Council of today needs to consider this fact when opportunities for partnership arise, and whenever regional interests are trumpetted over politicians’ obligations to their own electorates. Common Council must be diligent and think defensively when entering into any partnership.

And whenever neighbouring municipalities or regionalized organizations (such as the Board of Trade or Enterprise Saint John) start calling for regional cooperation and preaching the mantra that what’s good for Greater Saint John will also be good for Saint John itself, councillors need to remember that this isn’t always true. They must remember that their obligations are to their own citizens, and not those of Rothesay or other outlying communities.

Councillors also need to learn the lessons of this particular incident: Don’t expect our regional partners to be altruistic or even honourable, because history has proven that to be a naive and foolish assumption. Look for opportunities to work together to achieve mutual goals, but do so with your eyes wide open.

And for God’s sake, the next time Rothesay calls begging for a favour, please … just hang up the phone.


Feb 11

Read along with Enterprise Saint John

Anyone who’s read the news or the local tabloid in the last couple of months knows that the City of Saint John and Enterprise Saint John are squabbling. This isn’t new, despite assertions by some that this has come out of the blue and that no time has been given for ESJ to address Saint John’s concerns.

Frankly, I’m at a loss as to why ESJ has been caught by surprise.

The concerns raised recently are similar to those raised by the City in 2008, and as joe blow citizen I’ve been hearing rumblings of a coming storm with ESJ since the summer of 2010. Which tells me ESJ’s management needs to get out more.

In response to the blowup — and really in response to the City of Saint John dropping the hammer on ESJ by approving only half its funding for this year — the City and ESJ are forming a taskforce to examine economic development models. The taskforce is bringing together City and ESJ representatives to take a close look at how economic development is fostered now, how ESJ has been performing, whether City goals and interests are being served, and what alternatives might be viable.

At least, I hope that’s what they’re looking at. (Relevant Council minutes approving the taskforce aren’t yet available.) I trust that the taskforce’s terms of reference directly address the concerns that have been raised by the City: not only whether regional economic development is being fostered effectively, but whether the City’s own interests as a municipality are being furthered (or even considered).

What’s really on the table is ESJ’s future, since the City is considering abandoning the Enterprise model in favour of an in-house solution (which sounds less practical but would at least be fully under the direction of Saint John itself) or potentially in favour of a different provincially hosted/supported model (such as Invest NB).

It’s very important to everyone — City and ESJ both — that this be resolved quickly. Jobs are at stake at ESJ and nobody wants to live with a knife hanging over their heads. And the City is now at a crucial moment itself, with a municipal plan in the works and only about a year of effective Council governance left before everyone descends into the madness of the 2012 municipal election. I believe the target date for reaching some kind of consensus or determination on ESJ is the end of April. (Which doesn’t give the taskforce much time, given the depth of examination needed.)

I’m looking forward to seeing something substantive and definitive when they’re done. In the meantime, for those who are interested, here’s some light reading on ESJ’s past and current governance and structure (many thanks to ESJ for providing these on request):

ESJ has also recently added some useful detail to its About Us page.

I read these documents with an eye to how the interests of individual members (such as the City) are protected, but unfortunately the detail isn’t there. However, the 2002 supplement does outline the current makeup of the Board. Out of 16 seats, Saint John gets four, and another seat shared with the Saint John Board of Trade (BOT); ACOA gets three, and one shared with BOT; Business NB gets three, and one shared with BOT; and Rothesay, Quispamsis and Grand Bay Westfield each get one.

At first glance that looks like a reasonable mix. However, Saint John’s four or five seats are a minority when it comes to regional interests, since BOT, BNB and ACOA are regionally focused, and the three outlying municipalities are at best also regionally focused. This means that Board decisions are likely to compromise Saint John municipal interests for regional ones. (Which is what many have been complaining has been going on.)

In response to City criticisms on this point, some ESJ supporters have denounced the suggestion that regionalism is ‘bad’. But framing the argument in that way is overly simplistic. In my opinion regional interests are worthy and should be pursued. It’s also important that every individual participant get benefits that outweight the costs and risks they incur. Including Saint John. Unfortunately in many cases we’ve seen that regional interests can compete with Saint John’s interests as a municipality and the desires of Saint John citizens.

What’s good for the region is often bad for Saint John itself, especially when it comes to the specific ways that economic development is fostered and executed. In that context ESJ’s governance structure, and how ESJ protects the interests of individual members, is critically important.

Another key element in ESJ governance is the Mayor’s Caucus, about which I’ve found little information. The Caucus supposedly sets or approves strategic directives for ESJ. Each of the five municipal members of ESJ gets a seat: Saint John, Grand Bay Westfield, Rothesay, Quispamsis, and St. Martins. Depending on how this Caucus functions and exactly how it’s tied into overall governance, that simple structure could also be a problem. Again, Saint John municipal interests might be trumped by the equal votes of the other smaller towns, presumeably voting to protect regional interests over Saint John’s interests.

I’d like to know more about how the Mayor’s Caucus functions and how the Caucus and Board interact to set policy and strategy for the organization. I’m also hoping that minutes of the ESJ Board meetings are publicly available as well to perhaps demonstrate how this structure functions in real life. (If I come across more documents, I’ll post them here as an update.)

Finally, I’m trusting that the taskforce will examine not only performance and accountability, but also the governance structure and in fact the very mission of Enterprise Saint John in the context of competing regional and municipal interests.

Feb 11

To whom is the City of Saint John responsible?

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 communicate 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.