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.

4 comments

  1. Really great article. I have lived in Saint John (the actual city) for a couple of weeks now. I would like to offer one point of consideration though… Outside visitors not only take advantage of the services, but also boost the city economy by spending their money (creating jobs) or working at companies within the city.

    Would the city rather have that people from outlying communities only shop or work in their own communities, or go to another city instead? That would certainly not benefit the overall economy of Saint John, would it?

    The sense of entitlement that is so often displayed is certainly misplaced, but dismissing the viewpoints and wishes of out of towners entirely, would also not be in the best interest of the citizens of Saint John. The city tries hard to be attractive to tourists too, after all.

  2. That’s a very good point, Ton. Thanks for your comment!

    This was actually one of the first topics discussed by the PlanSJ citizen’s advisory committee: What kind of voice should non-residents have in the PlanSJ process, and how should input from people living outside Saint John be interpretted?

    Indisputably, outside visitors have value to the community and its economy. In a sense, outside visitors — whether they’re from Greater Saint John or farther afield — are a ‘market’ that Saint John must serve. We want them to come here, enjoy the City, and hopefully spend some money.

    But we have to recognize that those visitors are, in effect, ‘customers’ and not ‘owners’. We want their input so we can better serve that market, but we have to be sure not to confuse that input with the voice of our own citizens. Our citizens are the people to whom PlanSJ and Common Council are responsible. People living outside Saint John sometimes forget that. I fear that some of our councillors might too, from time to time.

    Your point about the benefits outside visitors bring to Saint John is a valid one and deserves deeper examination. When it comes to tourism and retail visitors, the value is clear. However, a commuting workforce is a very different thing. Saint John’s daytime population swells, requiring much greater municipal investments in virtually every area of service and infrastructure. The taxes paid by businesses do not, unfortunately, offset the costs of those services and infrastructure. But that’s a complex issue and perhaps a better topic for a separate article.

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