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.

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