Smart Growth or Dumb Ass Move?
By Doug James
I’ve been saying for years that Saint John’s number one priority must be to attract new jobs and people to the city. In other words, “smart growth”. On the one hand, it is heartening to see the current council finally come to the same conclusion, but on the other hand, its methods leave much to be desired and, indeed, guarantee failure on top of failure.
On Monday night, in the height of smug arrogance, local politicians patted themselves on the back at a city council meeting while once again putting themselves above citizens, by approving their “Roadmap for Smart Growth” before sharing any of the details with the public. This is an outrage, especially given that the document calls for nothing short of an “overarching shift of the entire economic development landscape”. Could there be any other policy that cries out for transparency and public input? But no, the Darling administration clearly does not believe citizens should have a say in the growth of their own community. Instead we are presented with a fait-accompli that is little more than small-scale urban renewal dressed up in a costume of fancy words and promises.
In Ottawa, where, as a reporter for the CBC, I covered city and regional government for five years, a similar document would have first been made public at a committee meeting, giving citizens time to read and provide feedback before the politicians acted. Indeed, I sat through many planning committee meetings where citizens appeared and offered ideas that led to improvements in less- than-perfect ideas put forward by city staff. That was just the beginning of the process. Before the big plan was ever mentioned at a full meeting of city council, neighbourhood groups and others would have been consulted and the plan debated at a committee-of-the whole meeting, attended by every member of council. On the day of the final vote, every politician would provide the public with his or her clearly-articulated reasons for supporting or rejecting the plan. Then, and only then, would there be a vote on whether to accept it.
How does it work in Saint John? The Mayor and his cadre of minions huddle together in a room ($50 fruit plates readily at hand, no doubt) and draw up a strategic plan that will impact the city for decades to come…as if they were God himself/herself writing the 10 commandments. No public input. Not even the basic details are provided to taxpayers before a vote is taken to approve the plan. Indeed, the council forum seemingly no longer a place for democratic discourse, we have to wait another 24 hours before all is revealed at a highly-orchestrated press conference.
And what do Mayor Don Darling and his oh-so-eager-to-please cadre of overpaid, part-timers come up with? Dedicate one lone city staff member to population growth, (there’s a dirty joke in there somewhere), set aside money to encourage immigration (already being well handled by the federal and provincial governments across Atlantic Canada) and build a marketing brand (a fistful of dollars for yet another kitschy slogan). Oh, and sell off parkland to create ghettos for the wealthy, who can hide behind the trees and live in their fantasy world of Big Rock Candy Mountain, the city’s many dirty little secrets of childhood poverty, family violence, teenage pregnancy etc. etc., forgotten as the wine flows freely on a Friday night. And one other initiative that, on the surface, appears laudable but really isn’t…a “lets-get-tough” campaign to get owners of dangerous and vacant buildings to fix them up or demolish them. There have always been slum landlords in Saint John, and there always will be. Why? Because generations of politicians have created a situation where few people can afford to provide quality housing for low-rent tenants while paying exorbitant taxes, hydro, water and sewer rates. The city’s answer? Tell owners to fix up their buildings or tear them down. Not a thought given to how the owners of these buildings are going to fund such an endeavor, the city’s money going instead for slogans and promises. Instead of spruced up neighbourhoods, we are more likely to end up with many more vacant lots, providing the very people the Darling crowd hopes to attract to the city with the stark image of a community in decline, the last place anyone would want to live. Smart growth or dumb-ass idea?