I have been hearing a lot about the problems with the regional service commissions. The lead story in the TJ details many of the challenges.
I continue to believe the real issue here is the weakness at the municipal level of government across the province. Something like 35% of all New Brunswickers do not have a mayor and another significant percentage live in communities without the scale to mount a team of professionals to lead local development efforts.
The province has historically viewed municipal governance as a nuisance. A few years ago I was interviewing a city manager from one of the province’s three largest cities and he told me he hadn’t met with either the Minister or Deputy Minister in charge of municipalities in the two years. I was stunned by this statement.
I know a lot of folks disagree with me but I strenuously believe in the importance of municipal government. The province has a provincial focus. The national government has a national focus. The only level of government that is singularly focused on the local communities – in which all development occurs – is municipal government.
In the long term, I think this is one of New Brunswick’s structural challenges. As I have written recently, the economic development priorities of a local community may be completely different than the province and its ‘six sectors’ and now the majority of the provincial population doesn’t have a ‘local’ economic development advocate – there is no organization driving local economic development for the bulk of the province now.
When I talk to mayors I get two responses: 1) Let the province take care of it (a strange position) or 2) I’d love to tackle economic development but I have very little capacity to do it. This second response is fairly wide-spread with the exception of the largest cities – Freddy, Moncton and SJ where there is scale and capacity and where they are now developing a new focus unencumbered from the provincial Enterprise network.
Every New Brunswicker deserves a mayor and every community deserves to have someone working to foster and champion economic development in that community. If towns are too small, they should band together and form a ‘regional’ economic development effort that provides enough scale to get things done. If there isn’t enough money we should find a way.
Finally, I also realize that a growing share of the population isn’t interested in economic development. I hear this from mayors and councillors as well. They just want to be left alone and the idea of paying $50 or $100 more in property taxes each year to support ‘economic development’ would be vigorously resisted.
But someone needs to talk with New Brunswickers. We can’t just sit back and let things unfold as they will. We have to take our destiny in our own hands – and that means Minto as well as Moncton.