Friday, March 16, 2007

Mt. Pearl and St. John's: Not ready for prime time

Watching the debacle that is the St. John's/Mt. Pearl conflict over jurisdiction over the former Sprung lands is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. This is not just a disaster for the Mt. Pearl council, it's an even larger mess for the future of St. John's and the larger metropolitan region.

First let me make one thing clear: the answer to whether Mt. Pearl and St. John's should be amalgamated into one capital city region is: Of course they should be.

Mt. Pearl is simply a larger and more stubborn case of Wedgewood Park - a wholly enclosed bedroom suburb artificially divided from the larger municipality around it. The fact is that the long-terms interests of the region, the residents and the province as a whole lie with much tighter integration of St. John's, Mt. Pearl and eventually the smaller outlying communities like Outer Cove, Portugal Cove et al.

It's going to happen at some point and on this matter Mayor Wells is right on*. But is it going to happen soon? No chance.

But why has this become a debacle for all sides?

The town of Mt. Pearl (and it's a town, not a city notwithstanding the insistence of the Mt. Pearl boosters) is well and truly boxed in with no room to expand. For Mt. Pearl to get bigger means taking some land away from another adjoining community and that means St. John's. In reality, their effort to get the Sprung lands is their only real chance to expand.

The problem is that they can't really come up with a good reason to take it over other than simple institutional survival and that's not good enough. The adjacency point they like to make is not just a weak reason to take the lands, in fact it's a better reason for wholesale amalgamation of the two communities.

Unless they can some up with a much stronger reason than a simple "We want it", the whole exercise is worse than just a wasted effort.

The reason it's not just a wasted effort and will actually hurt their long-term cause is that by trying to make this land grab, they have revived the debate on the merits of their own existence. Note that nobody ever asks if St. John's should exist but more than a few are asking if Mt. Pearl should continue to exist as a freestanding municipality.

That's what makes this move a Hail Mary play for Mayor Steve Kent - the town either wins big or they lose big. Either they win the Sprung lands and the provincial government gives Mt. Pearl a new lease on life or they refuse the request which is as good as deciding that the long-term goal is amalgamation.

All this is a great opportunity for the members of St. John's Council to clearly articulate the reasons for amalgamation (call it marriage of communities or merger of equals or whatever is more acceptable if you prefer). It is the chance to outline a vision of the future for the region and overall be more welcoming to a new governance structure for all the 125-150k residents in the greater metropolitan region.

But alas, no vision is forthcoming. Instead the capital city's elected officials come up with a shrewish "we want the revenue" (Ellsworth), a chauvinistic "defend your city" (Hann) or a legalistic "sets a precedent" (Mayor Wells).

None of these points of view would encourage anybody to join the warm bosom that is the Gower Street bunker. In fact, might even drive a few residents out.

And lo and behold, that's exactly what's happening. Not only is the St. John's Council unable to make a compelling case for not losing bits of itself, now there are bits of St. John's that wants out.

Now Paula Schumph, who lives in the Southlands residential neighbourhood bordering Mount Pearl, has announced that services in Southlands are so bad that a petition has been circulated to turn that area over to Mount Pearl, too.

That has put St. John's into full damage control mode with Mayor Wells saying he did not know things were that bad in Southlands, and that he would meet with the area's residents. You would think that knowing that kind of thing might be part of his job or something.

It turns out that arrogantly ignoring or dismissing complaints from city residents actually have a cost after all - they might just threaten to secede at the first opportunity.

So what could have been a chance to move froward has degenerated into a counter-productive comedy of errors with the script written by a committee of the St. John's Council with some self-righteous assistance from Mayor Kent and company.

And ultimately that's why the region will see no amalgamation of municipal governing structures, however sensible that might be.

It seems like Mayor Wells and others can't help but shoot themselves in the foot at every opportunity. Just look at the way they have fought for a veto on regional waste management even though the city is a clear minority of the population.

As long as the Council of St. John's continues with the bluster, arrogant and inflammatory language coupled with a grandiose sense of regional municipal manifest destiny, the other communities will always rightly resist.

Unifying all the municipalities in the region is just a matter of time and the clock can't start running until we've seen quite a few retirements from the local stage.

*Note this day - Mayor Wells and I are in full agreement on something. What can I say; when he's right he's right.

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