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Saint John council motion shows confusion over when joint working group report can be released

Saint John council is seen in this undated file photograph.
Saint John council is seen in this undated file photograph. Andrew Cromwell/Global News

A report with suggestions concerning the financial future of Saint John is finished, but there is some confusion on how and when it can be released.

The long overdue report from the joint provincial/municipal working group on municipal sustainability has been received by Saint John council, but a pair of motions arising from Committee of the Whole Monday afternoon suggest there is some confusion over when the report can be made public.

The first, which passed 7-3, asked that cabinet confidentiality be removed from the document. But according to New Brunswick Minister of Environment and Local Government Jeff Carr, the document is not confidential and expected that it would be released on Tuesday morning due to an agreement between premier Blaine Higgs and Saint John Mayor Don Darling.

“The premier and Mayor Darling had an agreement that if they were to accept the report they would release it jointly together and that could happen as early as tomorrow now that they have not rejected it. What surprises us here tonight is that they seem to think that the document is confidential, it does not have any cabinet confidentiality pieces to it. As soon as it was handed over outside of cabinet to council, it’s no longer under our veil,” said Carr, who attended council with a handful of other ministers.

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“We would have been open at any time between three weeks ago and today to answer that question for them, that would have been very simple. They then could have tonight debated it publicly and we could have been underway with what we feel is a very comprehensive and important agreement between the province of New Brunswick, the city of Saint John and the greater area.”

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After the meeting Darling said that the council simply wants to make sure it’s following the proper process and was acting on the advice of city solicitor John Nugent.

“I think what we’re trying to do I’s cross t’s and dot T’s so that we can come to this chamber and have a full discussion. I think you saw a couple of motions tonight just to make sure that we’re all on the same page in terms of releasing that information,” Darling said.

But as the city is trying to make sure that the report can be released, they made it clear that they would like to introduce the report at an open session of council to allow it to be publicly debated.

“What we’re simply asking for is we want to have a public deliberation. The public deserves to see what’s included, what’s not included in a working group report,” Darling said during the meeting.

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“Can we release this information in a forum like this council where we can walk folks through the context, what’s included, what’s not included, and then we would have deliberations and we would vote.”

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According to Carr, the report is ready to go but he says the city needs to be onboard.

“We could release this in 10 minutes if they so wanted to,” he said.

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“It’s entirely up to them. We’re ready to go at any time, we could press the button now or I think it would be fair to respect the mayor and council to have a discussion with them and decide when they want to release that.”

Carr confirmed that there are elements of municipal reform included in the report and that it contains provisions that will affect the whole province, but that it does call on Saint John specifically to make changes to improve it’s financial situation.

“There’s a number of pieces to it, that includes tax reform, it includes review of the Regional Service Commissions,” he said.

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“(There are) some items that the city itself has to take on, … where they have to improve to get the city back on track. It cannot just be about the province handing out money year after year after year without any results back or without any hard lifting by other parties.”

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A second motion called for the release of city and provincial documents related to the process, something Darling said was about providing transparency surrounding the discussions of the temporary assistance agreement reached with the previous government that provides up to $22 million a year to help cover Saint John’s structural deficit.

“This motion, for me, represents a whole other discussion that’s been about the quote unquote Saint John bailout, the calls for investigations, people now being … asked to come before a committee of the legislature and I think that all information that the city of Saint John has should be absolutely shared,” he said.

“And that same request be made to our government of New Brunswick partners. We can’t make anybody share information but this body can decide that it’s going to share the information that it has before it.”

The motion passed 9-1, and city manager John Collin says it is binding for Saint John, it is only a request for the province to do the same.

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When asked about the motion, Carr said cabinet would have to take a close look at the language but says the province has nothing to hide from their perspective.

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