Even good ideas can go bad
Sometimes, I think I’ve had a brilliant idea — and then, I fall into that huge hole that is the difference between theory and practice.
Years ago, I had an idea that would let drivers communicate with each other – an LED readout in the windshield and the back window of your car that would let you send a message to drivers behind you, but would also send a message, typed in reverse, to drivers in front of you. I thought it could send messages like, “Your right rear tire is low,” or “You’re not leaving enough space between us.” It could, I thought, help lower frustration between drivers, giving an outlet to drivers who might otherwise seethe alone inside their respective metal boxes, by allowing them to reach out with a quick sentence or two.
This, of course, was before Twitter and other social media.
I see now that my plan would have been a practical disaster: the units would no sooner start to appear in cars before someone would be sending missives like “Learn to drive, dipstick,” and, “Ever heard of a turn signal, moron?” (I am only using the mildest of language that would be sure to occur.)
Instead of my intention of depressurizing potential road rage, it would inflame it.
And that brings me to the provincial government’s current plan for regional governance.
On the face of it, the concept seems like a good one: there would clearly be economies of scale, probably better prices for goods and services, better use of existing resources and staff, and the ability for regional councils to hire cheaper, region-wide in-house expertise instead of higher consulting firms.
That’s not the problem.
The problem isn’t the theory. It’s the practice.
We live in a democracy, and the provincial government, in its current plan for regional government, is trying to thread the voting needle. It’s put out a plan for discussion, but at this point, it’s not really looking at true regionalization, but at a hybrid.
A regional government would oversee some facets of expenditure and services, but the existing broad system of municipal governments would stay in place.
Adding another level of regional government means a whole new set of costs: staff, oversight, auditing, assets and asset control, office space, and the list goes on. It’s not hard to imagine that the new expenses would easily overreach any expected savings.
And that’s why it’s got to be a little more drastic — towns can probably stay as geographic identifiers, like Kelligrews instead Conception Bay South, and perhaps former towns could become something like electoral wards in the new regional system.
But you don’t get economies of scale if you’re not going to actually change the scale, and simply adding a new layer to the government cake is not going to generate savings.
This province already has a disproportionally large number of government employees versus those working in the private sector, and growing governments will do nothing to reduce costs in rural areas with shrinking and aging populations.
There are concerns that big towns would end up exerting their larger size and clout over smaller towns; that’s, unfortunately, a given. The larger a population’s weighted representation exerted on a regional council, the better chance it has of enforcing its will. Just ask towns that sit on regional boards heavily weighted with City of St. John’s representatives.
But small towns are buckling under the weight of maintaining services with diminishing taxpayers, and that problem is only going to grow with the continuing demographic shift in the province. Many towns have trouble collecting taxes. It’s hard when councils are facing off with their neighbours, and a regional government might be willing to be more insistent.
The provincial government can’t decide on the best course of action by trying to be all things to all people — that’s great for political parties at election time, but it’s bad governance.
And speaking of bad ideas, the current public consultation theory is great in theory, but unlikely to present a balanced outcome.
My guess would be that the majority of people who will provide input to the provincial government on regional governance will be those with the most to lose: residents of local service districts and unincorporated areas who currently pay lower or no tax, and mayors and councillors from incorporated municipalities who want to keep their roles.
Those who are vocal about the status quo are bound to skew the results.
I’m not writing it across my windshield, but the message is still blunt: regional governance is a good plan as a full, cost-effective replacement to the current system.
Not as an add-on.