By David Gingras

New Brunswick municipalities were recently taken to school. They were compared to one another as well as compared to a “reasonable” standard and assigned a grade based on how they performed in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. While no municipality received an A, many excelled in some areas while others have some work to do. Was the grading system perfect? No.

The Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) Municipal Performance Report was however the first of its kind in the province and will provide some much required baseline data for future studies. With that in mind, now is the time for AIMS, municipalities and taxpayers to examine the grading system and fix any deficiencies for next time.

The study was conducted by an independent think-tank with a bias . . . a bias towards the market. It should come as no surprise as it is in their name. The greatest criticism that can be leveled against the report is that it is perhaps too focused upon the market.

Municipalities are more than about just filling in pot-holes and snow removal. They also contain a representative, democratic, dimension. The AIMS report does little to measure this, but one of the indicators used in determining the effectiveness of governance and finance is the population per councillor. In the future, this indicator could be used to measure a “democratic quotient” for each municipality.

For example, researchers could measure accessibility to councillors and mayors by determining whether or not their home phone number is in the phone book. Also, in a province where some provincial cabinet ministers will reply to an e-mail within a half-hour, AIMS could measure the response rate for e-mails sent to councillors and mayors, or if they even have e-mail.

AIMS could also attempt to discover how long it takes to receive a response to an informal generic request for information. A great democratic measure of any government institution is how quickly it can answer its citizens when asked a question it doesn’t have to answer. It is one thing for a citizen to receive a response with the force of an Access-to-Information Form behind them; quite another to just ask a question and get a response in a timely manner.

Another measure of a possible democratic quotient would be the number of councillors and mayors selected by acclamation or the number of positions where no one runs at all. Generally speaking, the more acclamations and vacancies, the weaker the level of democracy in that municipality. Strong democracies should entice greater involvement in their elections.

When examining the AIMS top 10 and lowest 10 rated municipalities and comparing them to the outcomes of the 2008 municipal election, a strong democracy — as measured by acclamation rate — means absolutely nothing. As far as AIMS measures efficiency and effectiveness, the acclamation rate was not significantly higher for the lowest 10 municipalities compared to the top 10. No one was more annoyed about this than I was.

I am optimistic that future AIMS reports on municipalities will incorporate more direct democracy information. One of the authors, Holly Chisholm, informed me that the 2008 elections will play a role in subsequent reports, by studying voter turnout if the information is available. Hopefully, voter turnout will be more indicative than acclamation rate. The criticism that AIMS did not adequately address the democratic issue may just be a one-time thing.

Ideally, a democratic quotient and the governance and finance measure provided in the report would achieve some level of balance — a happy medium between market and democratic principles. Ideally.

The authors of the report did miss out on another opportunity. The growing infrastructure deficit faced by municipalities is an increasingly important factor in municipal sustainability. A 2005 survey of New Brunswick municipalities estimated an infrastructure deficit of over $2 billion for incorporated municipalities and an additional $130 million for unincorporated areas.

One way for municipalities to respond to the infrastructure deficit is to resort to a more user pay model of financing services instead of financing nearly all through property taxes. The report does gauge “the extent to which the user pay criterion is applied” by determining the amount of fees collected as a proportion of the total monies collected by a municipality. Using the right indicators, along with those already being measured, the next report could be a unique way for municipalities to judge their infrastructure deficit.

Other than the above, this initial report has few issues apart from data not being available for some indicators and municipalities. The unavailability of data is something AIMS will try to remedy.

However, when examining the report, I am reminded of an Albert Einstein quote: “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”

That said, even though it was municipalities that were graded, hopefully AIMS will walk away with some lessons learned as well. In the end, the report can be a valuable tool.

David Gingras, of Metro Moncton, holds a National Advanced Certificate in Local Authority Administration.