The relevant portion of the Gulf News article consisted of only three lines and was little more than a housekeeping note – a brief mention of a policy change regarding registration procedures for some programs at the Bruce II Sports Centre in Port aux Basques.
What followed was an almost 1,000-comment long discussion in a local Facebook group that left bitter feelings and divided some residents of the Southwest Coast.
At a town council meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 23, the recreation committee recommended adopting a two-tier registration policy for some children’s programs, such as swimming and summer sports.
One registration session would be for residents of Port aux Basques only, while the other session would encompass outlying areas that regularly use the facility, from South Branch to LaPoile.
After signing up for their geographical session, the intended user would then be entered into a lottery system to determine registration order within their group.
The reaction from Bruce II patrons, both within the town and outside, was swift and negative.
The overriding perception among parents commenting on the forum’s Facebook post was that the town’s children would receive preferential scheduling times and more slots overall, and out-of-town children would not be able to participate in the programs as a result.
The Gulf News recap of the Jan. 23 meeting did not detail that Port aux Basques councillors initially had those same concerns. When questioned by council, Bruce II manager Robyn Noseworthy, who delivered the recreation committee report, explained the logic behind the two-tier system.
“What we’re saying is – say we’ll have a registration draw for the residents of Port aux Basques on Tuesday, and then we’ll have those interested who don’t live in town – the draw will be on Wednesday,” said Noseworthy. “And then they’ll come in at different times and register so that way the citizens of Port aux Basques will get the first registration preference.”
Noseworthy went on to explain that lesson times not chosen by Port aux Basques residents will be ceded to the second session draw for out-of-town children.
And while to Noseworthy’s knowledge no child has been refused lessons during her tenure as manager, there have been instances where a child could not get their preferred time slot.
“We want to make sure that the time slots are preferenced to citizens of the Town of Channel-Port aux Basques who are paying taxes on the building.”
Despite the proposed preferential scheduling, Noseworthy did not anticipate a problem. So far, no child has had to be wait listed because the Bruce II has simply accommodated them as necessary, sometimes through extra private or group lessons. Noseworthy said if it became an issue, the committee would take another look at the system.
Satisfied that patrons of the Bruce II would not be turned away and staff would ensure all children would be accommodated, council accepted the recommendation unanimously.
None of that was in the Gulf News article - a result of trying to condense a lengthy and detailed meeting into a CliffsNotes version to fit space constraints. The online version was posted on Friday, Jan. 26 and by Monday morning, Jan. 29 when the paper hit newsstands, hundreds of comments had been posted in the Port aux Basques & Area Open Forum, a closed Facebook group with just under 4,500 members.
At times the comments ranged from resolve to petition the Port aux Basques town council to reverse the policy, to personal attacks on the mayor, councillors and even one councillor’s spouse. Forum administrators removed almost all of the abusive comments and at least temporarily banned the more irate posters.
Some commentators drew comparisons to racial segregation, with one even asking what Rosa Parks would think. Another likened herself to a third-class passenger on the Titanic.
Although the Facebook page is closed, it is still very much one of the larger and more visible forums in the region. Would these people make the same kind of comments in the news or to people’s faces?
Initially a couple of the councillors attempted to explain the decision on the forum before withdrawing under the onslaught of vitriol. Even Mayor John Spencer posted and then deleted his attempt to clarify the issue. He later turned down two requests for an interview with the Gulf News; however, via email he stated he took a beating on social media that bordered on defamation. He also intends to submit a letter to the editor about council’s decision.
“The reality is a recommendation by recreation was approved by council. The gist of the argument was, resident parents should be granted preference in relation to draws for swimming slots. Thus, the two draws on the guarantee that no one will be left out of an opportunity to participate,” wrote Spencer.
While the cry of unfairness from surrounding communities is certainly understandable, that does not make it entirely justifiable.
Although the Bruce II serves the entire region, outside of municipal operating grants residents of Port aux Basques pay taxes to keep the facility operating whether or not they choose to use it. Spencer’s original post claimed it was roughly $100 per person.
Census data from 2016 lists the number of town residents at 4,067 in 1,697 occupied households, and the outlying area serviced by the Bruce II at roughly 3,380 people and 2,194 households.
That means residents of Channel-Port aux Basques are paying over $400,000 directly towards the operating costs of the Bruce II. The rest of the region pays considerably less, if they pay at all.
According to the town’s 2017 budget, only 350 of those 3,380 residents living outside the town are levied a poll tax of $200. That means the town gets $70,000 in poll tax, and even assuming every cent of that goes towards the Bruce II there remains over a $300,000-differential. Meanwhile, user fees are the same for residents and non-residents alike.
When it comes to population breakdowns, the census counted 705 children in Port aux Basques who might avail of the affected sports programs, and 500 for the outlying communities.
That means if every child signed up for summer sports, each Port aux Basques household should expect to pay over $400 more for each of their children to enroll in a Bruce II sports program simply because they live in the town.
Outside of town, only 9.6 of the non-residential population is paying $140 for all of those 500 children to go to the same program.
Facebook commentators noted that outside residents pay extra for gas to get to the Bruce II and bring additional revenue into the town. All of that is true, but none of it offsets the extra operating costs Port aux Basques residents pony up, while they don’t.
While some suggested an outright boycott of the Bruce II and even merchants in the town, perhaps a more logical suggestion to keep things fair might be to increase user fees for non-residents and keep everyone in the same lottery draw for a preferred time slot.
Usually Port aux Basques town council is only scheduled to meet on the first and third Thursday of every month, but they have called for an extra meeting tomorrow afternoon, Jan. 31 at 5 p.m.
If council reverses its decision, which wouldn’t be entirely unexpected, does that mean a triumph for the power of social media? Or is it a case of one group out-bullying the other into submission? A lot of nastiness was at play on the forum, some of which is still readable.
And is it fair that Port aux Basques users should always pay more? If the Bruce II is indeed a regional facility – one of the few things most commenters agreed on – why shouldn’t the operational costs be spread fairly among all residents regardless of geography, and a regional board appointed?
There are always questions that should be asked and answered when it comes to any hot-button issue, even such as small-town sports, before jumping into an online fray.
Otherwise the proverbial black eye just might be yours.
Editor's note: The original post stated that Port aux Basques residents paid $100 per household, not per person. The math has been corrected to the proper data.