COLUMN: Participation can make a difference

It was sort of an interesting comment that was made to me just as a council meeting was ending a couple of weeks ago.

Council had just spun its wheels deeper into the mud over the LED sign issue and a councillor looked at me with some anxiety and said, “We must be the laughing stock of the city.”

All I could do at the time was shrug, but it got me wondering about how councils in other cities have handled the situation.

The results were surprising. From small town Tennessee to Toronto, from the backwaters to the giant metropolises, the reaction has been the same, and the debate has been over the same topics. Every city that has had LEDs come before it has seen a struggle over how to implement them, and the issue has always been driver safety and esthetics.

It’s no different in Nanaimo. The community is split right down the middle and as a result, so, too, is council.

Laughing stock? Not by a long shot. It’s democracy working, and for those who have trust in democracy, which I would hope would be everybody, the end result will be policy that reflects the desire of the community.

Sometimes it just takes a bit of a journey to get there. What’s the hurry anyway? We’re on Island time.

For local businesses, having blitzy, glitzy signs is a tool to attract customers. LEDs have been heavily lobbied for by the Greater Nanaimo Chamber of Commerce, and rightly so. Nanaimo businesses want to be seen as on the leading edge, and when local business prospers, so, too, does the community. Charities receive more donations, sports teams can travel more and more money is put back into the local economy.

But at what cost? The reason many people live here is because of the undisputed beauty of Vancouver Island. Do we really want to compromise that with a sea of flashing LED signs?

The argument on both sides is excellent, and the struggle that has resulted is part of the price to be paid for living in paradise.

I know one thing, I wouldn’t want to have to make the decision.

But our councillors have been put to the task, and they work day after day on equally difficult topics for pay that amounts to peanuts.

Sure they’re deeply divided, they’re a reflection of the city’s electorate which is also divided.

So instead of snickering, laughing and shaking our heads in disapproval, perhaps people should be thinking more about how to help council reach some kind of compromise. During every council meeting there is a few minutes where citizens can address council with virtually any subject on their mind. It’s rarely used.

We’re all here in this city together. We all live and die by the decisions the people we elect make. But that doesn’t mean we can’t help out by participating.

And it’s not just LED signs. In the near future, our infrastructure needs are going to require some serious money. Already, residents at Green Lake need sewer services at a cost of $3.2 million, or the same amount equal to a five-per cent increase in the residential property tax rate. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. In Nanaimo, an additional 300 properties need to be hooked up to sewers for a total cost of $19 million, or a 30 per cent tax rate increase.

Couple that with infrastructure maintenance needs that are currently underfunded by $12 million annually, and decisions we’ll have to make in the future will make LEDs look like a walk in the park.

It is estimated that nationwide infrastructure is underfunded by $123 billion. The noose is tightening on all of us.

Addressing these decisions is noble work, and while council is not and should not be above criticism – taxes are paid and services are expected – we may all be better off working on solutions as a community with the same things at stake.