Erin McCracken: Council for spectators afterall

Without fail, every Friday at 2 p.m. Esquimalt resident Lorne Argyle heads over to Esquimalt municipal hall to pick up what cannot be considered light reading.

Still, he diligently spends the weekend wading through the township’s hefty agenda package to prepare himself for the council or committee-of-the-whole meeting scheduled for the following Monday night at 7 p.m.

There are a couple of other regular council watchers in attendance, but sometimes Argyle and fellow long-time resident Muriel Dunn are the only observers sitting amongst the empty chairs in council chambers.

Esquimalt is not the lone municipality in the region to face such sorry public attendance – unless, as Argyle puts it, a “hot-button issue” brings people out.

Within the span of about a month, council chambers have recently enjoyed standing-room-only attendance after neighbours arrived en masse to implore council to change course on an issue until more public feedback is sought.

The problem is, people often wait until the last minute to try and put a screeching halt to the political process – definitely within their rights, but the timing stinks.

As Argyle noted following an especially crowded council meeting, imagine the money spent in staff wages for, in some cases, years spent working through some of the bigger issues, only to have residents plead for a rethink at the last minute.

Council soaks up the discussion and not just because it’s an election year. I suspect council feels better when the community weighs in on topics, giving them more confidence to vote yea or nay.

The challenge is getting people to come out early in the process.

Why do people wait until the 11th hour when council is about to vote on a matter? Why do they only organize themselves when their street, property value or scenic view, among other things, are potentially impacted?

It’s frustrating when some residents complain about the lack of public consultation. Occasionally they’re right. But often they’ve missed out on countless golden opportunities that were repeatedly advertised.

Is it that people are turned off about sitting through what they think will be a complex and tedious political process? Are they too busy?

I have to admit, while I am an Esquimalt homeowner, I probably would never have started sitting in on council meetings if it weren’t for my line of work.

After all, life is a juggling act these days.

Argyle, Dunn and council recognize that life tends to keep residents preoccupied.

But I recently felt for Dunn when she strode to the microphone in council chambers to implore an unusually large crush of residents to stay after their issue had been resolved, and learn about other matters affecting the township.

They listened politely, but when a five-minute recess was called most went back to their lives, leaving the process to the regular council watchers once again.

Council meetings actually might surprise you.

They’re far juicier than gossiping with your neighbour over the fence, or chatting with other parents at the playground. They’re brimming with issues shaping your neighbourhood and, just as important, your larger community.

As I’ve discovered, once you start going, council meetings quickly grow on you, and you begin feeling more connected to the place in which you live.

All it takes is making that first step.

Chances are, there’s a seat available.

Erin McCracken is a reporter with the Victoria News.

emccracken@vicnews.com

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