The strong undercurrent of government mistrust that shades the American landscape is something relatively new to Canadians. But the recent Comox Valley Regional District open house on the HMCS Quadra sewer line replacement shows how and why that mood is changing.

The open house meeting should have been an opportunity for citizens, bureaucrats and elected officials to communicate in a collaborative manner that resulted in some positive meaningful action.

Instead, the HMCS Quadra meeting erupted into a vitriolic condemnation of the CVRD’s lack of transparency on this project. You can read a report of the meeting here.

It’s a sad commentary on the openness of local government in general that this expression of anger and frustration surprised no one at the meeting, including the presenter, CVRD Senior Engineer Marc Rutten, who appeared to accept the citizens’ mistrust as routine.

Throughout the contentious meeting that at moments threatened to spin out of control, Rutten never once acknowledged the possible veracity of a citizen’s concern. But why would he? The project’s details were presented as a fait accompli which “are too far along in the process to change now.”

Rutten couldn’t have done a better job of fostering distrust in the regional district.

If governments don’t genuinely want input from citizens, especially those directly affected by a specific project, then why invite them to a meeting on the pretence that their input might matter? It’s disingenuous and elevates people’s rage. And it creates mistrust of government. People start concocting conspiracy theories to explain what might seem like simple logistic solutions to CVRD staff.

Open house public meetings are usually held before finalizing a project’s details. For example, the CVRD presented several options to Royston and Union Bay residents at an early open house on the South Sewer Project, and residents picked their preferred one.

But the Courtenay-Comox Sewage Commission and CVRD engineers have turned a deaf ear to public concerns about its sewerage system planning, which has caused widespread suspicion, mistrust and anger.

Some of the blame for perpetuating government mistrust lies with elected officials who make these decisions but intentionally avoid the open houses they know will be contentious. Their absence forces staff to take all the heat.

Sewage Commission Chair Barbara Price and Courtenay director Bob Wells made token 15-minute appearances at the beginning of the open house, while everyone looked at informational posters and mingled with coffee and cookies in hand.

But they both left before the serious work of the question and answer period began. Why didn’t they stick around and absorb the public reaction to their decisions?

No other members of the Courtenay-Comox Sewage Commission showed up at the HCMS Quadra public meeting. Even the CFB Comox representative, Major Marc Fugulin, was absent.

The lack of good watchdog journalism in the Comox Valley contributes to the mistrust of local government. Not one reporter attended the question and answer period. And no local media has reported on the meeting.

Without a public watchdog to hold elected officials accountable, governments naturally adopt a less communicative and responsive attitude.

Elected officials are, after all, volunteer public servants. Most of the time they are sincere about achieving the common good. But the public needs to know if and when apparent altruism cloaks a personal agenda or a conflict of interest, or when governments steamroll projects over powerless citizens.

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