Lake Cowichan town councillor Bob Day.

Low turnout for public hearing highlights lack of engagement

Social media: Councillor uncertain how effective online presence would prove to be.

Last Tuesday (June 23), town council hosted a public hearing regarding a zoning change request to a business in downtown Lake Cowichan. Though council designated a part of the process to public input, the floor was quiet, as only one member of the public was present at the hearing.

“I have certainly no objection to the [proposed] change, but I do question the process,” resident David Ridley said at the public hearing. “There’s nothing in writing saying who this applies to or what the process is. From the point of view of the public, something on what is proposed would be helpful… It’s not really open to public debate if the public isn’t aware of what it is.”

Though town council’s weekly meetings are open to the public, residents seem to take little interest in what transpires. Even meetings formatted for public participation, such as the recent release of the Town of Lake Cowichan’s year-end report – which contains information ranging from the town’s budget to projects initiated and completed in 2014 – see a very small turnout.

“People complain all the time, but they don’t know the facts,” councillor Bob Day said. “That book has all the facts… People complain about council not being transparent – there’s the booklet, it’s all laid out there.”

The town makes their meeting schedule, as well as the agenda for each meeting, freely available through their website (www.town.lakecowichan.bc.ca). But is that enough to engage residents? Day feels that the problem may be with the meetings themselves.

“I think the process intimidates people,” Day said.  “We get a bigger turnout at our bi-annual meetings at Centennial Hall, people feel less intimidated at that venue.”

Day added that the new town hall planned for Lake Cowichan could help alleviate the intimidation factor he feels is holding town officials and residents apart.

While many municipalities have taken to social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, to bridge the gap between government and residents, Day said that the online avenue is simply too large of a job for the town to handle on its own.

The Cowichan Valley Regional District recently discussed the possibility of hiring a social media officer to manage these duties for Lake Cowichan and the rest of the Valley. However, the expected $110,000 salary would only pay off if enough residents were present on social media websites.

“There’s only so many people on Facebook,” Day said. “The boil water advisory is a good example of that — how do you get the word out? I’ve racked my brain, I’ve spent over 100 hours in my head thinking of how to get people engaged — through email? By knocking on doors? Through the newspaper?”

The next regular council meeting is planned for July 28 at town hall at 6 p.m.

How can the town better engage residents? Email editor@lakecowichangazette.com and share your thoughts.

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