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ABOUT NELSON: Learning to love local government

Donna Macdonald writes about why she appreciates City Hall
The heart mural is seen here on Nelson City Hall. Photo: Greg Utzig

by Donna Macdonald

Were you aware that last week was Local Government Awareness Week? No? That’s not surprising since our local government didn’t do anything to raise our awareness. Actually, the week hasn’t been marked in Nelson for a long while, and I’m thinking it’s time.

Years ago, I remember the City might hold an open house at the public works yard with displays of equipment, big and small, where people, big and small, could climb on and even drive them. I recall doing a short run driving a new city bus while the real driver watched me with fear-filled eyes. The occasion was a fun way to invite the community to gather and learn. I think hot dogs were involved too.

Some years Council used the opportunity to educate high school students about city council by boring them to sleep with a formal meeting in front of a school assembly. We did get smarter and learned how to have the students participate (and stay awake).

This year, the theme for the week was infrastructure, and that is something we could celebrate. For years Nelson has been implementing a replacement plan for those aged and critical underground pipes. You know, the ones that deliver water through the tap and whisk it (and our waste) away in pipes.

Our above-ground infrastructure is also well-managed – the recreation centre, museum and gallery, civic centre, parks and playgrounds, theatre, library (I’ll just mention we need a new one of those), emergency services, waste management, electricity, transit. The City operates most of those but many are also operated by our wonderful non-profit sector and countless volunteers. Some make money for us to offset taxes (notably Nelson Hydro).

As well as so-called hard infrastructure, we are also rich in soft infrastructure, like social spaces where we gather to play, hatch dreams or just rest. Witness our vibrant downtown, and think how few cities even have one anymore. Our parks, waterfront pathway and playing fields are stellar and well-loved.

That’s one reason why local government is my favourite level of government. Its work is tangible from the first flick of a light switch in the morning, and continues throughout our day. Unfortunately, many people don’t fully know what is done on their behalf.

I’m not a Pollyanna and clearly we have some significant (although not unique to Nelson) challenges. And more are coming. If I may quote my book: “Building strong and resilient communities is central to our response and our future. We will be successful if we can build up each other and the places where we live, if we can reach out with compassion and care to our neighbours. If we can combat miserablism and cynicism, and act with integrity and hope.”

OK, maybe that’s a little Pollyanna’ish, but it’s aspirational. Local government gives us the opportunity to be part of creating our city. To learn how to make dreams happen (and Nelson is good at that) and to decide what kind of place we want to be. To me that’s what government, especially local government, is about: figuring out how we live together peacefully, creatively and happily.

As it exists, local government is far from perfect — it’s made up of humans after all. It can be messy and frustrating, but it’s ours. It’s our friends and neighbours, who we’ve elected, doing the thinking, learning and discussing, reaching for compromises that represent the greater good for our community. Making sure the right staff is in place, with skills and vision.

When I love something or someone, I still question and wonder why certain things happen or why that person would say such a thing. Slowly I’m learning to incline toward curiosity over judgment. And in this democracy we live in, loving our local government means understanding and appreciating it and our role as citizens in it, and together trying to make our community better.

Next year I’m up for a celebration of Nelson’s local government and its citizens. No hot dogs needed, just some togetherness.

Donna Macdonald has lived in Nelson since 1972, and is the author of Surviving City Hall, a memoir of her 19 years on Nelson City Council. Her column will appear monthly.