Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday December 7, 2019
With Sewergate, too many Hamilton councillors still don’t get it
“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”
That line, borrowed from the classic 1967 Paul Newman movie “Cool Hand Luke,” can actually be applied to the situation that continues to fester in Hamilton. Yes, we’re talking about Sewergate.
Another way to put it would be that we have a fundamental disconnect. And another: They just don’t get it.
We’re referring to the gulf that now exists between most members of Hamilton city council and the constituents who elected them. Those same constituents who are still talking and writing about Sewergate. In barbershops and salons, in coffee shops and bars. Chances are, if you go to a place where people congregate and talk, this is one of the things they’ll be talking about.
The number of published letters to the editor is now officially a record in modern memory. And those are just the ones suitable for print. Many others were not, for reasons of length, language or extreme viewpoints. And they keep coming, although they’ve slowed now to a handful each day. We will continue to print them where appropriate, but they’ll be mixed with letters on other subjects to reflect a fair balance of what readers are saying.
The point is, Hamilton citizens, in record numbers, show no interest in getting over this. They are, by and large, unsatisfied. They want to see some action. They want to see consequences. Like what? Spectator city columnist Andrew Dreschel will explore that question in a column coming Monday.
At any rate, that’s the citizen/taxpayer/constituent side of the equation. Far on the other side of that perception gulf are the members of council who apparently still don’t see what all the fuss is about. They are content to stick with their original defence: They had legal advice that said they would be putting taxpayers at more risk by disclosing the 24-billion litre sewage leak into Chedoke Creek and Cootes Paradise. Armed with that advice, they decided, repeatedly, that they should not inform the public about the spill. Not that it was much larger than originally reported. Not that the contamination took place over four and a half years.
Not that at one point E. coli levels in Chedoke Creek spiked to 900 times higher than safe levels for paddling. That’s 9,000 times higher than the threshold for safe swimming.
They say they intended to report to the public once the provincial investigation into the leak was complete. When would that have been? No one knows. The Spectator reported on the leak two weeks ago, but this council knew about it for nine months before that. How much longer would Sewergate have remained secret had The Spec not reported on it?
Here is what many city councillors just don’t get. They are sorry, they say, that the leak happened. Good for them. We’re all sorry. Probably the people involved with the original mistake are sorry. Everyone and their dog is sorry the accident happened, and was not detected for a ridiculous period of time.
But that’s not what most people are most angry about. It’s the failure to disclose that’s driving people nuts. Too many councillors don’t seem to get that secrecy has justifiably rattled peoples’ trust in city hall. Yes, because of the spill. But more so because if something like this happens again, how can citizens feel confident they will get appropriate disclosure?
Some councillors say Sewergate is a media-generated event. Fair enough. We’re not going to dignify that with a response. But we would recommend that at minimum, these councillors, who seem increasingly insulated from public opinion, take some time and find out how people are really feeling. They might want to start trying to bridge that perception gulf. (Hamilton Spectator Editorial)