A new study shows when nobody is watching, the cost of government goes up  |  Photo by Thomas Charters, Unsplash

The Week: We focus on how our money is spent and Wildwood: a model for Shakesides

Jan 28, 2021 | Commentary, News

By George Le Masurier

Decafnation has always given a special focus on coverage of local government in order to keep elected officials and the staff they direct accountable to the public. Because a democracy works best in broad daylight and part of our mission is to make sure the sun is always shining.

Filling out our local government satisfaction survey is one way for you to help. Another way is to read the story and browse the charts we published this week about municipal finances.

Our goal was to present some key information in an easy-to-find format. We waded through hundreds of pages of Annual Reports and Statements of Financial Information so you wouldn’t have to.

Have you taken five minutes to fill out our Local Government Performance Review? Why not do it right now?

We’ll update these charts and republish them as soon as the 2020 information becomes available later this year. In the meantime, we’re going to improve the charts with some suggestions from readers. 

You don’t have to be a numbers-nerd to take an interest in municipal finances. You just have to care how your tax money is being spent.


An interesting study showed that when a local newspaper closes, the cost of government increases. A professor of finance at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business researched whether there was a direct line between “the loss of watchful eyes of local newspapers” and a decline in government efficiency.

You can read the study here, but here’s a spoiler alert: when nobody’s watching the cost of government goes up.


The story of the preservation and restoration of Merv Wilkinson’s Wildwood property by a small charitable society provides an excellent model for the Town of Comox. It shows how, with local government and community support, volunteers can turn something that was left to deteriorate into a bright community asset.

The small Victoria-based Ecoforestry Institute Society restoration of Wildwood’s abandoned forest acreage and homestead was achieved by a group of people who refused to let Wilkinson’s legacy die. They fought for the property and won a court victory.

With a strong business plan, they marshalled volunteers willing to do hands-on work and attracted donations, grants and support from the Regional District of Nanaimo. And through their passion, they delivered a success.

The small Mack Laing Heritage Society faces similar obstacles: a property abandoned and in disrepair and a legal battle. But they too have refused to let Laing’s legacy die. They too have a business plan, public support and a long list of volunteers ready to transform Shakesides into Laing’s vision.

What the Laing society doesn’t have is local government support. In fact, local government is their main obstacle.

The Town of Comox long ago turned its back on Mack Laing, misused his financial generosity and ignored his important place in Comox history. And now the current Comox Councillors want to drive the final stake through Laing’s memory.

But an open-minded examination of the Wildwood model for success could lead to a more positive outcome because Wildwood answers a key question that has plagued some Comox Councillors: how to fulfil Mack Laing’s Trust Agreement in a self-sustaining way.

Wildwood does more than pay for itself and the society’s $450,000 mortgage. It funnels money back into the economy of the Regional District of Nanaimo. It creates jobs and adds an internationally popular tourist destination to the Nanaimo-Ladysmith area’s list of popular attractions.

People come to tour Wildwood’s sustainable forest and to enjoy a stay in an environment far away from their urban daily lives. People would come to tour Mack Laing’s little sanctuary for birds, trails, Brooklyn Creek and Comox Bay and for overnight respites surrounded by nature.


It’s an interesting aside that when the tiny Ecoforestry Institute Society plunged into a legal battle to win control of Wildwood, they turned to Victoria Lawyer Patrick Canning. So, it’s not a coincidence that Canning is now working with the Mack Laing Heritage Society.


The old saying that “timing is everything” plays an important part in all of our lives and so it was for Mack Laing.

The Comox Valley Lands Trust didn’t exist in the late 1970s or even in 1982 when Laing died. If it had, he surely would have left his property with a covenant held by the Lands Trust to ensure his Trust Agreement was fulfilled.

Nor did Laing have knowledge of Trust Deeds, such as the Ecoforest Institute Society has on the Wildwood property. The Trust Deed ensures that Wildwood can never be sold to a private interest and it also defines the charitable purpose under which the property must be operated.

In other words, future Wildwood boards of directors cannot just decide to clear cut the whole thing and rake in the money. Wildwood must always be operated as an ecoforest, always within ecological boundaries.

Put in Shakesides’ terms, future councils could not have just decided to tear down his house and pour a concrete slab. Shakesides would have had to be always operated as the natural history museum that Laing envisioned.


The Comox Youth Climate Council has started a petition that urges local government to purchase the 3L Developments property in the Puntledge Triangle and for the City of Courtenay not to annex these lands. The petition states:

“This petition is a call to action to our elected leaders, from the CVRD and beyond, to refuse intimidation from 3L Developments or development proponents and to do the right thing to protect Stotan Falls in the long-term. We urge you to do your best to purchase the Puntledge Triangle lands and riverbed and to continue to create a network of regional parks along the Puntledge River. These purchases will contribute to increasing our social and recreational capital while also protecting our natural assets. Preserving nature not only offers many benefits to our health and wellbeing, but it also increases our resilience to climate change and prevents biodiversity loss.”


General Motors announced this week that it will no longer build gas-guzzlers after 2035. The company plans to be carbon-neutral in 20 years.

GM said in its announcement that, “The days of the internal combustion engine are numbered.”

The company will sell only vehicles that have zero tailpipe emissions starting in 15 years, a seismic shift by one of the world’s largest automakers that makes billions of dollars today from gas-guzzling pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles.

Surely this will put pressure on automakers around the world to make similar commitments and embolden elected officials like Prime Minister Trudeau to push for even more aggressive policies to fight climate change: Read, abandon the TMX pipeline. 


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