It's taken just six months — six months to begin to restore Whistler's faith in its local government.
Of all the things that have been accomplished in its short term in office, says Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, that is her proudest achievement.
"It's being able to provide good government and, I think, I think, we've got the trust of the community back," she ventures. "And that is absolutely huge."
but has council gained the trust of the community?
Only time, and two-and-a-half more years in office, will tell.
In the last few months something indefinable has shifted, and the yawning chasm between the municipality and, well... everyone else, seems to be getting smaller.
Gone are the overwrought political struggles unfolding bi-weekly on the public stage. Gone, too, are the tension-filled question-and-answer sessions with irate community members challenging council and staff's handling of the asphalt plant. Gone is the perception, rightly or wrongly, that spending is rife at municipal hall in the midst of widespread hardship in the community. Gone is the perpetual criticism that council has "drunk the Kool-Aid," and is at the mercy of all-powerful staff, no longer representing the people.
In its place is a budding, tentative, trust.
Trust, however, can be a maddeningly difficult thing to hold on to; any politician can attest to that.
Wilhelm-Morden knows this only too well; she's seen it all before.
With four terms as a councillor under her belt, she has been a part of the delicate dance between council and staff, and council and the community, with four different mayors and four different municipal administrators.
She can't really remember her first term under Mayor Terry Rodgers — it was so long ago, she bemoans with a smile.
But under Mayor Drew Meredith, with whom she is still close, she learned about the importance of building consensus.
She called him shortly after she learned she would be Whistler's new mayor, euphoria wearing off, slight panic setting in — what do I do now, she asked Meredith, laughing now as she recalls that conversation.
And again, he counselled her to build consensus.
It's advice she has really taken to heart.
She was also a councillor for one term each under Whistler's last two mayors — Hugh O'Reilly and Ken Melamed.
"I learned from Hugh the importance of relying on staff." She pauses. "I learned from Ken the importance of not relying on staff.
"What I learned from both was that I have to take advice and then rely on my own common sense."
And, of course, she brings her own way of doing things, her own style of leadership, to the table, too. She is surrounded by six rookie councillors and works with municipal administrator Mike Furey, who is also new to the job and to the community.
She is the only one who has a true frame of reference of council's history and how things can unravel at the seams, often with a mayor powerless to stop it.
She believes, however, she can keep council riding the crest. Not just the job of leading the town and effecting change — but fostering and holding onto the public's trust.
"I look at people like Mayor Dianne Watts in Surrey, going into her third straight term," says Wilhelm-Morden. "She walks on water. You can do it. It's just a case, I think, of staying real, staying in touch."
Six months ago this council may not have known the ins and outs of how local government works, but they certainly knew they were elected with a mandate from the community: No more infighting, more openness and transparency at the hall, control costs, and get the job done.
In short, faith, trust and accountability.
A heavy mantle indeed.
Don't think for a second that they haven't felt its weight.
SENDING THE MESSAGE, SIGNALLING CHANGE
Knowing the community was hungry for change — landslide election results and a whole new cast of characters in council seats to prove it — Wilhelm-Morden didn't waste any time.
Twenty-four hours after they were sworn in, the mayor chaired an emergency council meeting. Council decided to bring back free parking in some village day lots, and started to tackle the illegal space issue that has plagued the construction and real estate community for decades. It also cut the mayor's salary by $10,000.
That was the first day's work.
Like ancient smoke signals rising up from municipal hall high above the mountains, council was delivering its first real message. Just watch us, it seemed to say; we've heard you, we're listening, and we're going to change things.
It followed on the heels of the mayor's swearing in speech where she vowed that Whistler was "open for business."
Easy to say, giddy on the outpouring of election support; much harder to do when it comes down to it.
But, as Wilhelm-Morden saw it, though the challenges were many, council had but one way to go — up.
In many ways, the Gods have been on council's side — Ullr, and the rest.
Epic snow conditions kept perma-smiles on locals and guests this winter.
Record room nights took some of the pressure off struggling business, even if those rooms, and the spin-off spending, didn't bring in record dollars. Destination guests, the big spenders, showed their much-welcomed faces once again in greater numbers.
Add to that the fact that international brands like X Games were expressing keen interest in Whistler, urged on with the promise of a quarter of a million dollars from council, and it seemed true — Whistler really was open for business.
Optimism, dare we suggest, was the mood of the day.
More reviews in the hall were ongoing as well, leading to several decisions around staffing — a general manager position at municipal hall would be cut, another would not be filled, going from five GM's to three.
Again, a signal to the community that council was looking at costs, trying to find efficiencies.
Then, just a few short weeks later, council presented the Council Action Plan — a detailed "to do" list with short-term and long-term deliverables. It's formidable.
In some ways it has seemed effortless — sending the messages, implementing changes, following through.
When asked about how easy it was to deliver on what seemed like the too-good-to-be-true election campaign promises, the mayor seems taken aback.
Easy, she scoffs? It's taken countless hours. Sleepless night. Treading the fine line of diplomacy. Meeting expectations. Raising the bar. To add to that, Wilhelm-Morden is still practicing law, with cases in court and clients to help.
Not easy at all.
"There's been a lot of hard work," she says.
One constant has remained: they're all, without fail, on the same track and marching to a beat set by the mayor.
SETTING THE TONE
That's not to say it's been Wilhelm-Morden's way or the highway. In fact, it's the opposite say councillors.
All, without prompting, praise her leadership. It's not just that she sets the tone by working hard. It's the way she's working — listening to her team, empowering them, finding common ground, reaching compromise.
Some in the community may find that hard to believe.
"Nancy has always had a really strong opinion and she's got a backbone of steel, and I think there was a perception out there by some people, certainly expressed to me, that Nancy might be a little more autocratic perhaps," says Councillor Jayson Faulkner. "And that has simply not been the case, couldn't be further from it."
And the result is a well-oiled team, setting its sights on the same horizon.
Councillor Andrée Janyk says this is one of the most cohesive teams she's ever been a part of, and she's been on a lot of teams. And it's "fun."
That's how she describes the work of the last six months.
"We understood the town was tired of infighting and it wanted to see people getting along, but also being able to share their differences without being angry at each other," says the long-term soccer coach — her phone pinging in the background as she hunts for last minute soccer refs.
"And I think that's what we do very well. We do speak our minds. We do have differences..."
That's not something that is immediately apparent, since every vote to date — and there have been some controversial ones, ones that drove deep wedges through the last council — have been unanimous.
Janyk pauses to come up with an example. She cites the first time council was asked to oppose the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipelines project from a community member.
A few councillors wanted council to support the request right then and there.
Janyk, and others, didn't want to be so hasty.
"I didn't like the motion because it was just an off-the-cuff motion," she explains. "It wasn't a well thought-out motion, but it was already on the table."
One side of the table begged for more time. In the end, they all agreed.
A few weeks later, with the breadth of full knowledge, council unanimously voted to oppose the pipeline project.
If that's one of their differences to date, it's fair to say this council is very much on the same page.
Keeping the votes unanimous and the tone at the table copasetic is not a calculated move, say those interviewed by Pique.
They actually like each other, a change from the tone at the table near the end of the last council's term where it seemed like some members of the group could barely conceal their disdain for each other.
Those memories linger.
The mayor, from the outset, knew she had to foster a team and build consensus to be successful.
Council's first meeting of business, called just 24 hours after they were sworn in, was the first showdown, setting the stage of what was to come.
Pay parking was its first test.
Wilhelm-Morden had campaigned on getting rid of pay parking in Lots 2-5. She couldn't convince her council of that plan. Instead, she compromised. It could have been a bitter pill to swallow, essentially reneging on a critical campaign promise. But she took Drew Meredith's words to heart.
"It was much more important to me that we start off on a unanimous footing," she says of the vote that withdrew pay parking from Lots 4 and 5.
It continues to this day. Not one split vote, not even one dissenting vote. Disconcerting, in a strange way, for council watchers, to see a team quickly move through an agenda without opposing views, or healthy debates for that matter, on some meaty topics — pay parking, the Rainbow commercial development and gas station, the Enbridge stance.
Is this council merely rubber-stamping policy in public while the real debates, the tough conversations, are held out of the prying eyes of the community?
FOSTERING OPEN GOVERNMENT
The mayor says there is no collusion, no secret agendas, no politicking, no behind the scenes shenanigans like she's seen on past councils.
"Everybody seems to have put their egos aside and are just wanting to get business done," she says. "There's no politicking, that I can see. Maybe I'm just completely oblivious to it! But as far as I can see, there's none of that kind of maneuvering and 'you support me on this and I'll support you on that.' It's just 'let's get the job done.'"
Council heard loud and clear in the lead up to the election that the community wanted more openness and more transparency in its local government.
And they appear to have taken it to heart.
Though new policy, introduced by administrator Mike Furey before the election, still distances staff from the media (staff is only allowed to be interviewed for background briefings and is not allowed to be quoted), council has been putting policies in place to reach out to the community.
Committee of the Whole meetings have been re-introduced by this council — a more informal meeting time when community groups, or developers or staff can bring council up to date on projects, and council in turn can ask pointed questions. These meetings are open to the public and offer a rare insight into a relaxed council at work, comfortable in their own skin, asking pointed questions.
And the mayor is on a personal mission of returning every phone call.
Just last week, at the end of a five-day trial in Vancouver, Wilhelm-Morden was returning phone calls from the courthouse about concerns over off-leash dogs on her lunch break.
"People know that the door is open," she says.
She may not always be behind the door at the mayor's office, but she will return phone calls and emails.
That separation from the hall, a mayor who continues to work in the private sector, is something new for Whistler.
Wilhelm-Morden believes it's a good thing — it keeps her connected. She remembers after Mayor Ted Nebbeling's time in office (he was mayor from 1990 to 1996) a consultant recommending that the mayor's office and the administrator's office be physically moved apart in the Hall — again, that separation of council and staff.
"That's never happened," says the mayor. "And I don't feel the need for that to happen in my case. Maybe I'll live to regret that!"
Councillor Jack Crompton has been asking himself the same question about the appearance of rubber-stamping because the nature of the Tuesday council meeting is different from the ones he regularly observed from the bleachers in the last few terms.
The answer he's come up with is that the work, the real work of council, is happening at the committee level. Each council sits on a variety of committees and at the outset Wilhelm-Morden made the case that the hard work, the important work, was done on these committees. Council had to trust the committee work and continual communication was key to success.
"I think that's why is seems that things come to council rubber stamped," muses Crompton.
As such, the committee decisions come with a lot of weight to be carefully considered by council.
That's why, for example, he requested that more community horsepower be added to the transit committee. Two at-large community members have since be chosen to sit on that committee.
"I always feel that the direction we are bringing to council... is well thought-out," says Crompton.
The added benefit of encouraging this system of decision-making is creating an atmosphere among council and staff of pride in work, in getting the job done, in making a difference.
Crompton adds: "I think it's part of the reason why people feel so empowered in doing their jobs."
And why they like it so much.
Councillor Roger McCarthy is the council representative on the Festival, Events and Animation (FE&A) Committee, now one of the key committees of council directing staff and a $2.7 million budget. He says that the committee this year did "one hell of a job," estimated at 60 hours worth of work.
"It certainly felt like that," said McCarthy. "It was gruelling."
Like transit, FE&A and the Resort Municipality Initiative committee (RMI), which directs more than $6 million, has had the benefit of community representatives, again designed to open up the hall.
McCarthy said it was focus and direction given at the FE&A committee level that delivered this year's spending plan, focused on getting people to the resort — and staying. The committee wanted to see that focus in the plan — lay it out, weekend by weekend, they said to staff, and show how the money is not only creating animation in Whistler, but getting heads in beds.
It's the same thing, says McCarthy, as having to justify spending $5 million on a new chairlift. Show the growth model. Show how this $5 million investment is going to make the business grow.
"It's really targeted, which is really what we were pushing from the beginning," said McCarthy. "And there's alignment there that's really impressive. And I think the work that was done to produce that plan is really good."
No one in the community complains about the work done by the finance and audit committee, which oversaw the 2012 budget complete with zero tax increases — something taxpayers in Whistler have not seen in several years. (Although to be fair, much of the budget-balancing work was initiated under the previous council.)
Not only did the committee find the money to balance the books, it's also working to deliver a much more user-friendly municipal budget so the Average Joe can understand where their tax money is being spent.
"By having more transparency, I think it gives all the staff members, senior management and departmental managers some comfort that people understand what they're responsible for..." says Councillor Duane Jackson, the council rep on the finance and audit committee.
"The way that the reports used to come out before, it was confusing and certainly during the election there were a lot of people who were frustrated by that because they couldn't compare back over the years.
"(The goal now is) trying to get consistency in the reporting and more information for the public to see on the operational side of how we're doing, and make it comparable for going forward so that there's some sort of benchmark."
Plans are in the works to introduce quarterly budget reporting. The first report is due in the early fall, reporting on the second quarter.
ACCOUNTABILITY AT THE HALL
When he was asked during the election campaign about what may be the previous council's biggest accomplishment, Councillor John Grills suggested it could be the hiring of CAO Mike Furey in the sunset of its term.
That was before he knew Mike Furey. After working with him these past six months, he stands by that statement.
"It's certainly one (accomplishment) that's going to have a very positive impact for years to come," says Grills.
"We've piled a lot on him. When you talk about moving things along, he's been very instrumental in moving those things along.
"It's our ideas and our direction, but he's the one overseeing the staff at the hall and the senior managers to make this all happen."
Furey's tasks from council are laid out in the Council Action Plan presented three months ago. Under the six-month goals, Furey's deliverables are to review the Employee Handbook, develop and implement an organization-wide RMOW Corporate Plan, and develop CAO/senior management performance agreements.
"It was surprising to me that an organization with a $75 million budget and hundreds of employees didn't have performance reviews," says Wilhelm-Morden. "That would never happen in private business."
He was also tasked with continuing the organizational review, which saw those cuts in early changes in the term at the senior management level.
All tasks are well underway.
Furey touches on each.
The CAO/senior management performance agreements, he says, are not just a high-level list of things to do for each of the senior managers and himself. It's also about the growth of the individual as well, ensuring RMOW has a strong and positive work force. They are not tied to bonuses or any financial incentives.
"A lot of the general managers are at the top of their pay scale, so we're not creating incentives in that way," says Furey.
"Really, the idea of the performance management agreement is to ensure you get the full potential of the manager in terms of not just what their tasks are, but how they're developing, how their future development and growth plans are going," explains Furey.
The corporate plan, which mirrors and expands on the Council Action Plan, is now in draft form, set to be made public this summer.
"Really, what it's about, is again going back to accountability, transparency, and just so the community and staff know — here's what our goals and objectives are, here's what our corporate strategies are, and here's how we're working to deliver on those so that everyone is aware. And for staff, are they on the same page in terms of working towards the objectives?"
No consultants have been hired to do the work — another long-standing community criticism of the hall — with 100 per cent of the work being done in house.
As for the organizational review, now in the second phase, it is continuing its look at the managerial level under the senior managers. This is a critical appraisal of the organization, looking at streamlining and finding efficiencies with an eye to cutting costs.
"I think whenever you engage in an exercise like this, people are very focused on it, very interested in what's happening," said Furey. "My response to that is, 'Let's move through it as quickly as we can...' I think people are obviously anxious to know the outcome of it, but at the same time there's been lots of dialogue and I think it helps that there's been a lot of communication."
And, he points out, cuts to staff were made after the 2010 Olympics and also through the service review commissioned by the last council.
"I'm very cognizant of the need to find balance... and (not to) go beyond what is necessary," says Furey.
The mayor recognizes that staff may have been wary when she was elected — she promised, after all, to bring more accountability to the hall.
"People have been assured that there wasn't going to be a slash-and-burn approach, that the approach that's being taken is thoughtful," says Wilhelm-Morden.
"We are sending messages to the staff, I hope, that they can grow and flourish in their positions, that there is more of a positive feel, that people will have opportunities to grow and thrive in their jobs."
Faulkner adds that without staff, council would be not be as successful as it has been so far in getting the job done.
"Going in, I think there was a lot of fear that we were going to be a real negative potential impact on municipal hall in general because certainly the zeitgeist at the time was fairly aggressive, as you remember," he says.
"Frankly, none of this could have happened without their participation, engagement and support."
Crompton, for one, is under no illusion that the past six months have been a honeymoon stage of sorts. Council is still basking in the afterglow of the election, with its mandate for change.
Tougher decisions are in the pipeline, chief of which is the question of zoning land in the south end of Whistler to accommodate a university. By Whistler standards, it's a huge development that could change the course of the town.
But, despite what lies ahead, there is an undercurrent of excitement coming from council; they are, quite simply, invigorated by their new jobs.
When asked if he likes it, Grills laughs.
"You know, any job that you walk away and you feel you're getting somewhere, you feel like you're getting something done, is rewarding," he says. "It's when you're putting a lot of effort into it and you're not getting anywhere that it's frustrating, no matter what the work is.
"The fact that we're getting somewhere and the community's been very appreciative of our work... that's made it so the answer is 'yes!'
"You're as good as your last victory. So we want to keep that rapport with the community up and obviously do a good job right through the full three years, but overall it's been rewarding — challenging, but rewarding."
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