What a difference three years makes.
In the lead-up to Whistler’s last election, the 25 council and six mayoral candidates on the ballot had plenty of contentious issues to argue over — the RMOW’s finances and significant tax increases, pay parking and the Cheakamus Crossing asphalt plant chief among them. It was a hotly debated and often tense campaign that drew a healthy voter turnout and resulted in a completely new mayor and council at municipal hall.
Three years later, the contrast could not be starker. The community appears more than satisfied with the current administration, a good sign for the incumbents as there are only nine nominees vying for six spots on council, and the only challenger to sitting Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden is Shane Bennett, who could be charitably described as a long shot.
By comparison to 2011, it has been a rather civil campaign. We’ve seen no attack ads, no political signage and virtually no debate. The incumbents have mostly stuck to their usual talking points, laying out a laundry list of accomplishments from the last term, while many of the new candidates have played it safe, keeping their messaging consistent with the current council.
At Wednesday’s All-Candidates Meeting, the second held in 24 hours, the trend continued, with much discussion around the thorniest issues facing the community, like housing, the development of arts and culture and the Resort Municipality Initiative (RMI) program.
Hosted by Pique, the Question, the Whistler Chamber of Commerce and the Whistler Arts Council, the agenda touched on a wide range of subjects, but in what has become a recurring theme of this campaign, addressing affordability and Whistler’s housing crunch was near the top of the list.
Realtor Michael d’Artois admitted to being “a little stymied” with the issue, but pointed to the positive work done by the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA) in providing affordable housing to residents.
Entrepreneur Tristan Galbraith, who has at times looked out of his element at the community forums, said it’s up to the WHA and resort employers to fulfill “their civic duty of giving people a good wage and a place to live here.”
Jen Ford was the only candidate posed the question around affordable housing who offered a different perspective, saying that the municipality should continue to support and attract new social programs, like those offered by Whistler Community Services Society, that “add value to the product we have here for our residents and guests.” When asked about the possibility of establishing a mandated minimum wage across the resort, Wilhelm-Morden said it falls outside of the municipality’s authority, but that the RMOW “can exercise some moral suasion with the other employers in town to ensure that employees are paid a fair wage.”
Whistler’s mayor was evasive at various points through the night, occasionally skirting certain questions, such as one posed from the host panel on whether holding the line on property taxes in the next term is financially prudent.
“I can’t say what our tax increase, if any, will be in 2015,” she said. “There are things that are increasing in costs; fuel in particular and salaries as well. It may be that we will have to have a modest tax increase, but that will be a job for the new council and the finance and audit committee.”
With the news that Victoria is reexamining the RMI program, candidates were asked for their plan of attack in the event the roughly $7-million in annual tourism funding the resort receives dries up. Candidates spoke to the vital importance of the monies to Whistler’s events calendar, and vowed to lobby the province if funding is discontinued.
“If it dried up tomorrow, I think we need to take a look at what the return on investment has been for some of the events we sponsored,” said waste management specialist Sue Maxwell, who has come out as one of the strongest new council candidates. “…We’ll want to take a look at which initiatives we’ve put forward that we should continue with and help us to continue to get as many visitors as possible.”
There was also much talk around how to continue the diversification of Whistler’s economy, with candidates pointing to arts, culture and heritage as one of the keys.
“With the one-dimensional aspect of a ski town and how limiting that is for future prospects, sectors like the arts, crafts and the cultural plan really rounds out the resort as a year-round destination,” said Steve Anderson, who admitted to not having read last year’s Community Cultural Plan, one of four major reports completed by the RMOW in the last term.
d’Artois pointed to the rich cultural and historical experiences found in places like Quebec City as a prime example of what Whistler could offer guests, particularly with the new Audain Museum opening in 2015, as well as a proposed cultural connector aimed at linking visitors to the resort’s other cultural venues. d’Artois, along with Maxwell, Galbraith, Ford, Anderson and Pete Crutchfield, all expressed their support for exploring a new permanent location for the Whistler Museum.
Incumbent Jack Crompton once again looked confident at Wednesday’s meeting, and outlined his plan to increase transit ridership in Whistler.
“In a town that has really high transit ridership, that’s not an easy task,” he said. “I’d like to look at a U-Pass sort of scenario like UBC has. It’s significantly increased ridership there and I think if the partners got together in our community, that’s something we could probably deliver on.”
He also detailed plans for a transit phone app that would track buses in real time. “Preferred methods of transportation” was a key platform point for Anderson as well, who would like to see “local transit hook up with regional transit to get people to and from Vancouver.”
Incumbent Andrée Janyk was posed few questions by the panel and public Wednesday evening, but spoke persuasively when addressed, particularly on the issue of ambulance response times in the community.
“Whistler needs to create better connections with health services in Squamish and Vancouver,” she said, especially for the resort’s mature community who are choosing to age in place.
Driving business to the Upper Village was another key issue Wednesday, with incumbent John Grills saying he’d like to continue exploring a possible name change for the neighbourhood to counter the perception that the area isn’t easily accessible from the main village.
Crutchfield, a former Merlin’s employee, said the incoming Audain Museum and cultural connector will help to shift that perception.
“People will have a reason (to go to the Upper Village) and won’t see that perceived barrier because they’re going from one stop to another,” he said. “The primary difference there is perception, because the distance is not that far.”
Crompton, meanwhile, said supporting Tourism Whistler in driving conference business to the Fairmont should help enliven the Upper Village.
The Whistler Off Road Cycle Association (WORCA) will host the third and final all-candidates meeting on Monday, Nov. 3 at the Whistler Secondary School. The roundtable meeting is open to all, and is scheduled to run from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.
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