RMOW and its partners 

A look back at 2012

click to flip through (4) PHOTO SUBMITTED - A decision has yet to be reached on the University Lands, although groundwork has been set.
  • Photo Submitted
  • A decision has yet to be reached on the University Lands, although groundwork has been set.
     
 

When you divide the hours, the sleepless nights, the closed-door meetings, the committee commitments, and the plain fact that you're never off the clock, you are always the mayor — just how much money is Nancy Wilhelm-Morden making per hour? Not enough, it seems..."I want my ten grand back," she deadpanned, as she begins a rundown of accomplishments in 2012.

She speaks in jest but the sheer volume of work accomplished in 2012 is nothing to scoff at.

The mayor took home just over $70,000 this year for her troubles, $10,000 less than her predecessor. But that was her choice. In her campaign for office she vowed to take a pay cut — a signal of sorts that she would be the one to trim the fat at the hall, if elected.

Now with a year under her belt and a steady stream of checkmarks next to her ongoing and never-ending list of things to do, Wilhelm-Morden began her reflections on 2012 with a simple comment that let's us know she is working hard for her money.

There were huge council coups this year — like securing the new Audain Art Museum and Ironman — and disappointing failures — like the losing the X Games bid and a judge's ruling on the asphalt plant — when things did not pan out as planned.

But through it all was a constant — a cohesive council team with a collective mantra. They wanted to restore the community's faith in municipal hall and rebuild trust, be accountable and transparent in all matters.

To be fair, in many ways fate has shined on council this past year. The new team was elected into office as the snow began to fall in Whistler, and nowhere else, or so it seemed. That spelled good news all around for the resort — hotels were busier, restaurants were hopping, and in early February Whistler Blackcomb was reporting a 31 per cent increase in destination guests in its first quarterly report of the year. There was an all around air of optimism.

But putting it down to fate takes away from some of the tough decisions. And there have been many.

Decisions like eliminating a whole division at the hall just two months into the council term in early February. That got rid of a $146,000 per year general manager position and the now defunct policy and program development division. GM Mike Vance, a ten-year veteran at the hall, was the casualty of that decision. It was part of an organization overhaul designed to find efficiencies and savings at the hall.

And it was a clear signal of shake up.

Council also released its Council Action Plan in February — a three year high-level workload of sorts developed at its January retreat. On the list of things to do: initiate a draft cultural plan, create an oversight committee to oversee the $6 million plus RMI (Resort Municipality Initiative) funds for tourism projects, revitalize the annual financial planning process and pursue an economic development strategy.

By and large it has stuck to the plan. And when new opportunities have come up, it's been able to react.

This year has also been a year of laying groundwork, putting processes in place that will herald in big decisions in the rest of the term.

"There were many, many quite significant achievements over the course of the last 12 months," said Wilhelm-Morden.

"It's been quite a year."

The Budget

This was a big one, one the election skeptics said wasn't possible, the one Nancy Wilhelm-Morden said was — a balanced municipal budget with zero property tax increases. The official 2012 budget was presented to council in April, the culmination of months of hard work. At the time the mayor said: "None of these decisions were easy. I can safely say that."

At the first budget open house in March, community members praised the council work on the financial plan. The overall feeling was one of "meaningful dialogue" and "genuine interest" and "turning over a new leaf" when it comes to spending taxpayers' money. High praise indeed from the typically critical taxpaying public.

Taxpayer Paul Mathews was at that first open house. Now a year later he said he's pleased with council spending and its influence on the $70 million plus municipal budget.

Last year he expects to see even more impact as council has had more time with the numbers, understands the intricacies of the hall even better.

"That should also ring out some further fat from the system," said Mathews.

There's an expectation that tax increases, if any, would be in the range of one to two per cent he said.

And that makes for relatively happy taxpayers.

The Committees

Committees of council have taken on a life of their own in 2012 as per council's direction. New committees have been created, like the ones on illegal space, on festivals, events and animation (FE&A), on economic partnership (EPI). Old committees have been brought back to life, like recreation and leisure, and seldom-used committees have been put to work like finance and audit. And then there's the Committee of the Whole meetings, almost twice a month, that allow groups to come before council in a more informal meeting.

Much of the nitty-gritty work is getting done at the committee level but council has its hand in everywhere. It's a way to engage, seek community feedback and gauge the tempo in town.

This year council set the groundwork for a big resolution looming on the horizon, the university lands decision. In June it endorsed the Learning and Education Planning Process, set up to identify and evaluate a full range of economic development opportunities within the field of learning and education. The process began in the fall and the task force will be operating between October 2012 and the end of March 2013.

The EPI

The Economic Partnership Initiative (EPI) produced nothing tangible in 2012. But its very creation in September could pave the way for big news in 2013.

At the request of municipal administrator Mike Furey, the EPI committee gathered leaders from across the resort — Whistler Blackcomb, Tourism Whistler, the hotel association and the Chamber of Commerce.

The idea is to reign in resources, study the resort's economic viability and produce a game plan moving forward.

In December the municipality hired consultants to produce a study on the community's economic activity and an economic sector analysis. The final draft will be delivered within the first 100 days of 2013. It will form the basis for future decisions.

The Partners

The EPI is a testament to just how closely all the organizations in Whistler are linked. Big changes in one could have ramifications in others.

Whistler Blackcomb

In mid-October Whistler Blackcomb was named the top resort as voted by SKI Magazine's readers. Huge accolades from skiers across North America and good news for the resort indeed.

Less than two months later news broke that a private equity fund specializing in travel and leisure businesses had agreed to buy Intrawest's 24 per cent stake in Whistler Blackcomb Holdings Inc, the company that owns a majority stake in the mountains. The news was again heralded as a huge vote of confidence in the resort.

"Absolutely it is," said Councillor Roger McCarthy.

Tourism Whistler

In July council was faced with an interesting dilemma when the chairman of the board of Tourism Whistler approached the mayor over concerns that Councillor Jayson Faulkner, the council rep, was in conflict on that board.

Faulkner, in his day job, is general manager and partner of the Sea to Sky Gondola project in Squamish, arguably a direct competitor of the WB's Peak 2 Peak Gondola.

With the pressure from the TW board, Faulkner stepped down from his appointment and Councillor McCarthy was picked in his place.

The story serves to illustrate the intricate connection between the resort partners.

Whistler Sport Legacies (WSL)

July also saw the release of the first public annual report from Whistler Sport Legacies, which operates the multi-million dollar Olympic legacies.

The report revealed that the Whistler Sliding Centre recouped about $578,000 of its $2.7 million in operating costs, while Whistler Olympic Park took in just over $1 million with operating costs of $2.1 million.

Council in Court... and Keeping out of it

It can't but help having a savvy lawyer in the top council seat in this litigious world of claims, counter claims, lawsuits and the threat of lawsuits. Lawyer and mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden knows how to play the game. Intimately.

She is a personal injury lawyer in the world outside local politics. In november her two worlds got a little too close for comfort after she filed a lawsuit in the supreme court against the Squamish Lillooet Regional District (SLRD), the province, and the pemberton valley trails association for her client who was injured while mountain biking in 2010.

Wilhelm-Morden stepped down from her position on the SLRD board, a position long held by whistler's mayor, in part due to a conflict of interest. She appointed councillor Jack Crompton in her stead.

The fallout of this case remains to be seen in 2013.  In the meantime, the mayor brings her wealth of knowledge of the legal system to the council table. More often than not, that table is behind closed doors, without the bright spotlight of public debate.

Yet, when the issues come to light, they offer more insight into the difficult job behind the council façade.

Here are three different examples of how Whistler played the game this year, and three more examples of Whistler dodging the legal bullet.

ASPHALT PLANT 

At the end of February council, in a closed-door meeting, agreed not to appeal the decision by a B.C. Supreme Court judge who ruled in January that the town's only asphalt plant is legally allowed to operate on the fringe of the new Cheakamus Crossing neighbourhood. The lawsuit, which was initiated by the former council, was close to $600,000. That includes associated costs including a report on relocation options as well as the work done on implementing the air quality monitoring system. Cheakamus residents, who kept up the political pressure to initiate the lawsuit, were disappointed in the decision not to appeal but had hopes that council would resolve the situation through third party negotiations. Those negotiations failed completely in 2012 after council cut out the Whistler plant from any municipal contracts. The plant continues to operate beside the residential neighbourhood.

RAINBOW PARK 

Whistler's longest running legal battle — 25 years long with the Vancouver-based Saxton family — ended in July. The case centered around the creation of Rainbow Park, which in 1987 was simply lakefront land that belonged to the Saxton family. Council of the day expropriated 44 hectares of this land to create the park. It paid the family $367,000 at the time.  The Saxtons believed it wasn't enough and they argued their case all the way to the B.C. Supreme Court. In March 2010 a Supreme Court judge agreed and ruled that the land was worth $1.3 million in 1987. But that didn't take into consideration the interest. In May the court awarded the family $1.5 million in unpaid interest; they had argued for a minimum interest payment of almost $4.5 million. The family filed an appeal. Whistler swiftly filed a cross appeal, signalling it was prepared to continue the fight. In July, the family abandoned their appeal, settling for a total payment of $2.4 million.

Wilhelm-Morden said one of the lessons learned from the 25-year-old case is to deal with litigation in a timely manner.

"We didn't do that with this case, to our detriment," she said at the time "And that was no individual's fault, it's just that that's a lesson learned."

WRONGFUL DISMISSAL

In February Whistler quietly settled a wrongful dismissal lawsuit brought against it by a former senior manager. The court ordered that all claims from both sides be dismissed without costs. Harry Kim, former general manager of environmental services for roughly a year and a half, alleged he was terminated without cause and without notice. In court documents the municipality later alleged Kim was sub-consulting with his former employer while working for the muni. It served a counterclaim looking for unpaid rent. Both claims were dropped.

Threat of Lawsuits

MONS REZONING 

Developer Steve Bayly didn't mince his words in August after council delayed giving final approval to his Mons Road industrial rezoning. He told Pique he was reviewing his options, including litigation for financial damages after spending more than $2 million to meet municipal requirements for the large project that would transform a 6.5 hectare site north of the village for transportation, infrastructure and civic uses. It was a major decision for this council, even if it was just to give the final nod to the bylaws, and council members had unanswered questions and concerns. But by this point the rezoning had been five years in the making and reviewed by three councils. Bayly had had enough. Three weeks after his threat of litigation council was delaying no more. Outstanding questions had been answered and the mayor publicly thanked Bayly for coming back to the table to negotiate after council sent the project back to staff. Lawsuit averted, Mons bylaws approved. It is one of the most significant rezonings of the year, if not the most, creating a maximum build out of 200,000 square feet.

FIRST NATIONS AND THE OCP 

This threat still looms large as Whistler ushers in 2013. In November Whistler sent its Official Community Plan (the OCP) to the Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development for approval, without the blessing of Squamish and Lil'wat First Nations. The OCP reinforces Whistler's long-held position that there should be a "hard cap" on development across the resort, including on Crown land, "upon which there is unresolved aboriginal rights and title," said the Nations' lawyer Greg McDade.

"The Nations were willing to work with RMOW to find a way to solve this, but now may be forced to block the OCP approval from the province until there is a resolution."

When asked at the last council meeting of the year for an update on the OCP, municipal administrator Mike Furey said:

"They (the province) have all the information and they're considering it... We're hoping again early in the New Year we'll hear back from them."

A legal challenge from First Nations over the OCP could have sweeping ramifications across the province.

JAZZ ON THE MOUNTAIN

The founder of the Jazz on the Mountain festival threatened to sue Whistler for trademark infringement in May. Arnold Schwisberg, a high profile Toronto-based liquor lawyer, wrote a letter to Jan Jansen, the RMOW's general manager of resort experience, stating he would be seeking $704,000 in damages stemming from a series of Vancouver print ads advertising the 2011 jazz festival as part of the municipal Whistler Presents free concert series. His decision came on the heels of a denial of $150,000 in municipal funds for the festival and a subsequent decision to cancel the 2012 festival. The threat of the legal challenge highlighted the issues around the fledging municipal Festivals, Events & Animation (FE&A) program and the decisions around divvying up millions of provincial grant money to spice up the festival and events line-up.

The lawsuit was never filed.

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