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Chaos Theory

A 2018-2022 Whistler council retrospective

“Chaos was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man.”

-American historian Henry Adams

 

On Nov. 6, 2018, Mayor Jack Crompton stood before the podium in front of a packed house at the Maury Young Arts Centre, having just been sworn in as the new Mayor of Whistler, and laid out his vision for the resort.

“What animates me, and what I hope will animate our community going forward, is a pursuit of depth; of roots; of permanence,” Crompton said.

“I believe in the next election someone will stand in front of this community and say, ‘My name is, and I was born here, and I want you to vote for me,’ ... I think that will be an exciting day.

“I am going to work very hard for that person to be able to call this home and raise a family here.”

Crompton invoked the stories of Whistler trailblazers past and present, and laid out what he called an “extremely aggressive” agenda for council’s first 100 days.

It was a perfectly fine speech. Nostalgic and forward-looking in equal measures, and setting the proper tone for the work ahead.

But reflecting on the mayor’s words that night as council’s term comes to an end four years later, the address feels entirely of a different era—a relic from a time capsule, recovered from an alternate reality we all once lived in, where things were mostly predictable and uncomplicated by concurrent crises.

Alas.

If the mayor’s inaugural address was about setting the course, an ill-conceived letter to the oil and gas industry, passed by the previous council but signed by Crompton shortly after the new council’s inauguration, was the proverbial canary in the coalmine—a harbinger of the volatile, unpredictable, and downright bizarre years ahead.

“I could have chosen a better venue. I certainly should have sent a better letter,” Crompton said in a Dec. 18, 2018 interview with Pique. “As I’ve said, I regret making any guests feel unwelcome. We were tone-deaf. We do, as a resort, depend on oil and gas.”

The backlash from the letter requesting Canadian oil producers take financial responsibility for the harm their products have caused in the community was swift and brutal, but aside from a few lingering emails and social media comments (still, to this day), the outrage had mostly subsided a month later, with no visible lasting impact.

Indeed, 2019, as a whole, comes off as rather boring when viewed in the context of 2020 to ’22.

In the early months of the year, council deliberated and passed its first budget, with a 2.9-per-cent tax increase. 

For ease of reference: the 2020 tax increase was 2.8 per cent. In 2021, council considered a 4.89-per-cent increase, before opting for a 1.08-per-cent increase instead in light of COVID’s continued impacts—a move that staff warned would lead to higher taxes in future years. And in 2022, that premonition came true, when council passed a 6.72-per-cent increase.

In the first half of 2019 (among many other things): council completed a project to improve safety in Function Junction; granted the Whistler Off Road Cycling Association a substantial boost in Fee For Service funding; launched a campaign to persuade businesses to close their doors in the winter; considered employee housing proposals from private developers; held a public hearing for the long-awaited Official Community Plan; adopted a new multimodal evacuation plan for emergencies like wildfire; launched a child-care planning project; and saw an early presentation on what would prove the cornerstone of the council term in Cheakamus Crossing Phase 2.

In retrospect, 2019 was a busy and fruitful year for council, with several key projects and initiatives getting their start or being completed. 

But it was by no means a year of great drama or intrigue.

The predictability would bleed into the early months of 2020, which saw council exploring corrosion control for Whistler’s water; buying a property in Emerald to restore recreational access to the neighbourhood; setting a work plan for the new Strategic Planning Committee; and hiring a new Chief Administrative Officer in Virginia Cullen.

Then, March 2020 arrived to spit in our collective faces and stomp our hopes and dreams into the ground.

“Man plans, God laughs”

-Yiddish proverb

 DEVASTATION DAYS

Late into the evening of Saturday, March 14, 2020, Crompton was still reeling from the closure of Whistler Blackcomb due to COVID-19.

In a rare late-night phone interview with Pique, the mayor called the closure “devastating.”

One can imagine what else must have been going through his mind that night, as Whistler’s economic engine was unceremoniously scrapped in the span of hours, with nothing in the way of certainty regarding the future.

For better or worse, in the coming years and decades, this council’s term will forever be painted in the light of the pandemic.

And in that dismal context, Whistler’s current mayor and council performed admirably, if imperfectly.

And aside from the inherent strangeness of being forced to conduct all public meetings on Zoom, council’s operations surprisingly continued largely as they normally would.

Case in point: on June 23, 2020, council adopted Whistler’s updated Official Community Plan—a years-long effort spanning multiple councils and countless community members and organizations.

“I think one of the most exciting things for me is how this sets us up to continue to work with the Squamish and the Lil’wat [Nations] in exciting ways going forward, and so there’s lots to do and there’s lots of exciting days ahead,” Crompton said at the time, calling the OCP a “foundational document” for Whistler.

“So, its adoption allows us to move forward on what’s most important to Whistler.”

In the second half of 2020, council heard presentations on a new dock strategy for local lakes and a new Big Moves Strategy for climate action; adopted a new Framework Agreement with local First Nations, and began the renaming process for Squaw Valley Crescent (now Chamonix Crescent); received a report on child-care in the resort; and adopted new greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets—after hearing in September 2020 that emissions rose four per cent in 2019 (a trend that would continue for the remainder of council’s term, much to the consternation of some locals).

While council affairs were mostly able to continue unabated, the pandemic threw municipal finances for a loop, leading staff to revise the budget (more than once, in fact), cutting $12.7 million in spending, and temporarily rescinding Fee For Service funding for local groups.

As usage skyrocketed, the RMOW also facilitated the relocation of the Whistler Food Bank to the Whistler Conference Centre, and adopted temporary patio bylaws to help local businesses struggling with new space limitations.

IF YOU FAIL TO PLAN…

Two days after council was sworn in, in a special council meeting on Nov. 8, 2018, the new mayor and council passed three resolutions: to form a new governance committee; to launch a new Strategic Planning Committee; and to re-form the Whistler 2020 Development Corporation (WDC).

The urgency of the meeting and the content of its resolutions was more than stock-in-trade municipal governance—it was a signal that Whistler’s new council was serious about its stated priorities of housing, planning and good governance.

So… four years on, and with the local electorate preparing to pass judgment, how has council done on those three major pillars of the term?

The housing file is perhaps difficult to gauge, given the broader affordability challenges seen elsewhere in B.C. and Canada.

This council has done an admirable job of advancing new builds, both in Cheakamus Crossing Phase 2 and other areas of the municipality, and has worked productively with its subsidiaries, the WDC and Whistler Housing Authority, to increase the number of Whistlerites living in employee housing.

And yet, the housing situation in Whistler is seemingly worse than it has been in more than a decade, with scant availability and soaring prices now the norm at any given time of year.

Keeping in mind that hindsight is 20/20, could this council have, in the first years of its term, done more, policy-wise, to ensure enough housing is available and affordable for locals? 

Many in our community would undoubtedly answer yes, and housing is clearly the No. 1 issue for the vast majority of Whistlerites in this election—but time will tell if our current crisis is enough to spell the end for local incumbents.

As far as planning goes, Whistler’s Strategic Planning Committee (SPC) was presumably doing good work (we have to presume, because the meetings are closed to the public) when the pandemic hit in March 2020, and the group’s focus shifted to resort recovery.

So, again, it is worth giving some leeway here in light of the circumstances. 

As of the end of the term, the main result of council’s new SPC is the Balance Model Initiative, which seeks to balance the four “pillars” of Whistler’s vision: community, environment, tourism economy and sense of place.

As part of the initiative, the RMOW conducted a data-driven analysis of population and resort visitation trends, coming up with some troubling scenarios for Whistler if nothing is done to manage growth—in short, more residents, more visitors, more traffic congestion, more pronounced labour shortages.

Basically, more of all the things Whistler is already struggling with.

Our current council has done much of the legwork in terms of setting Whistler on a sustainable path—if such a path exists.

It will be up to our next mayor and council to find it.

No pressure, really—for us as voters, or the brave seven who fill the seats this fall.

And governance… well, we have a few thoughts about governance and transparency. They admittedly come with a conflicted point of view—but hear us out.

Council did strike a new committee, and it did produce a Community Engagement Review and Community Engagement Policy. 

But this council also spent $28,000 suing our newspaper over standard coverage of an event that was very much in the public interest—the April 2021 ransomware attack that crippled municipal services for months and compromised thousands of people’s personal information.

The RMOW said it sued to protect the privacy of its staff.

The reasoning is beside the point. The simple fact is that this act had a chilling effect on the local press, and needlessly strained the relationship between the municipality and local journalists.

The author knowingly writes this both as someone with a vested interest in press freedom, and someone who was intimately involved in the aforementioned events.

But one must ask: is suing your local newspaper an act of good governance?

Is it in service of transparency—that obscure, apparently unattainable catchphrase spouted ad nauseam by so many candidates in the 2018 campaign—or does it fly directly in the face of the entire, rose-tinted concept?

Food for thought as a new batch of candidates floats a new batch of catchphrases.

HITS AND MISSES

As described by Councillor John Grills—who is not seeking re-election in 2022 after three terms—the ransomware attack came at perhaps the most inopportune of times.

“We managed to keep the boat afloat [through COVID], and then we took another torpedo right into the hull,” Grills said in a 2021 interview with Pique.

To hear it from Coun. Ralph Forsyth, the ransomware attack was almost worse than COVID itself, if only for the fact that it only impacted the municipality—while the community around it continued to expect prompt service delivery.

 “The pandemic, it was like, OK, well everyone is experiencing this,” he said. “Whereas the cyber attack was like, man, it’s just us—what are we doing? How do we get out of this?”

The answer was a complete rebuild of the municipal network “from scratch or near-scratch to ensure resiliency against known future cyber threats going forward,” the municipality said in a June 14, 2021 release.

The total cost—both direct and indirect, as well as how much will be covered by insurance, and how much will fall to taxpayers—is still not known as of this writing, a full 16 months removed from the attack.

There were of course other blemishes on the term, some self-inflicted, some completely unavoidable.

The Resort Municipality of Whistler has still not advanced any substantial corrosion control measures to address the community’s corrosive water, qualities known to leech metals like lead and iron from household plumbing (remember to flush your tap until the water is cold!).

The long-promised dream of regional transit—a stated goal of many on our current council—appears to once again be dead in the water, despite the continued resuscitation efforts of officials in Whistler and the Sea to Sky. 

And speaking of transit, a four-month transit strike in early 2022—while completely outside the realm of responsibility or control for local officials—created hardship on top of hardship for local residents (never an ideal scenario in an election year, regardless of who’s actually holding the prodding stick).

And for all the efforts to build more housing, the past four years have seen a substantial number of long-term locals forced from the community due to issues with affordability and availability. Whatever the cause, and whatever council might have done or not done to prevent it, that very fact represents a blemish on this council’s record.

There were no doubt more—feel free to leave them in the comments.

TO THE POLLS

This is but a small glimpse into what may go down as one of the wildest, most unpredictable—but ultimately quite productive—council terms in Whistler’s history.

As we approach the word count for our little restrospective, we have yet to touch on things like: lower speed limits in residential neighbourhoods; the enhanced rezoning process for 4500 Northlands (the final decisions for which will lie with Whistler’s next council); old-growth logging; Land Use Contracts; the White Gold undergrounding; cannabis retail; asphalt procurement; permitting backlogs; COVID-19 vaccine policy; the Alta Lake Road sewer project; or those really expensive bathrooms in the village.

For all the variables thrown at them, this council admittedly completed much of what it set out to, or at the very least, made progress.

It has positioned the town nicely for whoever fills the chairs next.

With that in mind, those variables—that chaos that has so callously upended our lives again and again in recent years—has directly exacerbated all of Whistler’s very real challenges.

In the next four years, Whistler needs a council that will advance real, long-term solutions on housing policy, affordability, labour, mental health and community well-being—not to mention broader goals around the environment and sustainability—all while keeping a watchful eye on the town’s COVID-beleaguered finances.

Easy, right?

There’s no way our next council can predict and plan for every unknown or variable. All we can do is elect people who are thoughtful, patient, and reasonable about what they can accomplish, but above all else tireless in their pursuit of a better community for all of us—and not just those who can vote.

Advance voting takes place in Whistler on Saturday, Oct. 8 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Whistler Public Library.

Election day is Saturday, Oct. 15. Polls are open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Myrtle Philip Community School.

Read more about Whistler’s local candidates online here, and pick up next week’s Pique to hear from the candidates in their own words.

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