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Feature - What was that you said?

Whistler voters have spoken, their message is open to interpretation

By G.D. Maxwell

Democracy – ya gotta love it. On a typical, November, Wet Coast kind of day, a surprising number of Whisterites and weekenders made the trek to Myrtle Philip school to stand in the rain and do their civic duty.

Up on the mountains, just below Whistler’s mid-station, the rain turned to snow and fell in buckets. Bob Morton, who probably knows the rolling terrain of the mountain as well or better than any living person, wasn’t sure whether the snowcat he was driving was still on the road or… or just exactly where it was. But with heavy snow falling, two things were clear: the mountains were going to open on time and his best bet was to stay the course, which was to say, head on up-mountain.

Down in the valley, things weren’t so clear.

While record numbers of wet bodies came out to cast votes, the overall percentage of eligible voters – a truly unknown figure – who exercised their franchise was still anemic. Just over 3,000 votes were cast, the majority at Myrtle Philip on Saturday but a couple of hundred split between early ballots and the West Vancouver polling station. With a full-time population hovering around 10,000, maybe half of whom are eligible, and a significant number of second homeowners and condo commandos who could mark a ballot, there’s no strong reason to celebrate, although the anecdotal accounts of large numbers of younger voters is heartening.

The hallmark of western democracies at the turn of the millennium continues to be voter apathy. "None of the above" still seems to be the most popular sentiment. Despite an active race for the mayor’s seat and 18 seekers running after six council slots – including all six incumbents – most of the voting-age population couldn’t be bothered contributing to the community in even this miniscule way. Pity that.

But while the 3,067 votes cast for mayor yielded a clear winner – two-time incumbent Hugh O’Reilly – this vote could hardly be considered an endorsement of the status quo. Two incumbent councillors, Stephanie Sloan and Ted Milner were stymied in their effort to secure a third term and two of the top three vote-getters for the reconstituted council were first timers, Caroline Lamont and Gordon McKeever. We might not have changed horses in midstream, but we’re probably not headed in exactly the same direction either.

And the fat lady’s still warming up. The statistically improbable happened Saturday evening: a tie. The numbers for the sixth council seat are stuck at 1,057 for incumbent Dave Kirk and newcomer Marianne Wade. A single "spoiled" ballot, rejected by one of the voting machines, is wending its way through the legal machinery but the outcome remains uncertain.

Whistler voters have spoken. What in the world have they said?

Roger That, Good Buddy

Hugh O’Reilly emerged victorious in a hotly contested mayoral race. In most elections, Hugh’s total, 57 per cent, would be considered a strong mandate. Is it?

Dave Davenport declared early – last July – had powerful friends, a large contingent of volunteers who worked tirelessly on his behalf, and he travelled light, not carrying the baggage of incumbency. He also had the best line on election night. At the Davenport après party, during his concession speech, Keith Fernandes shouted from the crowd, "I’m volunteering for your next campaign, Dave." Without missing a beat, Davenport replied, "I don’t know if Ted’s (Nebbeling) stepping down." To avoid starting any unfounded rumours, Ted, who was present, said he’s not… and Dave was just kidding.

But below the surface of the leadership issue Davenport chose to run on, what was the real difference between the two on hot button issues? Hugh’s a champion of the Olympics; ditto Dave. Hugh supported the contentious World Economic Forum proposal; ditto Dave. Affordable housing: who’s not for it?

The main baggage Davenport carried into the election was anonymity, a perception he was Victoria’s boy, absolutely no experience in municipal government, and an image he was not active in the community in any meaningful way outside of business interests.

Despite these serious shortfalls, he pulled a highly respectable 43 per cent of the vote.

Coupled with the very loud change message delivered in the vote for council, one has to question whether the mayor’s margin of victory constitutes a mandate to "stay the course" so much as it does a ringing personal endorsement of Hugh O’Reilly, Whistler’s Every Man.

"This really vindicates what we’ve been doing," said Mayor O’Reilly on election night. That’s an understandable sentiment in the full flush of victory. But with a few days to think about the message sent by voters, Hugh’s analysis reflected a deeper meaning. "The big sentiment was that change is healthy. We’ve got some more work there to do. That really became clear to me. What I think is well-known information obviously isn’t because I kept hearing information coming back to me I considered not exactly right. I think the community is in great shape but we are concerned long term about issues like affordability and housing."

And All Singing From the Same Page…

If there was a single, unified message delivered by this election it was this: DON’T MESS WITH KENNY! Ken Melamed, lone wolf, Don Quixote stand-in, perennial underdog, six-to-one long shot on more council votes than he’d like to remember, kicked some serious butt Saturday night. With a vote total of 1,867 he was the people’s choice.

But what did that mean? Do the voters support Ken’s environmental stands? Do they support his opposition to the Olympics? Or do they simply value his contrariness and ceaseless questioning?

"I think in all honesty, I can’t say it’s a vindication of my ideas as much as my approach. If there’s one clear message, it’s that people seem to appreciate someone with passionate convictions, someone who isn’t a stereotypical politician," was Ken’s take on the meaning of his showing.

Indeed, more than one person expressed the sentiment that a council of six Kens would be a disaster but a council without at least one would be an even worse disaster.

Perhaps the clearest manifestation of the desire for change was the strong vote for Caroline Lamont. Drawing just over 1,800 votes, Caroline resonated with the voters. She was an appealing candidate. Young family, affordable housing occupant, smart, hard-working, hard-playing, she embodied much of the model demographic of this community and could be seen as hope for a future Whistler with a strong, vibrant, resident core.

"What I heard from the community," she said, "is that they really want to be listened to more than they have been. They want to be engaged and have their voices heard and listened to when council is considering the tough issues. Ken and I both come from a strong community base and I think that was indicated in the vote."

The other certain newcomer to council is Gordon McKeever. A long-time advocate with the Creekside Merchants Association, Gordon sees himself and his victory as a balancing act. "This time around, people were looking for fresh input but not radical change. Caroline and I are the fresh blood."

While the margin of victory in Ken and Caroline’s vote was substantial, Gordon and incumbents Kristi Wells and Nick Davies were all clustered within a few votes of each other. This may be a prescient indicator of a core, middle of the road coalition on the new council or simply an anomalous statistic. Only time will tell.

Both Kristi and Nick expressed disappointment in the failure of fellow councilors Stephanie Sloan and Ted Milner to win re-election. "There was no thrill of victory for me this time," as Nick put it. "There seemed to be a mass psychology expressing a desire for change, yet when pushed to identify specifically where this council wasn’t delivering, the proponents of change had trouble specifying."

"I think there was an expression of a certain amount of frustration within the community over their perception of what this council delivered," Kristi said. "There seemed to be agreement that we worked hard as a council and accomplished a lot of positive things for the community. We just didn’t package it well."

Perhaps that frustration or mass psychology best expressed itself in the epilogue to this election – the mystery sixth seat. Tied in votes, Marianne Wade and Dave Kirk neatly bracket the schism voiced by the electorate. With more years on council than anyone, Dave is weighted with the baggage of a long record, one during which he’s undoubtedly pleased and disappointed almost everyone at some point or another. Buoying this weight, is Dave’s thoughtful, fresh approach to whatever issue is in front of him. Among incumbents, he is the most mercurial and hardest to pigeonhole, often surprising even those who know him well.

Marianne was encumbered – for some – with the reputation of being a strong advocate of development, having worked tirelessly to get Nick North built. She was seen as another candidate with a strong planning background but was light on recent, local ties.

The outcome of the race and the makeup of council will take a while to unravel. A rejected ballot might decide the outcome or it might come down to a runoff election. Neither outcome is without its downside. A spoiled ballot could, arguably, suggest a full, manual recount is in order, depending on why the machine rejected the ballot in the first place.

A runoff election, on the other hand, would not be limited to Dave and Marianne; all unsuccessful candidates would be eligible to run. The strategic elements of such an election would be complex. People would know the makeup of five-sixths of council and the mayor. Would they vote to balance ideology? Sex? Incumbency? Age? Would that final vote become a lightening rod for the forces of change or status quo? Undoubtedly, fewer people would vote in a runoff, opening the possibility of a couple hundred votes swinging the election. A strong organization on the part of one candidate might well offset the overall appeal of another.

Uh-huh, But What’s In It For Me?

There’s a good chance that even if all incumbents had been re-elected, some things would still have changed. The community’s got a good head of steam built up behind it. This election seemed to energize people once again to the democratic process. It’s unlikely the new administration will ignore public input – or wait so long to seek it – as at least the perception has become.

For example, all of the candidates voiced strong support for a renewed effort to stave off the dreaded Aspenization of Whistler. Having successfully fought the Nimby battles and, at least temporarily, beaten those short-sighted forces into submission, some tangible movement on the affordable housing front would come as no surprise. It seems unlikely we’re going to hear many more suggestions from muni hall that we have "enough" affordable housing.

Having said that, if Ms. Lamont succeeds in influencing others to her point of view, there will be some attempt to bring order to chaos and stop dealing with development proposals on a Let’s Make a Deal basis, replacing ad hoc decisions with more ordered planning of remaining sites and opportunities.

And most definitely, we should be able to expect a renewed effort to reach the Holy Grail of local politics – increased community input. Councillor Wells is adamant in her backing for the chartering of select committees. Comprised of citizens, elected officials and municipal staff, they would be challenged to weigh in on hot button issues before council and, unlike what is often the case with advisory committees, inform the final decision.

With surprising turnout at the candidate’s meeting hosted by WORCA – and especially surprising numbers of Whistler’s younger residents in attendance – there is a reinvigorated sense that, with a little creative structuring, this apathetic, lethargic community can be engaged.

"This community is issue oriented," said Councillor Melamed. "They are much better at rallying around specific issues than they are at responding to more open-ended calls for input. One of the best public meetings we’ve had was the WEF meeting where we let people step up and take the microphone. There’s been a certain amount of nervousness in muni hall about doing things like that. But there were brilliantly spoken sentiments at that meeting, even from people who’d only been in town for three months."

Monday’s council meeting may be seen as another good example. The public hearing to comment on council’s proposed bylaw amending the Official Community Plan to allow for residential development on tracts of land in the Callaghan Valley and Cheakamus bench – legacy plots offered by the provincial government – was well attended.

Around two dozen people took the microphone and made what should have been an obvious point. There is no clear community consensus to build a satellite community south of town. There were heartfelt statements for and against such a plan. There were submissions that the plan was too restrictive – failing to embrace single-family development and non-residential uses – and too ambitious, targeting upwards of 8,000 additional residents.

In the end, any vote on the bylaw was postponed to Dec. 16. While this may have been procedural and in keeping with the change in makeup of the council that will take office on Dec. 2, it may have also been at least partly the result of a strong community showing that this issue was far from adequately aired.

The process of becoming a working council can’t begin until the sixth seat is decided. If history is any indication, we can look forward to a settling-in period where the new blood finds its cadence and voice and the sage, returning veterans find their new order in the pack.

What won’t change is the magnitude and velocity of challenges that need to be faced to keep this experiment we call Whistler from becoming another ski resort about which more people say, "Yeah, but you shoulda seen it before it went down the tubes."

Congratulations to those taking up the challenge for the next three years, condolences to those who didn’t make it, thanks to those departing and admiration to everyone who put it on the line for our community. Someone wiser than myself – an admittedly significant portion of this town’s population – said it best. "We’ve never suffered bad government, just differences of opinion."