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One Year Out

With 12 months to the next municipal election, Pique checks in on council’s progress so far

The machinations of local government are, to be generous, not often marked by expediency.

Priorities and targets are set with the best of intentions, but oftentimes the unforeseeable—and unavoidable—plots a new course.

When Whistler’s mayor and council were elected in 2018, talking of things like housing, climate and strategic planning (to name just a few of the hot topics of the day), it felt almost like business as usual.

Set the priorities, hash it all out at the annual council retreat, and get to work.

Then a global pandemic changed everything.

“I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the last two years have been some of the most challenging in our town’s history. [But] I’m proud of all that Whistlerites have accomplished through COVID,” says Mayor Jack Crompton.

One of the most important lessons taken from the pandemic so far is how it has disproportionately affected tourism towns, the mayor adds, noting that, whether you work in F&B, transportation, the ski industry or hotels, your life and career have been turned upside down since March 2020.

“It would have been really easy for us to lose hope,” he says.

“I don’t want to understate the mental and physical health impacts we’ve all endured, but as a community we’ve risen to it. People thought about others first, and it’s truly been an all-hands-on-deck response—businesses, community service, local government, healthcare, everyone.

“That makes me really proud to be a Whistlerite.”

With the next municipal elections scheduled for Oct. 15, 2022, Pique looks back on the first three years of council’s term—their successes, failures, triumphs and challenges—while also looking ahead to the final year.

Check the sidebar for Pique’s quick-and-dirty, no-frills, non-scientific grading on council’s progress to date, and read on for reflections from your local elected officials.

HOUSE AND HOME 

For all the operational turmoil in recent years, progress on Phase 2 of Whistler’s Cheakamus Crossing is “pretty much” where council envisioned it would be at this point in the term, says Councillor Duane Jackson during a recent tour of the site.

“We’ve had challenges—there’s a lot of variety in the terrain here,” says Jackson, who was tasked with overseeing council’s housing portfolio after the election in 2018.

“There’s a lot of unknowns once you strip the trees, but it’s worked out. We’ve been able to put enough equipment on it to keep the momentum going.”

By the time council’s term is up, 100 units of for-purchase affordable employee housing will be completed, and construction will be underway on 18 market-for-sale lots.

Once fully built out (a job to be completed by Whistler’s next mayor and council), the new neighbourhood will add about 295 units of employee housing, not including the 18 market lots.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made for a difficult term for elected officials and municipal staff alike, Jackson says.

“It would have been nice to have got other things done, but it’s out of our control,” Jackson says.

“But fortunately this hasn’t been bothered by it at all. Everyone comes to work and gets the job done.”

For all the progress made at municipal hall on housing construction—including four new buildings completed in recent years for the Whistler Housing Authority—the resort’s longstanding housing woes are far from solved.

“The erosion of market rental housing is distressing. There is no way that we can replace it,” says Coun. Cathy Jewett.

“Every time someone buys a place that has a suite in it and renovates it and takes the suite out, it’s basically a $250,000 hole that we can’t fill. We don’t have the capacity to build as fast as the erosion of suites in rental housing.”

During the work of the Mayor’s Task Force on Resident Housing, completed from 2016 to 2018, the resort was seeing a rental erosion of 200 units a year, while it takes the municipality two years to build 100, Jewett says.

“It’s like we’re in quicksand. We can’t keep up,” she says.

“And the demand for a decent place to live if you’re working in Whistler has not slowed down, and so we have to look at what we’re doing to address it.”

As far as solutions go, Jewett floats the idea of a bylaw ensuring suites are maintained for workers.

“My understanding is that there are communities that have done this, either preserving existing [suites] or to ensure that new builds have affordable rental housing in them,” she says, though she concedes that such a bylaw could be concerning for homeowners forced to be landlords.

“And the kind of prices that local real estate is getting means that the kind of people that are buying these places, there’s not enough tax credits that we could give. We have to figure out another way.”

Issues of housing, affordability and even childcare are not unique to Whistler—a point Jewett says she brought up with local candidates in the recent federal election.

“I told them that municipalities are where your rubber hits the road [on these issues],” she says. “When they make a policy and they make funding available, it has to get to the municipality, and there has to be enough resources to make it reality.”

ON THE ROAD AGAIN

Building more housing is a big piece of the affordability puzzle, “but that alone won’t solve it,” agrees Coun. Jen Ford.

“I think there’s a big shift in society to higher wages, more of a living wage, but that takes a whole community; that’s not something the municipality can solve.”

Improving transit locally is also key, as is finally seeing regional transit implemented in the corridor—a stated goal of more than one elected official in the 2018 election.

To date, the province has been dragging its heels on funding the system proposed by Sea to Sky municipalities, but regional officials are optimistic they’re closer than ever before after a meeting with ministers at this year’s Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) Convention.

“Will it be done by the end of this term? Realistically, I don’t think so. Will we be closer? I hope so,” Ford says, noting that provincial minister of transportation Rob Fleming brought it up at a UBCM town hall at this year’s convention.

“Minister Fleming said, ‘We’re very encouraged about the evidence that we have, that regional transit [in the Sea to Sky] is a great solution and is within our reach,’” Ford says.

“So he didn’t make any commitments, but he certainly did bring it up on his own, so I’m encouraged by that.”

As the head of council’s social services and regional cooperation portfolio, Ford wears many hats these days, including serving as chair of the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District and Whistler Housing Authority, and now serving as first vice-president of the UBCM.

As it relates to Whistler, she lists completion of the Alta Lake Road Sewer project, new childcare spaces in Spring Creek and Rainbow, and new housing through the WHA and in Cheakamus among the term’s top achievements.

While officials have been able to move the dial in some ways on childcare—a longtime passion project of Ford’s—finding qualified early childhood educators (ECE) remains a challenge.

It’s a frustration shared by Coun. Ralph Forsyth.

“The problem is there’s not enough teachers, and that has always been the issue,” Forsyth says, adding that the RMOW can rezone properties to be used for daycare “very quickly.”

Rather than throwing billions of dollars at the issue in election promises, Forsyth believes the federal government would be better served making a national standard for ECE qualifications, allowing those from other countries to work in B.C.

Whistler officials raised the issue of qualifications transferring at last year’s UBCM, Forsyth says, “and where it landed was exactly zero, because all they want to do at the ministerial level is make these more complicated schemes and studies … we know what the problem is.”

DUST IN THE WIND

Coun. John Grills, overseer of council’s tourism economy portfolio, was about one-third of the way through a book on overtourism when the pandemic restrictions took effect and turned Whistler into a ghost town overnight.

“I haven’t picked it up since 2019,” he says. “It’s collecting dust.”

During the 2018 election, when high visitor volumes were causing consternation in the community, Grills made a point of saying he would like to see those levels maintained.

After all, in his nearly four decades in the community, he’s seen the highest of highs and the lowest of lows when it comes to running a business.

“For anybody that’s been here for a long time—but even if you’ve been here for 20 years—you’ve been through some ups and downs,” Grills says.

“Absolutely nothing like this.”

By the same token, Grills points out that in all that time, he’s never seen the level of financial support from both the provincial and federal governments.

“So that was a saving grace,” he says.

The struggles of Whistler’s business owners through the long months of the pandemic to this point have been well documented, and while summer brought a spike in visitation, the workers remained elusive, leading to new frustrations.

“The good part was there was cash flow again … now we’ve just got to try and work with the other half, and that’s going to take some time, no doubt,” Grills says, adding that the main focus now has to be avoiding setbacks around closures.

“Even if it’s little steps forward, that’s fine—we’ll get used to that, but going backwards again would be devastating.”

Aside from access to labour, the cost of supplies and availability of goods are still presenting challenges for entrepreneurs, though the construction sector has actually been doing quite well—but a backlog in permit processing at Whistler’s municipal hall is causing trouble in its own right.

“No doubt the municipality is really stretched on getting applications through in a timely manner,” Grills says.

“It’s a priority for the council and the staff to improve those times over the next couple of months, because it’s been a huge challenge for the building sector, and it’s something the team wants to fix.”

OPEN AND SHUT

Two days before pandemic restrictions hit B.C. in March 2020, Coun. Arthur De Jong was touring Whistler Village with members of the Association of Whistler Area Residents (AWARE), working on a campaign encouraging businesses to close their doors to conserve energy.

“I started to receive a number of gripping texts from colleagues in Asia saying, ‘You have no idea how bad this is … you may be a super spreader already, and you have no idea,’” De Jong recalls.

“So I kind of froze, staring at the crowded decks, and realizing my job for the rest of my term may be simply helping businesses in the community stay afloat.”

The duality with his close-your-doors campaign wasn’t lost on De Jong.

“In other words, metaphorically, the rest of my term would be spent trying to keep those doors open.”

To De Jong—tasked with council’s environment portfolio—the term to date has been characterized by two things: COVID-19 and climate.

The most impacting moment of the term, he says, was the 2019 climate march organized and led by Whistler’s youth.

“As I looked into their eyes, as I was listening and talking to them, the reflection of my generation’s guilt for handing them this uncertain future—as some people say on the edge of a sixth mass extinction—that haunts me,” De Jong says.

“That affected me more than anything.”

While wildfire is still the No. 1 issue for De Jong (“it’s not a question of will we have a big fire here, it’s only a question of when, so as a council, we need to keep securing as much funding as we can to do the fuel reduction, as well as, we need to do more to convince our entire community to FireSmart,” he says), reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a close second.

Increasing transit is the action the municipality can move the fastest on, he believes, along with addressing building emissions—a tougher nut to crack.

If Whistler is to achieve its goal of being net zero by 2050, “that means we can’t have natural gas in this valley—that’s a hell of a challenge,” De Jong says.

“We need to take every step possible, but transit is where we can make the greatest difference the quickest.”

In the first three years of its term, council has introduced its Big Moves Strategy for Climate Action (and integrated it with the existing Climate and Energy Community Action Plan), as well as a new Zero Waste Action Plan, but there are still areas within the environmental file that De Jong would like to see more progress on.

“I’m comfortable [with the work on those plans],” he says. “But we’re not winning these battles. So I struggle with giving any high marks.”

RANSOM NOTE

If the pandemic was a punch in the proverbial gut for local decision makers, a ransomware attack in late April that handcuffed municipal services for weeks was almost a knockout blow.

“When I think about the cyber attack and the pandemic, I would say the cyber attack was worse than the pandemic,” says Forsyth, who sits on the municipality’s Technology Advisory Committee (TAC).

“Because the pandemic, it was like, OK, well everyone is experiencing this … whereas the cyber attack was like, man, it’s just us, what are we doing? How do we get out of this?”

After gaining access to municipal servers in late April, cyber attackers teased on the dark web that they had obtained more than 800 gigabytes of municipal data—which they then claimed to have sold at auction.

The attack took the entire municipal network offline, forcing municipal staffers to revert to old paper processes and communicate by text.

“We’re looking forward to the briefing that comes from after this (scheduled for the next TAC meeting), but I think they handled it pretty well,” Forsyth says.

When Pique reported general details about what the criminals were leaking on the dark web, the RMOW sued the newsmagazine in B.C. Supreme Court. In July the RMOW discontinued its lawsuit against Pique, and paid the court portion of the legal costs—which were only a fraction of the actual costs.

More than five months after the attack, the municipality has said very little about what happened, or what public information may have been compromised.

“I’m not an IT expert, I’m not a security expert. I can understand the fear of the unknown, of the dark web … it sounds menacing,” Jewett says, when asked about the perceived lack of transparency.

“And so it’s because we don’t know. We don’t know who they are, we don’t know what they can do. We know how much of our information that they could potentially have, and that’s scary.”

Asked about the lawsuit, Crompton says the RMOW stands behind its decision to sue the local paper.

“It’s a decision our organization made, and it’s one that was not easy to take by any means,” he says. “Clearly the fact that we did take action indicates that it’s a decision council approved.”

The attack itself was “as challenging for our organization as anything we’ve faced this term, which is saying something,” Crompton adds.

“There’s more to do still, but I’ve been really impressed with the work we have done to recover … [cyber security incidents are] not something that are going to stop, so we need to continue to have it as a high priority for our organization.”

BIG SPENDERS

The COVID-19 pandemic, with all its uncertainty, has thrown municipal finances for a loop.

The budget originally proposed in early 2020 was twice amended in light of the pandemic, first with a proposed tax increase of 4.89 per cent, then with a revised increase of 1.08 per cent.

Council opted for the lower increase to help pandemic-strapped Whistlerites—but a draw on municipal reserves was necessary to make it happen.

As such, municipal staff warns of higher tax increases in the coming years to fill in the gap.

Even so, the municipality’s Q2 financial update presented in September shows higher spending in several areas, and a budget amendment introduced in August added nearly $700,000 in new spending to add 11 new positions at municipal hall.

So the question must be asked—in a time when the entire community is making sacrifices to get by, why can’t the RMOW do the same?

“You are preaching to the choir,” says Forsyth, head of council’s finance portfolio.

“We do a lot of things that local governments typically don’t do—why don’t we not do those things?”

Forsyth has voted against more than one project this term out of concern that they will leave municipal taxpayers holding the bag when provincial or federal funding inevitably runs out, but he’s often the lone voice of dissent.

While he’s satisfied with where municipal finances currently stand, “I’m worried about the reserve balances; there has to be a reckoning there,” he says. “And I think that there are still lots of things that we can get rid of in the budget.”

The municipal budgeting process for 2022 is now in the early stages, and Whistlerites will get their first look in November.

While local tax increases for 2022 haven’t been determined, “what I can say is I won’t be voting for anything that’s more than four per cent,” Forsyth says.

 

STICKING POINTS

For all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes, many people only see the end result, and how it impacts them directly.

Take the introduction of pay parking in local parks, the lowering of speed limits, the removal of trees in the valley or even the placement of washrooms in the village as just a few examples.

While council has its reasons for the decisions it makes, many in the community aren’t shy to voice their displeasure directly with elected officials, often without a clear view of the bigger picture.

“Serving on council is not for people who want to make everyone happy all the time. The truth is most of the decisions we make have really well-meaning, intelligent people strongly in favour and strongly opposed,” Crompton says.

“We do our best to be as informed and thoughtful as we possibly can be. As someone who gets to work with this council and these staff, I’d say they do a really good job of deeply considering every issue we face.”

Crompton is never shy to put himself out there, often giving out his personal cell phone number on social media for people to reach him directly—and often taking the brunt of some rather rude criticism.

Does that ever weigh on him?

“Sure. Sometimes it gets to me, but I think it’s critical to do our best to remain engaged and interested in what people are sharing with us,” he says.

“If we start to disengage with people who are passionate on an issue, we’ll miss, I think, really valuable insights. I work really hard to listen well to people who disagree with me strongly.”

Looking ahead to the last year of the term, the mayor sees a turning point for Whistler.

Prior to the pandemic, the community was spending a lot of time considering overtourism and how to manage it.

“Coming out of COVID, we’ll need to access a lot of that thinking and combine it with what we’ve learned through COVID. It’s a new world for us, and I think we can do tourism better than we’ve done it,” he says.

“I think the most important thing we can do now is understand how we are going to rebuild, and there is a huge amount of that work in front of us.” 

 

 

COUNCIL REPORT CARDS

Keeping the challenges of the day in mind, here’s how we think council stacks up on some of the stated priorities of the day. (Keep in mind this is an informed opinion, gleaned from three years of watching meetings and speaking with officials. Your grades may vary).

Housing: B-

Work on Cheakamus Phase 2 is progressing nicely, and that’s no small feat. The WHA has also housed hundreds of Whistlerites in four new builds in recent years. But affordability and availability remains a huge concern as new homeowners do away with suites in neighbourhoods—and there are no easy solutions in sight.

Regional Transit: F

A stated priority of more than one elected official in the 2018 election, it’s unlikely to happen before the term is up. 

Climate/wildfire/waste: B-

Greenhouse gas emissions went down last year—but only because of the pandemic, and the resort is still well off track to meeting its targets. That said, a new Big Moves Strategy aims to quicken the pace, as work continues on wildfire mitigation. A new Zero Waste Action Plan was also a long time coming.

OCP adoption and First Nations relations: A

The long-delayed updated Official Community Plan is now in place, with the blessing of the Squamish and Lil’wat First Nations, and council has made meaningful first steps towards relationship building with the two nations.

Public Engagement: B

The municipality was quick to adopt Zoom at the outset of the pandemic, which proved beneficial for public engagement. Virtual town halls focusing on COVID-19 recovery and the Northlands rezoning were perhaps better attended than their in-person counterparts. Changes to council agendas also made it easier to find and track agenda items, while a new format to agendas themselves makes for cleaner, easier reading.

Transparency: D-

The RMOW has made an effort to make more staff members available for interviews in recent months, and for that we applaud them. But the municipality dropped the ball on transparency when it comes to the ransomware attack in April, and sued its local newspaper, preventing it from properly doing its job of informing the community. 

Strategic planning: C+

A Strategic Planning Committee struck in the early days of the term continues to meet, and will soon present an update on a resort balance model to council. Planning took on a new note of importance with the pandemic, and the RMOW’s Recovery Working Group tapped stakeholders from all over the community to help carry the load.

Planning is all well and good, but this C+ might get bumped to a higher grade when we see real progress on affordability, housing availability, emissions reduction, and childcare.

OVERALL: B

In 2018, Whistler elected a competent, forward-thinking council that works hard on things that matter to both residents and visitors, and works well together even in disagreement. It’s not perfect, but governance never is (nor, it could be argued, should it be). 

With that in mind, the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over, and the months and years ahead no doubt hold new, as-yet-unforeseen twists and turns. Let’s hope our elected officials are up to the task.