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‘If it’s not broke, don’t fix it’

A Q&A with outgoing Whistler councillors John Grills and Duane Jackson
Outgoing Whistler municipal councillors Duane Jackson (left) and John Grills.

One of the things about carrying on the work of Whistler’s municipal council over Zoom during the pandemic was that it afforded those who tuned in a window into elected officials’ homes. 

“The fun thing about Zoom is you can see what was behind John’s desk—and all the folders,” Duane Jackson said of fellow Councillor John Grills’ home office. “He’s got everything from 2011 and before. If you ever want to know anything, just ask John.” 

It’s the kind of institutional knowledge that can only be gained through the painstaking work of municipal council, much of which doesn’t make it into public view. There’s the frequent committee and board meetings; the interminable, 500-page council packages to read; and the kind of community outreach and relationship management that goes hand in hand with serving in local government. 

For Grills and Jackson, there is a combined 18 years of council experience between them, and as the pair got set to wrap up their time in office, both having made the difficult decision not to run again in the Oct. 15 election, Pique caught up with the municipal stalwarts to chat about their biggest accomplishments and setbacks, closing information gaps in the community, and how to turn political anger into action. 

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Pique: How will you look back on this term specifically, which had some, let’s say, very unique challenges to it? 

Grills: A good council was elected, so we went into it with a full head of steam. And we reached the point, in ’18, when there were those questions about over-capacity, overtourism, but it levelled off. So it was, ‘OK, what do we need to do to tweak it? Where’s a good baseline? So, the businesses are good, the community is good.’ And then, of course, the world had a different plan for us [with COVID-19], and we went from good occupancy to near zero occupancy. My file was tourism economy, so I thought I was living pretty and then I couldn’t sell my portfolio for anything. 

Jackson: It’s just within the last six months that we feel like we’ve come out of that sort of turmoil, and staff are back in the office and people are making plans, budget plans, seeing where things need to get fixed, where investments need to be made. So that we’re better prepared in the future, and then you just start to feel everyone’s working really well together. And so we’re leaving it in a good place where there’s a good relationship with staff and council. So given that there’s only the two of us leaving, hopefully there’s a lot of continuity so that relationship can build.  

You both have served multiple terms on council. Do you think there’s something about the nature of Whistler that the people who vote here tend to favour consistency and experience? 

Grills: Yes, just based on what has happened over the years, but on the other side of that, I think there are ways, if you haven’t been here as long as the 40- or 30-year person, but you put in the hours and you’ve done some volunteering and you’ve gotten your name a little bit known on some committees, then voters will recognize that you’re working hard to get towards that seat. 

Jackson: You have got to earn that respect, and it’s funny, most of the councillors, we sit on lots of boards and committees. But before council, we sat on boards and committees and we were involved … Not only are you familiar, but you generally know a reasonable amount of people and you’ve already earned their vote. And then, if you’re not a complete wingnut, as [Pique columnist G.D. Maxwell] describes it, and you see a council working together and working with staff and being able to communicate with respect, then, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Everyone’s got an idea that we’re all doing something wrong or we’re missing the boat. I think people that know us and know the job of council involves a lot more hours than just turning up for a couple of Tuesday meetings know you’re a good investment, know that you’re getting good value out of your councillors. 

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say there is frustration in the community right now over several issues, which often gets directed at the RMOW and council. Do you feel that anger towards council is warranted, generally?  

Jackson: There’s no doubt daycare, health-care, transit, all those other hot topics, they are just as hot as housing and a lot of them we don’t have any jurisdiction over them anyway. But it doesn’t stop you being frustrated, right? And, I mean, as councillors, we’re no less affected in education, health-care, mental health, or anything. I mean, we all have families. Yeah, it’s frustrating, and I wish we could do more. I think this municipality does more than many other municipalities, trying to facilitate things like the daycare and being involved in transit—certainly housing. So I think there’s more to learn and we’re starting to have more conversations with businesses and businesses are seeing that they need to be more involved in their own housing solutions, which is good, because it’s maybe another avenue we can go down to help finance these things. 

Grills: I think there’s plenty of opportunity, even if it’s a small board or a small committee or volunteering as a Village Host or something, to be more involved in the community. And once you make that step, you feel more a part of it. I think it’s a bit of a relief from the anger or whatever else. And you have a better understanding of why the decisions are made the way they are. 

I think that speaks to something of a disconnect, particularly on housing, between the work the RMOW does and the public’s perception. We know we need to build more housing, but it isn’t as simple as snapping your fingers. Do you feel like there are information gaps in the community around some of the work council does? 

Grills: You probably remember just before COVID, we got into doing more town halls … and then, of course, the gate dropped [with COVID] and the intention is to bring those back. 

The amount of open houses we’ve done on different things, some are well attended, but for the most part, [they’re not]. The community forest open house is the same six people every time.  

Jackson: There was a question last week about [housing] data and do we need more data? We’ve got lots of data. And we get lots of feedback. And unfortunately, there’s more demand than we can supply. We can only supply what we can do without risking the taxpayer, which is [the Whistler Development Corp.’s] mandate. But it’s so complex in terms of funding, and the funding is a moving target. Because everyone knows the business interest rates go up, costs go up, inflation goes up, and wages don’t go up as fast. And because you’re always planning two or three years out, you’re trying to anticipate what that future environment is going to be like. 

What we need to do is remind everyone when we do have sites ready. And if we can find the funding, council has been very positive in leveraging the reserve funds so that we might continue that momentum. 

What are some of your favourite memories on council? 

Jackson: Dancing at the UBCM convention [in Whistler]. That’s always a good time. [Laughs.] We don’t want to let the fun factor down.

This term, I certainly knew some of the councillors I’ve worked with before, but in this process, you make new friends. And then what’s cool is being on the boards, like the WDC board, it’s just the most amazing group of people. And you know, a lot of them don’t even live here, yet they contribute like they live here. And they care about this place like they live here … But just the selflessness of those board members—and that’s like a lot of our municipal boards, the volunteers on the WHA board, whether it’s the community forest, recreation, the health-care society. So many people just contribute, and there’s generosity in terms of funding, looking for solutions, and being part of the solution, not part of the problem. 

Grills: For me, it goes back to the 2014 election when we talked about building a relationship with our First Nations neighbours. There wasn’t one. Other than the [Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre], that was pretty much it in the community. It started with the umbrella agreement with [Whistler Blackcomb] and their working relationship. And then under Nancy [Wilhelm-Morden, former mayor], we started the process of getting a protocol agreement and that letter of understanding and MOU and then finally, the framework agreement. So there’s still so much more work to do, but that foundation has been established, that relationship has been established. That communication is there now when it wasn’t before.

Talking about negatives, the biggest negative for me was losing Andrée [Janyk, Whistler councillor who passed away in 2017 while in office]. That was crushing. I didn’t want to go through this without mentioning her. She was a powerhouse. 

Jackson: She was a big, big part of 2011 and onward into the 2014 council.

Grills: Almost to her last breath. When Jack [Crompton] and I visited her on the last day or second last day [before she died], she was still [concerned with council]. ‘Is the soccer field going through? Is this happening? They read the agenda to me; it looks good.’