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Opinion: The loneliest job in Whistler

'If you’re not actively involved, you get the policy you deserve. Simple as that'
lonely council reporter
Whistler's political apathy is evident in the scores of empty seats commonly found at the Maury Young Arts Centre during council meetings.

The entire time I’ve lived in Whistler, I’ve heard stories of the resort’s legendary 2011 election.

Issues like asphalt procurement and pay parking had riled the electorate to the point of absolute discontent, and council meetings in the lead-up to the election became standing-room-only, must-see events (or so I’m told—I still have a hard time believing it).

That year, voters turfed Whistler’s entire mayor and council for the first and only time in the resort’s history. Then, to rub salt in the wound, Pique readers named “electing a new council” as the most sustainable thing Whistler did in 2011 in Pique’s annual Best of Whistler poll.

Ouch.

The events of 2011 were before my time, so I’ll refrain from passing judgment on the perceived ills of the council of the day.

I’m more interested in that mythical, robust engagement—the standing-room-only crowds and the peanut-gallery rabble-rousers that make local politics sing.

That’s because, for much of my time here, Whistlerites have come across as mostly indifferent—their discontent confined to a low grumble coming from somewhere in the back of the room.

They care about this place, sure. They’re quick to tell you when something has been done wrong, and like to share their opinions after the fact on Facebook. But most can’t be bothered to get involved until it’s far too late—and that’s a problem.

I’m not just saying it. The apathy is very real, and evident in the empty chairs at the Maury Young Arts Centre every second Tuesday.

I saw it first-hand for six years straight, when I served as Whistler’s only council reporter (a beat local photographer David Buzzard once referred to as “the loneliest job in Whistler”—a depressingly accurate phrase that I never forgot); and for six years, I was often the only person in attendance when our local elected officials convened every two weeks.

So I’ve always found it a bit rich when Whistlerites get up in arms, long after the fact, over decisions made at municipal hall. Democracy is not a passive exercise, and if you’re not actively involved, you get the policy you deserve. Simple as that.

The apathy was evident at Whistler’s first all-candidates meeting held on Wednesday, Sept. 21, hosted by the Whistler Off Road Cycling Association.

For all the supposed angst and anxiety—and the whining—on social media the past four years, I would have expected a better turnout.

Instead, the gym at Whistler Secondary School sat half full, Whistler’s 21 election candidates cycling between the 50 or so people who bothered to attend.

As Mayor Jack Crompton pointed out before the event started, it was a beautiful, sunny Wednesday—who could be bothered with local politics?

I get it. Ripping up the local trails on one of the last gasps of summer beats listening to local candidates spout their half-baked ideas any day of the week.

But it really cannot be overstated how valuable these all-candidates meetings are for learning about our local government hopefuls. 

“This was my first time coming to this and I’m sorry I didn’t do it last [election]. It helps a lot,” one attendee told Pique. “It really helps a lot to look them in the eyes, hear them speak. Even if it’s just for five minutes, you get a good first impression. It’s really helpful. And then at least you’re feeling like you’re making an informed decision.”

I concur. Getting direct face time with the candidates helped me shore up my own ballot in a way that reading a news story or campaign website never could; allowed me to separate the legitimate from the irrelevant.

Being a council reporter may be lonely, but it also gives you great insight into the machinations of local government—and a finely-tuned nonsense detector for municipal candidates and their vague ideas.

Without naming names, here’s my takeaway from Round 1: aside from the five incumbents and three, maybe four contenders, every candidate running for mayor or council is trading in nonsense—uninformed and loosely compiled policy ideas; irrelevant passion projects; extended ramblings designed to limit those pesky questions from voters; general unpreparedness.

To list just one example, my table asked several candidates what they plan to do about red tape at municipal hall, and reducing wait times for building and construction permits. Outside of the incumbents, not a single candidate we posed the question to was aware (or if they were aware, they certainly didn’t mention it) that, just the night before, mayor and council heard a lengthy presentation about—go figure—reducing red tape.

You would think that the people who want to represent us on local government would be paying attention to the reports and presentations coming to council—during an election season—wouldn’t you? Is that too much to ask? Because it seems like the absolute bare minimum to me.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on our council hopefuls. Running for office is a stressful, hectic endeavour, in which self-interested individuals and groups pull you in two dozen directions at once. It’s understandable that some items will fly under the radar. 

And I will say this: After having a chance to meet each of our candidates for office, I am confident that none of them are running for the wrong reason.

They may be coming to it with different ideas and varying levels of experience, but I believe all of our local government hopefuls are seeking office because they truly care about Whistler and its success—and that’s kind of special in itself.

By the time you read this, Whistler voters will have had a second chance to hear from the candidates, at Pique’s all-candidates meeting hosted in conjunction with Arts Whistler and the Whistler Chamber of Commerce. A third is scheduled for the following Wednesday, Oct. 5.

If you attended an all-candidates meeting, you likely have your own (and, I’m guessing, similar) impressions.

If you didn’t, you should make an effort to get some face time with the candidates before casting your vote—and once the election is over, start filling the seats at the Maury Young Arts Centre to make the council beat a little less lonely. 

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