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Opinion: True public engagement means wading into the muck—something Whistler used to do more of

'Engagement can’t be mere lip service.'
True public engagement means wading into the muck and having difficult conversations—something Whistler used to do more of.

There’s been a lot of talk surrounding public engagement in Whistler of late, and for good reason.

Between the incoming Northlands project, one of the most significant local developments in recent history; the Resort Municipality of Whistler’s (RMOW) controversial plans to upgrade Rainbow Park and its associated, months-long closure; a pair of hastily organized council meetings that led to elected officials jettisoning the usual parking requirements that would have been attached to Whistler Blackcomb’s Fitz Express replacement in lieu of $200,000, paid annually, until pay parking is introduced on Vail Resorts-owned lots; as well as the RMOW’s recent creation of an entire new department dedicated to community engagement and cultural services, it’s been a hot-button issue in a town that loves their buttons on the scorching side.

As Andrew Mitchell so aptly put it in a column last week, giving input into decision-making in a tourism town not exactly set up to accommodate locals’ interests can sometimes feel like a frustrating, if not futile, endeavour.

“We can answer surveys, go to open house planning meetings, share our opinions on social media, write letters to the editor, and generally be rabble-rousers when we need to be—and sometimes those things pay off,” he wrote. “But I would argue that we shouldn’t have to go nuclear to defend our interests all the time.”

There’s a debate to be had on whether Whistlerites would even have to go nuclear as much as we do if a larger portion of the electorate (and non-eligible voters, for that matter) was better attuned to the day-to-day political goings-on around town. If you’ve read the opinion pages of Pique for any length of time, you’ve probably read one columnist or another (myself included) lament the fact that, with a few notable exceptions, Whistlerites tend to be fairly disengaged in local government until a project that personally affects them—read: pisses them off—slaps them in the face. The dismal attendance at most council meetings is proof of that, as well as the equally dismal voter turnout we’ve seen in local elections during the last decade-plus.

This could, of course, be a chicken-or-the-egg situation: I can understand feeling a certain political apathy if you’re convinced your input doesn’t really matter in the long run, and given the handful of recent decisions at municipal hall I’ve mentioned above that local officials either knew, or ought to have known, would ruffle feathers in the community, there does appear to be a certain disconnect between the RMOW and the wider public that would benefit from a deeper understanding on both sides.

So, what gives? On paper at least, there are inarguably more opportunities  than ever to provide feedback into municipal decision-making, with online surveys, digital open houses, and livestreamed council meetings making it so you don’t even have to change out of your PJs if you don’t want to. Mayor Jack Crompton famously gives out his personal phone number to anyone who wants it. The aforementioned Northlands project had an extra layer of public engagement than was required baked into it, a recognition on the RMOW’s part of the project’s outsized importance. And yet, despite a tidal wave of support to maintain the Whistler Racket Club where it is, it feels like a fait accompli at this point that the club will be relocated from Northlands. Wherever you stand on that debate—and we here at Pique firmly believe housing and health-care should trump a racket facility on that last piece of prime development land—there’s no denying that, to certain, significant segments of the community, it is yet another example of the public’s wishes going largely unheeded.

The RMOW now looks to revamp its own public engagement efforts, recently hiring former Squamish Mayor Karen Elliott as the new department’s GM, and committing to a wholesale review of its select council committees to ensure members—which commonly include resort stakeholders and local residents—“feel valued for their contribution and are able to clearly see where their feedback has been captured and considered in the municipality’s work,” according to a recent report.

I think one important way the RMOW can help both its committee members and the wider community’s input feel valued is to facilitate the kinds of tough-but-meaningful conversations that Whistler seemed to have more of years ago. As we all know, nowadays, Whistler is big business, and with those many monied interests has been a certain corporatization at municipal hall that has seen a tightening of the screws when it comes to public messaging.

As a local long-timer and municipal committee member recently told me, in Whistler’s not-so-distant past, it wasn’t unusual for the RMOW to host community forums that could last for hours at a time, with residents, visitors and municipal staff duking it out, philosophically speaking, on the future of our little resort town.

Those often-heated debates may not always have translated directly into policy change, but they did provide the sense to locals that they were being heard and valued, which, in my experience as a reporter, is usually the most important element of community engagement.

Investigative journalist and author Amanda Ripley, who has spent her career covering crime, disaster and terrorism, speaks eloquently about the value of “good conflict,” the kind that involves a deeper listening and leaves both sides with a greater understanding of the other.

““When people feel heard, they act differently,” Ripley told The GSX Daily in 2021. “They say less extreme things afterward ... and they open up to information they maybe didn’t want to hear. So, think about how that’s going to change everything else that happens afterward.”

Engagement can’t be mere lip service. It needs to be authentic and meaningful, and sometimes, that requires us to wade into the muck, even if it risks muddying Whistler’s corporate sheen.