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The measure of three years

Three years ago less a week, after another tough campaign, G.D. Maxwell wrote a feature story for Pique that attempted to put the outcome of the 2002 Whistler municipal election in context.

Three years ago less a week, after another tough campaign, G.D. Maxwell wrote a feature story for Pique that attempted to put the outcome of the 2002 Whistler municipal election in context. Among the quotes from the duly elected and nearly elected was Max’s assessment that: "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."

I bring this up not to show the imperfections of Max’s crystal ball, but as an example of how far we have not come in the last three years. Leadership, public engagement, transparency – not to mention the old standbys, affordability and affordable housing – were issues three years ago and they should be issues on voters’ minds when they go to the polls this Saturday.

Circumstances have changed in the last three years – the Olympics are now a reality; the World Economic Forum is no longer a reality; Whistler has become a little bigger, with more hotels to fill; the primary measure of the local economy, hotel room nights, now shows a four-year decline. But to many observers the past three years are remarkable for how few tangible accomplishments this council can claim. Affordable housing is the most obvious. No new housing was opened in the last three years despite the fact that was one of the priorities this council identified shortly after they were elected.

There were some unexpected setbacks that delayed housing, and the good news is that there is enough housing on the horizon to make a significant dent in the housing wait list. But the measure of a council is taken every three years, not three and a half. And so we are at the point where we take inventory of the issues before us, assess the people who have volunteered to serve the community, and choose seven to represent Whistler for the next three years.

Everyone who cares enough to vote has their view of what issues are important and what qualities our elected leaders need to address the issues and to run our town. But it seems to me there is sentiment among a lot of voters that Whistler’s problems stem from Victoria. We haven’t received the financial tools we were apparently promised. The boundary expansion hasn’t been approved and that’s allowing development to take place to the north and south that we have no control over. The class 1/6 taxation issue continues unresolved and we still haven’t signed off on the 300-acre land bank. We’re not doing anything wrong – in fact we’re winning international awards for doing things right. It’s those damn people in Victoria who are screwing us.

And if it’s not Victoria’s fault then it’s the local economy which has been subject to so many unpredictable external factors: 9/11, SARS, a U.S. dollar that is shrinking against the Canuck buck, Avian Flu – what could we do about any of those things?

But can we really lay all our problems at the feet of Gordon Campbell, Osama bin Laden, God, George Bush and poultry farmers?

My sense is that despite the problems Whistler is facing and the lack of tangible accomplishments in the last three years, a lot of voters feel it’s important this election to preserve the status quo. Not the status quo in terms of people on council – only three members of the current council could be part of the next council – but in general philosophy. A feeling that we have to preserve what we have fought for and achieved. The big plan is in place, we just have to execute it. Trust us.

But there’s a lot happening in the world outside of Whistler’s municipal boundaries that will affect us, and little attention has been paid to it. From Fernie to China; from pine beetles to private sector partnerships, the world around us is changing. Despite the ground-breaking work Whistler has done in some fields, I fear that our community may not be as agile and open to change as it needs to be.

It’s not solely the responsibility of our elected officials and municipal staff to deal with the problems and issues before Whistler now, and to try and anticipate what’s coming down the road – the public has a role to play too. But issues such as the arena fiasco show that municipal hall still needs to work on public engagement.

And perhaps Whistler needs to look at itself a little more critically and question what it has always taken for granted. There has been lots of talk about financial tools and the need for more revenue. There’s been little talk about cutting back expenses. In fact, we continue to demand more services and facilities from our local government.

There’s also a sense among some voters that, with the Olympics on the horizon, someone will show up with more money to help us address whatever problems we determine we have. That may or may not be true, but it’s a dangerous way to operate.

If there’s a message from the last three years it’s that we haven’t come as far as we should have in that time. And why is that? For my money, it’s because collectively we’ve been too complacent; the circle of engagement has become too small; we’ve been too certain that others are responsible for our problems.

On Saturday my vote will be for people who will challenge the status quo. People who won’t tell you, "Trust us".