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Whistler’s longest serving mayor steps down

In 1988 a group of Tapley’s Farm residents got together for a dinner party. The discussion followed a familiar theme: Whistler was growing quickly and young families were struggling to keep their heads above water.

In 1988 a group of Tapley’s Farm residents got together for a dinner party. The discussion followed a familiar theme: Whistler was growing quickly and young families were struggling to keep their heads above water. Feeling the council of the day didn’t represent them, the group drew straws to see who would run in that year’s municipal election; Hugh O’Reilly lost. After three terms as a councillor and another three as mayor he announced Wednesday he’s had enough.

After nearly 17 years of serving Whistler voters, and more than a quarter of a century in Whistler, O’Reilly is moving to Hawaii, where he will sell real estate for Intrawest. He will telecommute, and occasionally fly back, for council business until his elected term ends in November.

The news caught nearly everyone by surprise this week, with some council members unaware there was even a press conference planned. E-mails went to all council members during the press conference announcing the move.

O’Reilly had proclaimed repeatedly that he wanted to continue as mayor through the 2010 Olympics, which would have meant re-election this year and again in 2008. And while there have been grumblings around town about the need for new blood on council, few thought O’Reilly would be seriously challenged for mayor in November. That all changed wth O’Reilly’s announcement Wednesday. Councillor Nick Davies was first into the void, announcing he will run for mayor in what should be a wide-open race this fall.

But back to the incumbent mayor. There’s little doubt O’Reilly’s third term in the head chair has been his most frustrating. Wednesday he said the current council has become too involved in day-to-day matters and municipal staff are demoralized by the conflict among council members. To his credit, O’Reilly also took responsibility for this break down.

But the frustration runs both ways. The depth of the split on council may be best represented by the lateral move earlier this year of former administrator Jim Godfrey. Most of the longer-serving council members were comfortable with Godfrey, while the councillors elected in 2002 were not. With both sides forced to compromise, he was moved into the position of Whistler’s VANOC liaison.

With the search already underway for a new municipal administrator, and the mayoral race now wide open, the future operations of council and municipal hall are open to new direction.

That’s different than the direction Whistler as a whole is heading. That direction, as laid out in Whistler 2020, is established. For all the criticism it has received, Whistler 2020 has also been recognized by federal and international authorities as an example for other communities to follow in planning for their futures. It’s the kind of big-picture issue O’Reilly often championed. Few could argue with the concepts of a Comprehensive Sustainability Plan, building relations with First Nations or adopting The Natural Step.

But for all the "visionary" ideas brought forward, O’Reilly leaves on a sour note. The depth of the frustration and conflict among council members has rarely been greater. Business in Whistler, as measured by hotel room nights, has also declined for four straight years. Council members are not the only ones frustrated. Business is down and business owners are concerned, as was reflected in the more than 100 people that showed up for last week’s Tourism Whistler meeting with less than a week’s notice.

Some people’s frustrations are embodied in the imminent decision to allow the Paralympic arena to go to Squamish and the "trust us" response council members offered in response to those concerns. They were exacerbated by acting mayor Nick Davies’s question to Tourism Whistler members: Are you willing to see your taxes increase in order to have an ice arena in the village?

It is a time for the community to take stock of where it is and what needs to be done to improve things. Whistler’s situation is not desperate but it needs a collective effort to get things going in the right direction again.

With O’Reilly’s announcement Wednesday, and a new administrator being sought, there is an opportunity for new leadership in municipal hall and in the community.