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Is Squamish developing too fast for council to

Heresy or fantasy — it’s all a matter of taste. Either way, there was, believe it or not, a time before McDonald’s.

Heresy or fantasy — it’s all a matter of taste. Either way, there was, believe it or not, a time before McDonald’s. To drivers entering Squamish from the south, those golden arches are likely more eye-catching than district signage, or even the Adventure Centre — if only because they carry the enormous weight of international familiarity.

But they weren’t always the welcoming committee, and, perhaps better than most, councillor Corinne Lonsdale knows it.

“I was brand new, basically in my second term as a councillor,” says the 22-year district politician and erstwhile mayor. “McDonald’s wants to come to Squamish? Holy, this is big news; we better grab it quickly.”

And grab it they did — but in haste. Access and egress issues from Cleveland Avenue plagued the development for some time, and, says Lonsdale, while they have been remedied, the situation still falls short of ideal.

“Staff warned about transportation, but council didn’t hear.”

Legacies have a habit of sticking around, and, as Lonsdale endures the frustration of today’s regular council meetings, that experience exemplifies her concerns.

Except now it isn’t just fast food meccas — it’s residential developments, energy strategies, resort proposals, visionary documents and regional planning.

“I can look back at some of my decisions 10 or 20 years ago and they aren’t good decisions,” she admits. “We need to have discussion that some of our decisions are far-reaching into the future. We can’t just look at the next term of office. We need to look past that.”

But, she says, they don’t. According to Lonsdale, Squamish’s current council is beset with bloated agendas too swollen for meaningful debate. Regular meetings are too short, staff is relied upon too heavily and there’s a disconnect between the district’s bureaucracy and its political overlords.

Take Garibaldi at Squamish, the controversial ski resort, real estate and golf course proposal for Cat Lake and Brohm Ridge. Lonsdale says the Resort Municipality of Whistler has given the issue more due diligence than the very district whose zoning bylaws will have to be amended to allow for its construction, should it reach that stage.

“Staff has been involved,” says Lonsdale, “but council hasn’t.”

That changed somewhat during this week’s strategy session, which saw council discuss G@S on the chamber floor. While they still haven’t taken a position, they did move to set up a public information session, from which a stance is expected to emerge.

Time is often an issue. Councillor Patricia Heintzman says councillors are human resources, and, as with any human being, time-management requirements easily collide with financial responsibilities.

“I think it’s a tough job,” she says. “Councillors get paid $16,000 a year, and we already put in huge amounts of hours. And yet the demand of this job at the moment, with the current complexities of our community, we should be meeting a lot more. We’re getting into the whole debate about the value of time and the value of council. There’s two people that are retired on council, so it’s a lot easier for them to make the extra time. For people who work full time, you have to juggle a lot, and usually you’re losing money when you’re sitting in the chamber.”

According to Heintzman, this is an unusual time in the district’s history. Back in the days before McDonald’s, there wasn’t much need for policy development. The town was small, and things sort of organized themselves. But with accelerated growth comes a need for proactive management, and now council finds itself struggling to catch up to today’s high-octane pace.

“Our planning staff,” she says, “probably 50 per cent of what they do isn’t just working on development proposals, it’s policy development. And that’s where you end up having a lot of time demands and complex topics that need to be delved into. And I think sometimes we get confused.”

Confusion, Lonsdale would tell you, is in part a hallmark of inexperience. Further, she says, the current council has a deficit in that particular department.

“(Mayor Ian Sutherland) may be more willing to rely on staff than some of us,” Lonsdale says. “But staff are brought in from elsewhere and don’t always have that community feeling.”

Not long into Squamish’s April 8 strategy session, the relationship between council and staff played itself out during an exchange between Lonsdale and district planner Sabina Foofat, the district’s lead on its energy plan. Foofat spoke of an invite-only information session scheduled for the next day, one that was to include stakeholders from across the board. But not council.

“When you talk about bringing people together from various sectors, I wonder why there isn’t a council member involved,” said Lonsdale. “It’s pretty darn hard to be a policy-maker when you’re not involved from the beginning.”

Foofat said there was considerable debate on whether or not to include political representatives, but, ultimately, she and her colleagues decided against it. “Whether council really wanted to allocate their time to that level of discussion was debated, as well. The intent was never to offend council or make council feel marginalized or sidelined.”

Heintzman, in the mayor’s chair during that meeting, positioned herself alongside Foofat, saying a political presence might not inspire productive reactions from other guests.

Meanwhile, Lonsdale points to the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District’s Regional Growth Strategy as an exemplary issue council doesn’t fully understand.

Built into the RGS, which is still in the works, are various functions that operate on a per capita formula. Squamish has the largest fixed population in the SLRD, and functions dealing with transportation and economic development could see the district paying for more than it justifiably needs to.

For example, an economic development officer mandated by the SLRD would be redundant in Squamish, where the Sustainability Corporation is already moving ahead with diversification initiatives, many with implications stretching at least into Whistler.

“The only way to get rid of that formula is to vote against it,” Lonsdale says, adding that Whistler, Pemberton and Lillooet wouldn’t likely come onboard. “But I don’t think council understands that at this point.”

So how to come to that brand of understanding? Lonsdale calls for longer meetings, issue-specific sittings and so-called shirtsleeve cram sessions, all things the acting mayor agrees with.

This week’s meeting started at 9 a.m., a marked change form the usual afternoon start time. This week also marked the first shirtsleeve session, which took a few weeks of misfires to get off the ground. During that meeting, Sutherland, back from a temporary health leave, said council sometimes spends too much time on issues of relatively minor importance.

“Once a month,” he said, “we get bogged down by something brought before us by a delegation.”

That session produced commitments to enhance communications between staff and council, prioritize agenda items and continue to meet in shirtsleeve formats to improve dialogue between councillors.

Meanwhile, while Lonsdale says council has an amicable culture of trust and respect, Heintzman disagrees, saying some councillors have solid bonds of trust, while others do not.

Regardless, this is an election year, and, with Squamish so steeped in the stew of growth and development, people are engaged more than ever. Decisions will have to be answered to.

“Over the years, I think, as council members, we’re hearing more from our constituency than we ever have in the past,” Lonsdale says. “I honestly believe this council has great potential — if only we were able to put our heads together and act as a team.”