February 20, 2014 Features & Images » Feature Story

Council hits the homestretch running 

With less than a year to the next municipal election Pique catches up with council and its to-do list

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Whistler has never been better positioned to take advantage of the opportunities just around the corner, so say long-standing town leaders.

There is deep-seated alignment in town, a common playbook, and renewed collective vigour permeating the community at the top boardrooms.

And municipal council is getting the credit.

"(It's) because of the council and the work that they have done and, at least, certainly what's on paper today in terms of some of the guiding principles and guidelines for some of the opportunities for the future," says Dave Brownlie, Whistler Blackcomb's president and CEO.

What's on paper lies within several planning documents, wrapped up in the last year, all spearheaded by council, chief of which is the Economic Partnership Initiative (EPI) report, which examines the factors at play in Whistler's economy and presents recommendations for keeping the town relevant and current in the highly competitive resort business.

"The EPI work is probably the first large-scale piece of work that came together with a combination of all of our resort partners... that creates a definitive framework for driving the economy," said Barrett Fisher, president and CEO of Tourism Whistler.

"Our existing council has made it very clear that they are open for business and so they have shown strong support for Whistler's tourism economy."

This is the sentiment as council rounds the corner in the last year of its three-year term and hits the homestretch with momentum and... expectations.

Tremendous time and energy have gone into setting the stage for the future.

The challenge now, says Brownlie, is to take what's on paper and put it into action.

"From my perspective, really now it's about execution," he says. "Execution of some of that planning work that was done, execution in a bigger way, in particular focused on the business side and the economic planning initiative. Ultimately we've really zeroed in on tourism and destination tourism and how do we grow destination tourism."

Who will take the lead on that execution remains to be seen as the time ticks towards November's election. In the meantime, as council members mull their own personal futures on Whistler's political stage, each is keen to keep up the momentum that they set in motion two years ago.

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If history is anything to go by, Whistler will have a new mayor by the end of this year.

The record stands; Nancy Wilhelm-Morden has never served two back-to-back terms on Whistler council in her five terms (12 years and counting) in public office.

She tried to once, the first time she ran for mayor in 1990 immediately after a two-year stint as a councillor. She lost by a hair, in a nail-biting recount of the ballots — the only time she's lost. But after every other term she has taken time off from public life.

It's not clear if history will be repeating itself come November, the end of her fifth term in office, her first as mayor.

What is clear is that though she is increasingly at ease in the mayor's chair, and those sleep sucking 'mayor-mares' that plagued her nights in the early days have subsided, the demands on Wilhelm-Morden's time remain. And they are relentless.

More so now than ever before.

She takes her mayoral duties in stride, alongside her professional duties as a lawyer at Race and Co, where she is partner; since being mayor, she has wrapped up one of her most controversial cases (Blackburn versus Golden Search and Rescue), taken on Dopplemayr for 11 clients in the Whistler Blackcomb Excalibur Gondola accident, and is representing a client suing one of Whistler's key regional partners, the Squamish Lillooet Regional District.

It's a delicate dance.

At the end of 2013, as she prepares for the second longest trial in her career, a 25-day personal injury trial, Wilhelm-Morden says that the work/life/family balance has become easier in some ways. And more difficult too.

"I have two years under my belt so I know much more today about what the requirements are than I did going in," she reflects. "But in other aspects it's become a little more difficult in that there seems to be more requests coming in for my attendance at functions, or my responses to residents' issues or enquiries. There seems to be more demands on the mayor's side these days than there was in the first year."

This is the fallout of being a mayor known for answering emails and concerns personally, and, more importantly, getting things done.

"I'm looking at what's coming in the next three years and whether I'm up for another term or not," she says. "I'm thinking about it."

She also knows, unlike the other members of council, what the final year in office can be like — stunted by the run up to the November election, often clouded by politics of government rather than good governance itself.

In their last meeting together at the end of 2013, the mayor had an informal talk with the team.

"To the effect that, for me, I have always conducted myself with the fact that there's an election looming as not being influential at all in the decisions that I make.

"Don't forget, none of these people have held municipal office before. So I just wanted them to know that this is the way that I conduct myself, so that as a group I'm hopeful that we can avoid the so-called silly season."

She has told her colleagues that she will give them six months notice if she decides not to run again.

To Run Again, Or Not — A changing team

Regardless of what the mayor decides, change is on the horizon.

And for a town that has seen how a cohesive government gets things done, that's cause for some lament.

Two councillors have now officially confirmed they are not seeking a second term — Jayson Faulkner and, most recently, Duane Jackson. Another is leaning against it.

"Not likely," says Roger McCarthy. "I have to think about it some more."

He's asking himself what he really wants to do with the next three years of his life: committing to council is a lot of time, work, and energy.

"I've spent so much of my life working like an idiot and while I still can, I'd like to do some things, and travel and spend some time in Europe in the summer and winter and stuff like that."

His difficulty lies in the fact that he loves the council work, in particular the group itself, a sentiment shared by his friend Duane Jackson, who has made up his mind not to throw his hat in the ring in the upcoming November election.

"It's not because I don't really love the people I'm working with," he says. "(When I ran in 2011), it was about getting involved to steady the ship, not look for a new career. I'm hoping by the end of the year we will have done enough that the next council combination can continue with a calm and optimistic approach, and hopefully they'll have as much fun as we have had (and hopefully with most of the same people)."

It has become an almost long-running joke that this is a council that votes en masse. There have been just one or two votes this term that have not been unanimous; the rest have seen a solid show of hands for or against all manner of issues from the mundane to resort-changing ideas like the Whistler International Campus university proposal.

This unity has not gone unnoticed, and has raised eyebrows. Can they really all be on the same page on every municipal matter, or are they just towing some imaginary line?

Take the last council meeting in 2013 over a debate concerning a two-and-half-metre concrete fence near Nesters along the highway. The homeowners were allowed to build a two-metre fence and asked council for a variance of an extra half metre to help muffle noise from the highway.

The mayor clearly wasn't happy about the request. Councillor Jackson outlined his reasons for support and the fact that the homeowners could build to two metres without council's permission.

The mayor accepted his arguments; the decision to grant the variance was unanimous.

"That's what we do," says the mayor. "And that's why we're working so well together. We do have these debates, various arguments to and fro will come out, and then as a group we make a decision and we move on."

It's this willingness to compromise, to bend to the collective will that defined this team from the get-go. It has made checking things off its never-ending "to-do" list a little easier.

"Decisions are made and then you move on to the next issue," says Wilhelm-Morden. "Whereas if you have a dissenting council, decisions where there have been a split in the vote tend to come back for one reason or another. You don't ever seem to get the work done."

Holdover issues remain unresolved

Council's work this term has been well documented. But some big issues still persist. Even some of the hot button issues that plagued the last council are still not resolved to this mayor's satisfaction.

Take pay parking. She swept into office with the mandate of scrapping pay parking in the day lots and quickly compromised with a plan to leave lots 4 and 5 free. It was enough to quell the community uproar, but pay parking is not where is should be.

"As part of the EPI recommendations, coming up with a parking strategy is one of them," she says. "Certainly a parking strategy has been discussed for years and it's never come to the fore. Whether we'll be able to do it in 2014, I don't know... Certainly that's something we do need to look at."

Similarly the asphalt plant next to the Cheakamus Crossing neighbourhood is not resolved. Though council made some significant changes to its road work tendering process, effectively cutting Alpine Paving out of any municipal contracts, the long-entrenched plant still operates, legally so, on the fringe of Whistler's newest neighbourhood.

"It's been a quiet summer fortunately," admits Wilhelm-Morden.

"To a certain extent we've been able to manage that. Ultimately, though, we still need to resolve the asphalt plant location and that's still an ongoing issue."

While the file is not currently active, it is never off the work plan says the mayor.

And of course the litigation initiated this term by First Nations around Whistler's Official Community Plan, which is again a holdover from the last council when the update first began.

"I'm hopeful that we'll get the reasons within the first six months of 2014 and hopefully that will be the end of it," says the mayor.

"On the ground our relationships (with First Nations) are strong."

Like the mayor, individual councillors too have more they would like to accomplish before the next election. Here's just a snapshot of what they're working on.

The Budget

For the past two years Whistler council has delivered a $70 million plus municipal budget with zero property tax increases.

The Finance and Audit Committee will be meeting at the end of the month to have a first look at the 2014 preliminary budget, prepared by staff who have stripped it down and built it back up again, justifying every expense.

"It's running very, very tight," says Jackson of the organization, adding that you can see that in the quarterly reports, instituted by this council in an effort to be more transparent about municipal finances.

Factor in inflation and wage increases on the operational side, and the capital projects on the other side, and the pressures on the budget begin to mount.

And then factor in a record-breaking summer with increased visitation in particular for events and festivals and there's even more pressure on municipal operations.

"We've put a lot of pressure on things like service levels because of things like Ironman and all the Festivals, Events and Animation events really have increased traffic to the village," explains Jackson. "So that's put a lot of additional stress on security, cleaning, park maintenance, so that's ongoing. That's going to require some attention because that's going to increase costs."

Festivals, Events & Animation program (FE&A)

There have been major changes to this $3.1 million municipal program in the last two years, namely more oversight in decision-making as the spotlight turns on the municipality as it expands its event business.

FE&A poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into events like Ironman, Tough Mudder, Wanderlust, to name a few, generating millions in economic spin-off to the resort.

Decision-making in this program has become focused in an effort to make the most of the provincial funding in Resort Municipality Initiative (RMI) money to grow tourism.

Roger McCarthy is the council rep on the FE&A Oversight Committee.

"I think we've really moved FE&A," he says. "We've really driven it to measurable objectives."

Those measurables are not just in the room-night spikes on those event weekends, but also in the Economic Impact Assessment reports detailing the spend of event and festival goers.

This year will see the program fund a new May long weekend festival to the tune of $280,000. McCarthy sees even more opportunities to grow, for example, a pre-Christmas mountain symposium to bring mountain enthusiasts, suppliers, educators together before the winter season.

"I think there's big pieces in the rest of the year where we could do things," he said.

"Between Labour Day weekend and Christmas is a big opportunity, we have a lot of rooms that are empty, so there's a lot of things that we could do in there."

Economic Partnership Initiative

There's no shortage of things to come out of the EPI report, says Faulkner who represents council on that committee.

There is strong direction in that report that supports the need to grow Whistler's tourism economy; the key, he says, is to remain focused. And realistic about what can be achieved in the coming months before the end of term.

"In a perfect world we would love to be able to address some of the things that were concerns about aging infrastructure, aging accommodation base that needs attentions phase 1/phase 2 convenants and the challenges those represent," says Faulkner. "That's a very complicated thing to take a run at, but at the same time we were told that the illegal spaces issue was near impossible to take on as well. So we're not daunted by complexity, but we are also realistic about what we think we may or may not be able to achieve."

Having said that, the EPI document is designed to live on long after the next election.

Learning and Education

Though the bulk of this council's term to date has focused on setting the groundwork for learning and education initiatives, the fruits of that labour are already taking shape.

And that's gratifying for Andrée Janyk in particular who was the council rep on the Learning and Education Task Force report — an in-depth study of potential opportunities for Whistler to pursue.

Council's biggest decision in this realm was to turn down plans for a large-scale stand-alone university.

Shortly after, at the end of 2013, council signed a deal with Emily Carr University of Art + Design that will see a summer satellite course established on the shores of Alta Lake this July.

"I think that's a really good starting point," says Janyk.

Moving forward she would like to see, among other things, Whistler working with a partner like the Canadian Sport Institute to bring things like video conferencing to Whistler for athletes to pick up courses while doing dry-land training.

And keen for this report not to sit on the shelf after all the hard work, Janyk suggests that the planned municipal economic development position, called for in the EPI report, take on projects like these.

"It does create some economic diversity," she adds.

Whistler Village 3.0

John Grills is the council rep on the Whistler Village 3.0 initiative, a municipally driven project to support the continual evolution and success of the village, often referred to as the "jewel" of Whistler.

Though the village is just a few decades old, there is a recognition that it is facing aging infrastructure problems and needs continual TLC.

Work is ongoing on this initiative, but as Grills sees it, it's essential for the municipality to get its own house in order before expecting others to come forward with plans for the future.

One of his top priorities for the remainder of the term is to see software installed at the hall to track development applications as they work through the red tape.

"That allows both staff and the client to know where their project is in the process," says Grills.

"I think it's important too because we're out there saying we want to see reinvestment in buildings and storefronts. So if people are going to come forward with applications we want to make sure that we're handling this as quickly and as efficiently as possible."

This work goes hand in hand with council's larger plans to renovate municipal hall and zero in on the delivery of customer service.


Whistler's transit riders have felt the pinch in recent years as service hours were cut to deal with the budget. Jack Crompton is keen to find out if the new changes to add more hours and find efficiencies in the system are paying off.

"I'm looking forward to reviewing the status of this winter's bus service," says the council rep on transit. "I'm looking forward to finding out if the tweaks we have made have moved us in a positive direction.

"I'm positive about our current direction with transit. I think there's a long way to go and our goal with the transit management advisory group this year was to make some decisions that would move us in a direction and then watch and continue to make evidence-based decisions moving forward. So I'm looking forward to seeing the data on the other side."

Crompton is also the Whistler representative at the Squamish Lillooet Regional District (SLRD). Helping move that board and the regional players around Whistler to a spirit of more cooperation is an important part of his job. He characterizes Whistler's regional relationships as positive and improving and he is determined to: "Understand where the other directors are coming from and try to come to terms with the extremely diverse regional district and be a part of helping that group work together."

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And so, as the talk in town turns to who's going to run in the 2014 election, council remains focused in an effort to finish the term in much the same way it began it.

It's difficult not to think already of the legacy it will leave behind when it puts the finishing touches on its term.

But perhaps its biggest legacy of all will be showing Whistler just what can be accomplished by working in simpatico. 

"Sustainability is not about being the same and doing the same thing," says WB's Brownlie of Whistler's once-favourite buzzword. "In my opinion to be sustainable is about being proactive, and being innovative and looking for change and leading as opposed to resting on what you've done before."

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