Decisions in the absence of public discussion

Every three years, when municipal election campaigns get into gear, there is talk of opening up proceedings at municipal hall, making local government more transparent and keeping people better informed. Sometimes the talk comes from a candidate; sometimes it comes from a concerned member of the public. Everyone thinks it’s a good idea of course; after all, who in a democratic society would speak in favour of greater secrecy?

About two and a half years ago, shortly after the present council was elected, the new council members and senior municipal staff held a strategic planning workshop where they outlined the key issues facing them. One of the top priorities was improving communications with the community.

We regurgitate this bit of history in light of the recent public acknowledgement that Whistler may – emphasis on the word may – forfeit $20 million from VANOC to put toward construction of an ice arena for the Paralympics. As reported in both local papers last week, for the first time, Squamish and Pemberton are actively campaigning to have the arena built in their communities. Their motivation comes from Whistler’s less-than-enthusiastic embrace of the arena.

"If it’s appropriate for us, yeah, sure we’re going to take it," Mayor Hugh O’Reilly said. "But if there’s something… better, and there’s something put together, then we’ll have to look at that too."

That sound you hear is $20 million escaping, like the air out of a balloon.

Is an ice arena "appropriate" for Whistler? Arguments could be made that $20 million is not enough to build the kind of arena that the Paralympics demand, and that Whistler’s requirements for an ice rink are somewhat different. Such a facility could become a white elephant, drawing capital from the RMOW’s depleted reserve funds and sucking up operating costs on an annual basis.

Such thinking also ignores the numerous individuals and community organizations currently lacking recreational, performance and meeting space. As well, it goes against the thinking behind other community-owned facilities, such as the conference centre; namely that local government should maintain the facility because it is of benefit to the whole community. In fact, a case could be made that a new arena is one of the financial tools Whistler has so long dreamed of. It wouldn’t put more money in municipal coffers, but it might bring more money into the community.

One could spend – and we may yet be subject to – hours debating these arguments and variations thereof. But regardless of whether you believe Whistler should pursue the $20 million VANOC is offering or let it go to one of the other corridor communities, a greater issue is afoot. It’s this idea of openness, transparency, communication that surfaces every three years.

The people of Whistler were told, and the rest of the world was informed through the official Olympic bid book, that the Paralympic arena would be in Whistler, constructed with the $20 million VANOC will provide. Any other funds required have always been Whistler’s responsibility. But a month before VANOC requires a decision it comes to light – through people outside of Whistler – that Whistler may not want the arena.

Shouldn’t the people of Whistler been told that by their own leaders?

This is not a matter of publicly disclosing delicate negotiations, financial secrets or details of complex matters; it’s simply informing the public about having second thoughts on something they have been told to expect.

Anti-Olympic cheerleaders might suggest the Paralympic arena is becoming another broken Olympic legacy promise. That’s premature. Whistler’s requests for a boundary expansion and financial tools are in the hands of the provincial government, and could still be granted. A decision on whether the Olympic ski jumps will be permanent or taken down

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