October 22, 1999 Features & Images » Feature Story

election issues 

The issues in ’99 A subjective look at Whistlerites’ wish lists for this fall’s elections By G.D. Maxwell Regular, democratic elections — at least the kind practised in Canada — are probably as close as most adults ever come to recapturing the heady essence of what Christmas used to mean to them when they were children. The earliest realization that the festive season is upon them stirs the embers of yearning for those few precious weeks, when everything is about them and what they want. Many start working in earnest on their wish list, deciding what to ask for, assessing who will most likely deliver the goods, calculating the long odds on getting it all, and stifling the dim but ever present knowledge they’ll eventually be disappointed when that shiny box of world peace fails to materialize on the day of reckoning. The games have begun. Road signs, election confetti, those monuments to instant recognition and voter apathy, have begun to decorate the byways of our happy mountain home. At least one hopeful is sticking his neck out — photographically speaking — to test the Nebbeling Hypothesis: will any politician’s picture be given a hirsute makeover or was that a sign of affection reserved only for our beloved former mayor? The crisp, unusually dry autumn air wafting through the valley is lightly punctuated with the smoky smell of smouldering piles of ideologies. In various neighbourhoods, narrow lines of leaves of self-interest burn hot. On the Benchlands, a bonfire of disaffected, disenfranchised youth struggles to reach critical mass. Small warming fires of affordability glow in many places, forestalling the need to crank up the heat and drain family budgets. And everywhere, piles of environmental concern simply compost warmly, doing no harm. So what are the hot buttons this year in the land of the terminally apathetic? Three years ago, Pique called together a metric dozen — 10 in round numbers — of our neighbours to spend a couple of evenings sharing their wish lists. This year, we decided we’d be crazy to do that much work again so we constituted Roundtable Lite, half a dozen of the most dynamic minds in Whistler. Being Whistler, only four actually showed up on the appointed night. What to do, what to do? Play the hand you’re dealt, which, as it turned out, was a reasonably balanced hand. Two men, two women, small business, health care, mountain worker, community activists, boomers, pre-boomer, former councillor, Creekside, Alpine, Tapley’s. Absent, as usual, was the youth vote representative; you can’t capture what you can’t find. Ditto the recent arrival. But these were the folks who accepted the two dozen or so invitations extended. Gordon McKeever has lived in Whistler 18 years now. Married, a couple of children, principal in Rainbow Retreats which, among other things, manages Whistler Resort and Club and is in the dreaded chalet business. Motto: When chalets are outlawed, only outlaws will have chalets. Cathy Jewett has been in Whistler long enough to know better, 23 years. Married, two young children, ski patroller forever on Whistler Mountain, trailblazer, force to be reckoned with. Motto: Comin’ through. Garry Watson’s been here, as he says, forever. Married, former councillor, long-time mover and shaker in everything that has sprung from the garbage dump of the village of Alta Lake. Motto: I not only know where the skeletons are hidden, I’ve got the key to the door. Anne Fenwick’s lived here for 17 years. Married, two teenage girls, nurse, library board chair, best posture and warmest hands you’ll ever encounter. Motto: Of course it can be done. Over a couple of hours of free-wheeling discussion at the library — graciously made available by the World’s Best Librarian — several themes were returned to over and over; these are presented as topic headings below. Because of the give and take nature of the evening and the desire for candid discussion, some of what’s presented is a distillation of the group’s opinion. It’s important to remember this is opinion; in some instances facts are overlooked or misstated. But then, it’s opinion that drives voting behaviour, isn’t it? Present Council Three years ago, only two sitting councillors were returned to office. Three ran for mayor and the sixth was narrowly defeated in the final count. The new council was elected with a strong mandate to do something about employee housing and turn the focus of municipal politics to the community. How have they done? Generally, there was agreement we got the council we wanted. "I was quite enthusiastic with the council we last elected. We came out in a snowstorm three years ago and voted in a very eclectic group. They had a little trouble meshing but boy, they sure cover the spectrum, don’t they? From the environmentalist to the banker. It’s very healthy," Garry offered. "This is the first council we’ve had that hasn’t been driven by a really strong vision from the top," according to Gordon. "Instead, it’s been engaged in gathering consensus and putting the end-game on buildout and the shape of Whistler. They’ve made good progress on employee housing but I wasn’t pleased with the way the chalet issue was dealt with." That consensus building didn’t come without a price though. "I think council has done a good job in finding consensus from people, but I think maybe they spent too much time getting it," Cathy said. "Here we are at the very end of their term and they’re having to make some of the biggest decisions (Emerald Forest, Creekside redevelopment) of their entire mandate in, perhaps, the last month of it." Anne summed up the group’s general feeling that this council had done a good job. "I’m generally pleased with the current council. I give them and the senior administrator a lot of credit for coming to grips with a long term plan which is something that needed to be done. I think a lot of what council has accomplished has been behind the scenes. The first couple of years there was a lot of long term planning, maybe too much at times, but they were looking toward the future." The Cap and the Forest: Or, What Have You Done For Me Lately? This is not to say all was a love-in. The wounds inflicted by the recent Emerald Forest decision still oozed bitterly. While the group was sanguine about having to live with the decision, there was no sense of agreement that council had done the right thing and there was agreement that the implications are going to be unsettling. Garry was first to weigh in on the decision. "I quite frankly regard the Emerald Forest transaction, as a transaction, a terrible production from a financial and community point of view. Certainly the preservation of the Emerald Forest was important, but it could have been done in a much better way and for much less cost. Limits to growth we adopted back in 1979-1980 in the very first community plan are really a question of preserving the quality of life in the community, both environmentally and in liveability. I’m enormously disappointed that cap was exceeded for an expediency that could have been much better done another way." The reality of using bed units as currency raised the issue of what life will be like in Whistler at build out. "I’m really disappointed with the 500 extra bed units that were assigned out of the Emerald Forest because of the employee housing needs," Gordon said. "I just want to see the rest of those units built before we start assigning any more. We’ve got to see what it looks like and tastes like and smells like and works like. Is there enough water? Is there enough clean air? Never mind the highways or the schools." Having paid a high cost for the land, Anne wondered how the municipality would manage it for the future. "I’m pleased they got the Emerald Forest; whether they got it in the best manner possible, I don’t know. But I am concerned that it will be taken over by people who just want to go in there and cut trails wherever they want. Some of the trails that have been built are detrimental to the environment." "Yeah," Gordon chimed in, "I was confused about what we were trying to preserve because there were two camps of talk. There was the nature preserve, green-belt aspect of it and then there was the really neat trails and picnic spots throughout. The two really aren’t necessarily compatible." The Olympics: Nobody Asked Me It’s ten years until the Olympics come to town. That’s if the Olympics come to town, something we won’t know until three years from now. But it’s a here and now issue for this council to handle. So far, the 2010 Olympics Travelling Roadshow has been a juggernaut moving under its own momentum, an assumption awaiting a decision. But too many voices are being raised for some reading of public sentiment to be forestalled much longer. Cathy wasn’t certain the games were as non-disruptive as they’ve been made out to be. "The Emerald Forest might be nothing compared to what we’ll see if the Olympics get approved. I know that the initial plans don’t call for very much in the way of additional requirements for the Games, but I think there will be a lot of pressure put on this community if the Games come here." "When the idea of the Olympics came to light, I wasn’t that in favour of it, but hearing what’s gone on at other Olympics I’m not so sure," Anne said, reflecting the group’s soft support. "They got some very good things for Calgary out of it. I guess my concern would be that it not detract from Whistler. It would have to be very well planned with an eye to how it’s going to benefit Whistler." Garry picked up on that theme. "Nowadays, what the Olympics are all about in relationship to communities is the legacies. I’m surprised the community hasn’t gotten mobilized to say, ‘Alright, what’s in it for us’? I think the last figure they threw out was $250 million in legacies to be funded. If that all goes to Vancouver, that would be horrendous. Whistler should get its fair share in a form that contributes to the community. There’s no reason the community can’t say, ‘we’ll support the Olympics on our terms’." School Daze and Day Care: Watch Your Elbows Blessed are the children. The day Whistler’s secondary school opened, it was already too small. Myrtle Philip school is about half the size it needs to be for the number of children it teaches. School district budgets are squeezed by the province who blames the feds and Whistler taxpayers wonder where all the money that starts out here finally ends up. "We have a big battle brewing right now in the school district," Cathy says, warming to the issue. "There’s a $620,000 surplus and the Whistler Elementary School has got a $40,000 shortfall. We were short on our funding last year. The district’s not willing to cough up. The principals in the other schools aren’t willing to give up their surpluses to help the deficit here. Parents here are furious, furious, because of the taxes we’re paying. There is a battle going on." "Speaking as a parent who has seen Myrtle Philip school go from a country school to something where there’s so many portables there’s more kids outside than inside, we’re being held over the barrel on a new school," she continued. "We desperately need an elementary school. The school district has been very lax in finding school sites, and unfortunately got offered this one (in the Creekside development plan) that looked like it would be so beautiful and easy and cheap, and it’s not. It’s not beautiful or easy or cheap; it’s small, it’s not very well laid out, and if all three phases of the Whistler South plan don’t get approved, we don’t have a school and we’re right back to square one." "I remember the school revolt many years ago when Whistler wanted their own school district," Anne added. "It was a big issue and we were really close to it then. It was because Whistler was paying 80 per cent-plus of the school base and getting very little. So this has been an ongoing debate for a while." And while the guys were notably absent from this discussion, the subject of daycare wasn’t. "One of the things stopping young families from living here is daycare. Daycare is crazy. There’s over a dozen licensed daycares in Squamish. We have one," Cathy noted. "And daycare’s got to be affordable," Anne added. "Daycare for $50 a day for a little kid doesn’t cut it. It’s not worth going out to your $16/hour job when you have to pay that." Affordability and Liveability: Paradise for Sale Affordability and liveability proved to be the evening’s touchstone issues. They are qualities that overlay everything else and ones least malleable to easy solutions — when you press on one side, they bulge on another. The cap, transportation, taxes, employee housing, the Olympics, environmental policy, all push and pull how affordable and how liveable Whistler becomes in the future. "Affordability is a huge issue," Anne led off. "With the cost of housing going up people working here can’t afford them. People who have houses, the only way they’re going to benefit from high housing value is when they move to a cheaper place. Otherwise, I don’t care how much equity I’ve got in my house, I’ve still got to pay the taxes on it, and that gets to be more and more. As well, there’s the cost of gas, the cost of food, the cost of ski passes, all that. Local’s passes aren’t local’s passes any more." "I think liveability, as much as affordability, is something a lot of people I know are concerned about," she continued. "You can’t go out and enjoy a nice walk on your local Valley Trail on a Saturday morning, let alone a Saturday afternoon, because it’s too crowded. Where’s the local person supposed to go to enjoy their own backyard? My favourite New Year’s Eve was a couple of years ago when there was so much snow they had to cancel everything because nobody could move anywhere." "The comments on affordability are really well founded," Gordon picked up. "It’s going to take an enormous amount of effort within this community to run contrary to the natural tendency of resorts to do what resorts do — end up in a community like Vail where the billionaires are fighting the millionaires and the mayor has to hire a bodyguard because of a controversial employee housing issue within the community. Respecting the cap is a big part of that. Let’s get there before we decide how much further we want to go." Cathy observed, "I’m pretty lucky. I’ve gotten to go and see a lot of other ski resorts. I’ve been to Vail and Aspen and Sun Valley, Alta, Jackson, Val d’Isere and Chamonix. The thing that makes this place charming is making people feel like people really do live here and this isn’t Disneyland created just for tourists. It’s a town where people live. Maintaining that ambiance of this being a small town is going to depend on what happens down the road: keeping the cap and avoiding that feeling of crowding, crowding on the slopes and in the restaurants, lining up to get your groceries, lining up at the drug store, at the liquor store, lining up to get on the Valley Trail, finding no space at Rainbow beach." "It’s pretty horrendous, on a regional basis, that in this community average families are paying six and seven times as much tax, regional tax, as any other community in the region," Garry reasoned. " And yet our median family incomes are below those in the other constituent communities. What can people who are working here and living here afford? To me, it’s totally unacceptable that the tax burden we have on a regional basis continue. We have to deal with the provincial government and the other communities in the region to straighten this out." ...And All the Rest If you’d have been a fly on the wall, you’d have heard Cathy talk about the results of a survey of Myrtle Philip parents who forsake the bus and sneakers to drive their kids to school. They do it because they don’t think their streets are safe: too narrow, too steep, no sidewalks, no street lights. You’d have heard Anne express concerns she has for the safety of her daughters when they catch a late flick in the village and rub shoulders with the weirdoes and drunks engaged in Whistler’s primary business — party on dude. You’d have heard Garry’s desire to open up the political process by maybe using advisory groups more extensively and more meaningfully and encouraging more qualified people to public service. You’d have heard Gordon’s concern over whether we’re going to get more by 2002 than a vision, action for instance, and an interesting plan for floating bed units to support future infill projects. You’d have heard a lot of other things that are pretty hard to pigeonhole and weave into a coherent story but that had merit and showed a deep concern about where we’re headed as a community. Before you’re totally bombarded with signs, newspaper ads, candidate chit-chats and the necessary business of getting ready for ski season, maybe it would be useful to take a few moments and figure out what’s important this time around for yourself. Drop us a line and let us know what you’re thinking; someone wants to know.

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