P3 abandoned in face of public pressure 

Referendum scrapped - council to do upgrades through traditional model

"In the end council was forced to listen to the people in this town." Pina Belpario
  • "In the end council was forced to listen to the people in this town." Pina Belpario

By Alison Taylor

Public pressure has prevailed and convinced council to abandon its plans for a public-private partnership (P3) for the upgrades to the sewage plant.

In light of the 1,848 responses received in June during the Alternative Approval Process, council decided Monday night to scrap a referendum altogether and do the $35 million upgrades without a private contractor.

“I think in the end council was forced to listen to the people in this town,” said Pina Belperio, who was part of Whistler Water Watch, the grassroots organization opposed to the P3. “Our voice is pretty strong with the 1,848 valid ballots that were presented.”

And even though some members of council such as Tim Wake and Bob Lorriman still believe the P3 route is the most cost-effective way to do the upgrades, the force of public opinion was strong enough to change their minds.

“I think from a cost perspective as well as an environmental perspective, I believe the P3 is the better way to go,” said Lorriman, after the council meeting.

“However, public participation is near and dear to my heart. So that’s why it’s a challenge. If we didn’t have to listen to the public, I would continue to support it but we live in a democracy and the public is uncomfortable going that way so that’s why we have to change course and do the traditional method.”

Only Councillors Ralph Forsyth and Gord McKeever supported taking the P3 to a referendum.

So, despite more than two years work on the P3 and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on consultants and legal opinions, council is going back to the drawing board and coming up with a plan to do the upgrades the traditional way and keep the public utility in public hands.

Council’s about-face decision was not taken lightly.

Mayor Ken Melamed tried to convince council to delay a decision for two weeks. He argued that there might be people in the community who signed the AAP because they wanted more information on the topic or a referendum on the issue. Council’s decision not to seek a referendum could come as a surprise to those people, he said, as he urged council for a two-week reflection period.

He pointed to the a last minute addition to council’s agenda in which resident Mike Wintemute encouraged a referendum to hear from both sides of the debate, not just P3 opponents.

Wintemute wrote:

“I believe that as a property owner and business person in Whistler I too have a say in this proposal and that the process can only be fair if it is now taken to referendum. To take this small percentage of the electorate as the voice for the majority is in my opinion making a mockery of the democratic process we treasure in our country.”

While Councillors Lorriman and McKeever supported the mayor in his calls for delay, the majority overruled them.

Councillor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, the P3’s most vocal opponent on council, remained quiet on the issue for the most part and only spoke out against further delay.

She listed the number of times the P3 has been in the public eye and said further delay would cause more uncertainty, more divisiveness and take up more staff time.

Other councillors believed that the majority of those who signed the AAP did so because they were against the P3 and not because they wanted to go to a referendum.

“I don’t think there’s a single person in this community (who’d) be surprised,” Councillor Eckhard Zeidler told the mayor.

Zeidler, Wake, Wilhelm-Morden and Forsyth overruled the call for a delay.

Forsyth said though he supported a referendum he would not support a delay if council’s will in the long run was to vote against it.

“At some point you have to make a stand,” he said.

On Tuesday Mayor Melamed remained convinced that an extra two weeks wouldn’t have compromised the process.

“I think there will be a reaction from the ‘yes’ side and from a component of the community,” he said.

Though there may be a backlash on their decision, the mayor said it’s still hard to imagine the ‘yes’ side could compete with the overwhelming responses against the P3 if put to a referendum.

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