January 27, 2019 Features & Images » Feature Story

The RMOW Files 

Whistler council charts new territory with portfolio approach

click to flip through (7) ILLUSTRATION BY CLAIRE RYAN, STORY BY BRADEN DUPUIS - The RMOW Files Whistler council charts new territory with portfolio approach
  • Illustration by Claire Ryan, Story by Braden Dupuis
  • The RMOW Files Whistler council charts new territory with portfolio approach

It didn't come to him in a dream, or in the bathtub, but a quiet revelation in the theatre of the Maury Young Arts Centre.

"During the election, not having to campaign gave me the opportunity to listen," says Mayor Jack Crompton, when asked how he conceived of the Resort Municipality of Whistler's (RMOW) new portfolio approach, which will see each elected councillor focus on a specific area of interest (while still voting generally on all municipal issues).

Watching Whistler's 20 candidates for council at the all-candidates meetings, listening to them passionately state the case for their potential pet projects, Crompton drew a connection to the ministerial systems used by the provincial and federal governments.

"I was struck by the insight, experience and knowledge of the people putting their names up for council," he says, pointing to Councillor Jen Ford, who was in contact with provincial ministers about childcare during the campaign, as one example.

With the portfolios, Crompton hopes to "connect the dots" between various boards and committees, strengthen one-on-one relationships with provincial and federal counterparts, and provide a "champion" for each distinct area of municipal interest.

"The primary job of a councillor is to work with the rest of council to provide direction through resolutions and bylaws. That will not change," Crompton says.

"The portfolio role is additive. It is not something that is intended to silo that person's efforts. It is intended to make them a greater resource to the rest of council and to the RMOW as a whole."

Pique caught up with all six municipal councillors as they settle into their elected roles to discuss their new portfolios, and how they plan to tackle them.

 

Arthur De Jong

Environment

It was as if everyone in the room knew what the mayor was about to say before he said it.

When Crompton announced in his inaugural address that Arthur De Jong would be assigned the Environment portfolio, a low chuckle rose up through the crowd—not one of derision, but agreement.

With his decades of experience spearheading environmental initiatives for Whistler Blackcomb, De Jong was the obvious choice to head the file.

Throughout the campaign, De Jong spoke of the "five Ws"—a catch-all phrase for Whistler's environmental reality: water, weather, wildfire, wilderness and waste.

He'll need to keep a wary eye on all five if he wants to make progress on what he fondly refers to as "the red file."

"When we were at our (council) retreat (in November), staff presented a number of key indicators, and most reds showed up in my file, which was concerning," De Jong says with a laugh, referring to the colour-coded circles the RMOW uses to track its progress on key initiatives.

"But it certainly spoke to what we need to put more focus on."

Red indicators be damned, De Jong will not be deterred.

"We've got to get action on the ground, and that's the lesson to me, in that we want to get moving on a number of agenda items, and immediately," De Jong says.

"Being new, I get the reality check on the budgets ... (but) let's hope in a year's time we can talk about a number of things that we've gotten done."

Whistler's Community Energy and Climate Action Plan is solid, but it needs a champion—a designated climate-action coordinator position to really push the action items, De Jong says. (Editor's Note: That was something former Coun. Sue Maxwell had pushed for during the previous term, critical of the RMOW for dragging its feet on certain environmental initiatives.)

While money for the position will likely be included in the 2019 municipal budget, it will be challenging to make progress in the meantime, he adds.

"That being said, I'd like to see a climate-action committee formed very quickly here, which would be community-inclusive," De Jong says.

"There is money in the municipal budget for a waste-reduction committee, and so my question to community environmental leaders like Claire (Ruddy, of AWARE) is can we integrate the two?

"But nonetheless, we need to get wheels on both."

Looking at Whistler's $1.4-million wildfire budget, De Jong sees it a respectable number in comparison to other communities—but weighted against the overall value of Whistler, the budget looks small.

"From an economic perspective, we're trying to protect over $16 billion worth of assets, so I really do feel that, in the future, we need to get more into that budget," he says.

"So again, at this point it's more questions of how do we get more funding, how are we more efficient with the money that we do have, and how do we optimize the momentum that we have on the community side with respect to volunteering, and the work that Heather (Beresford, RMOW environmental stewardship manager) and Scott (Rogers, FireSmart coordinator) have done?"

Once the waste-reduction committee is in place, De Jong says he'd like to get traction on reducing and banning specific plastics, as well as look at the composting habits of local businesses.

"I hear there's a lot of inefficiency with a number of businesses with composting, so that's a large input into the landfill ... so how do we optimize the programs that are already in place, like composting?" he says.

While there is a bevy of environmental groups working in Whistler (Get Bear Smart, AWARE, the Whistler Naturalists, the Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative, to name a few), the groups are mostly weighted towards natural ecosystems, De Jong says.

"That's great, and let's keep that going, and build on it, but when I look at that and when I look at energy conservation and waste, other than AWARE, we just don't have the collective focus that we have on natural ecosystems," he says.

"Clearly waste and energy conservation, greenhouse gases (GHG), need a much stronger and immediate focus here."

Looking at Whistler's GHG emission levels, the proverbial elephant in the room is transportation—the resort relies on millions of people travelling here by airplane, who then drive or bus up the Sea to Sky Highway.

While there's not much to be done about that in the short term, there is room to challenge people to change their own behaviours locally in the meantime.

"The lever that I'm trying to push is behavioural change in the community with the single-occupant driving, and I don't have the answer to that," De Jong says, adding that his own personal challenge for 2019 is to reduce his driving by 30 per cent.

"It will be the question that I pose to these incoming committees: how do we drive deeper with our community on making a collective commitment to driving less, particularly as a single-occupant vehicle?"

De Jong can be reached at 604-935-8225 or adejong@whistler.ca.

 

Jen Ford

Social Services and Regional Cooperation

Coun. Jen Ford was still on the campaign trail in early October when she received word from some local moms that their childcare provider would soon be closing on Mondays.

And if some early-childhood educators weren't hired, the program would have to be closed indefinitely.

"That was like, 'Oh no, this can't happen.' It felt like a crisis; 'What are we going to do? Who are we going to talk to?'" Ford says.

Fresh off of the Union of BC Municipalities Convention (UBCM) in Whistler a month earlier, Ford had a fresh line of contact with the provincial government.

"I met with not only the minister for childcare but a lot of her staff (at UBCM), and so I had those connections that I was able to call and just say, 'Hey, this is our current reality, what can we do?'" she says.

"We were able to find a couple of people; My understanding is that they have kept that program open, and that some of the funding programs that that particular childcare centre wasn't eligible for before, they now are.

"But it's a work in progress."

In her new role overseeing Whistler's Social Services and Regional Cooperation portfolio, Ford will likely find herself fielding similar concerns and chasing the same ministers.

"A lot of the research that I had done with childcare throughout the province, I had been really, really close to it both personally and professionally, so (the portfolio) felt like a natural fit on that," she says.

"(But) it's quite a wide spectrum of social services."

While things like healthcare, and the challenges faced by industry professionals, don't fall under the municipal mandate, it helps to have someone on the local level paying attention to what the issues are, Ford says.

"It's nice to have a close connection with how it's affecting our community, and being able to advocate in that respect," she says.

On her portfolio, Ford says she's taking a "sponge"-like approach.

"I'm learning as much as I possibly can, (and) I'm meeting with everyone that I can, to understand the state of where we're at right now, and looking for opportunities to not only hit the low-hanging fruit but make a plan for the next four years," she says.

"I would love to see a really stable healthcare workforce (so) that people feel confident they can get a GP, they can find childcare for their family, (and) have mental-health services available, because those are the issues that really hit people close to home."

But it's also about learning where she can be most effective, Ford adds, "and not going after things that maybe are already being taken care of in a neighbouring community, or learning from our neighbours to see what their best practices are and understanding how we can best advocate with the province."

With most social services in Whistler being outside of the municipal purview, the regional cooperation aspect of Ford's portfolio seems a necessary add-on.

Her experience sitting on the board of the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District, and more recently as a director at large with the Union of BC Municipalities, should serve her well in that regard.

"It's exciting," she says.

"It's a great council. I'm really excited to be working with the six other members. I just feel really hopeful, and it's a great environment right now."

Contact Ford at 604-935-8226 or jford@whistler.ca

 

Duane Jackson

Housing

Being assigned the Housing portfolio—the file overseeing one of the community's most pressing issues—must come with a certain amount of pressure.

Thankfully for Coun. Duane Jackson, assuming the file means he also inherits the work of the Mayor's Task Force on Resident Housing (struck by then-Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden in 2016 to address the crisis).

Jackson says he spent the first few months just getting caught up on work already underway.

"It takes a little bit of time, as you can imagine," he says. "We've had one WHA (Whistler Housing Authority) meeting, so (I'm) getting up to speed on those current projects, which are great to see."

Currently underway on the WHA front are three builds: 1020 Legacy Way in Cheakamus Crossing (24 units, 53 beds) and 8350 Bear Paw Trail in Rainbow (20 units, 39 beds) will be ready in summer 2019, while 1330 Cloudburst Dr. in Cheakamus (45 units, 103 beds) is expected to be open in 2020.

In terms of the development of Cheakamus Crossing Phase 2, Jackson says council is reviewing plans, and the new iteration of the Whistler 2020 Development Corp. is set to meet shortly.

At an open house in October, the RMOW revealed it was eyeing at least 550 units for Cheakamus Phase 2, with a move-in date as early as spring 2021.

Former WDC president Eric Martin has offered to come back in an interim role, Jackson says, while the rest of the board is currently made up of Jackson, Neil Chrystal, Marla Zucht, Nancy Wilhelm-Morden and Crompton.

"In the meantime, while we've been getting up to speed on council, RMOW staff have been working with Matthew Carter, the project manager that was working with the advisory group, to advance all of the necessary analysis of Parcel A (in Cheakamus) from an environmental and geotechnical and forestry road (standpoint).

"So we're doing all the due diligence to make sure we're in a position to consider a project and what that project may be."

Jackson says the public will likely hear more at a council meeting in the coming weeks, once the board has its first meeting and confirms its next steps.

Also waiting in the wings are the controversial employee housing proposals from private developers, which have drawn the ire of neighbours in three out of the five proposed builds.

Jackson says he expects staff to bring another report to council in the next month.

During the campaign, Jackson discussed the housing issue from an aerial, big-picture perspective; if you alleviate pressure in one area, it will logically free things up elsewhere, he believes.

Getting moving on Cheakamus Phase 2 would go a long way to greasing the wheels of the housing continuum, Jackson reasons.

"If you're thinking about things moving around, the WHA has a long ownership waitlist, and the WDC is going to be looking at opportunities to maybe advance some of those plans to deliver a range of housing types sooner than was previously anticipated," he says.

"If that's a possibility, then inevitably that might create vacancies elsewhere in the community, but you've got to take the time to build it."

A new 200-bed staff building, courtesy of Vail Resorts, will also help in that regard, though no formal rezoning application has been dropped off at municipal hall to date.

Unlike its predecessor, the new WDC is tasked with looking at the potential of all legacy lands in Whistler—an exciting prospect for those planning Whistler's housing future.

"I think once we get past our immediate goal of making sure that we're able to progress something this year, or advance something this year, then we start looking at the medium-term opportunities," Jackson says.

"And then beyond that you see the potential for the strategic planning to look at the longer-term opportunities, and that's something I think we can spend more time at. We just can't do it all at once."

You can reach Jackson at 604-935-8228 or djackson@whistler.ca.

 

Cathy Jewett

Arts, Natural History, Traditions and Heritage

Coun. Cathy Jewett was a fresh-faced 19-year-old spending her first Christmas in Whistler when she ended up having dinner seated next to local legend Myrtle Philip, one of Whistler's original pioneers.

She couldn't have asked for a better firsthand history lesson.

"I asked her to tell me what it was like coming up to Whistler ... I think her horse's name was Prince, and it was a long haul up the trail from Squamish, because of course there was no roads, no railroad—nothing, " Jewett recalls.

"So a boat to Newport or Squamish, and then a packhorse from there, so it was pretty amazing to have had that opportunity to have sat next to her and had a meal with her."

Stories like those—and the people who tell them—are at the heart of Jewett's new portfolio: the wide-reaching Arts, Natural History, Traditions and Heritage file.

In approaching the file, Jewett says she turned to Whistler's Official Community Plan.

"I've looked at the three key components of that and thought, for me to feel like I am moving this along and doing what I hope to do, which is very community-based, generally speaking, (I need to) look at the three main topics and the vision, which are community, environment and tourism," she says.

"With the community, (it's about) 'enriching community life,' to use some words from the (Whistler) 2020 vision. So how can we, with arts, culture and heritage, enrich life for the people that live here?"

Through her decades of volunteer experience, Jewett has often found herself working directly with the arts community, whether at the Audain Art Museum or through her work as chair of the Parent Advisory Committee.

While she hasn't fielded too many meetings from local artists since assuming the portfolio, she's got a good sense of the challenges they face.

"Money is always a challenge. Space is a challenge for artists that have media that takes up space—sculptors, potters, even painters need a certain amount of space and light," she says, noting that getting publicity, or being able to showcase their work can also be a challenge.

"They need a venue, and actually, Arts Whistler has done a really great job with the Maury Young Arts Centre showcasing different artists."

The RMOW will look to revive its Public Art Committee as a way of further engaging artists, Jewett says.

"We'll certainly be talking about more pieces of art out in the community, and seeing who those artists will be I think will be very interesting," she says.

In terms of heritage and natural history, Jewett's file will encompass two big projects in the coming years: landing geopark status in Whistler (see related story on page 15) and finding the Whistler Museum a new home.

The museum board has previously eyed Lot 21, a plot of land in Florence Petersen Park next to the Whistler Public Library, for the museum's new home.

"We haven't got anything concrete, but we're working together to find a solution for their location," Jewett says.

"The old part of Whistler is really in me, and I hope that we can get the museum a home and start letting people know what those stories are."

You can reach Jewett at 604-935-8227 or cjewett@whistler.ca.

 

John Grills

Tourism Economy

When he was first elected in 2011, Coun. John Grills was part of a council tasked with revitalizing Whistler's economy.

The results of that effort—record visitation and the virtual elimination of shoulder seasons—have been well documented.

"I think our timing was really good ... We got blessed with some good weather conditions, and the key people knocked on our door—Ironman and Michael Audain—and a number of things like that really changed the atmosphere in the community," Grills says.

"I think when the community saw that council working and rolling up their sleeves, working with the staff, and getting things done ... there was confidence back in the community."

The third-term councillor is now tasked with keeping the momentum going through the Tourism Economy portfolio.

To do so, he'll rely on existing relationships such as the Economic Partnership Initiative and partnerships like those with Tourism Whistler.

"Tourism Whistler has always adjusted when there's been changes to our visitation numbers, and when they see changes in certain international markets, they try and figure out why, and if it looks like it's not a good investment going down the road, they put their money somewhere else. We're seeing that today, and we've seen that for decades," Grills says.

"And I think that's always been recognized as a really key tool that Whistler has compared to other resorts like ourselves."

While some bemoan the busier state of Whistler these days, Grills, a former restaurant owner, wants to see current business levels maintained.

"My background is as an entrepreneur. I know what it's like to have large disruptions to your business twice a year in spring and fall, and it's havoc, it's expensive," Grills says, noting that with all the discussion around affordability, employers being able to provide a regular paycheque to their workers is a positive.

"I think that's something that our businesses deliver now, because we've got quite a steady volume through the year. Certainly, there's still fluctuations, but the short seasons are a lot shorter than they used to be.

"I think we just maintain it at this level and then work from there. I don't like really going backwards on stuff."

While anecdotally, there have been rumblings of an expected economic downturn for months, Grills says he isn't worried yet.

"I think we've got a good base here. I think we'll have to do some adjustments to some of our marketing and some of our pricing, possibly, to make sure that we stay at this level, but the most important thing is that we sit down on a regular basis and monitor it," he says.

"The goal always for any councillor or mayor is that you want to leave the community in a better place than when you start. I've been able to do that for two terms. I certainly would like to do that for the third term.

"If there are some bumps along the way, we'll just do whatever we can to minimize them, and react to them."

Grills can be reached at 604-935-8230 or jgrills@whistler.ca.

 

Ralph Forsyth

Finance and Audit

Coun. Ralph Forsyth is taking a sensible view of his own Finance and Audit portfolio.

"For me, the approach is always to find value for the taxpayer in everything that we do," he says.

"I suppose the biggest thing is the financing of it—how are we financing these projects, and is now the right time?"

In short, Forsyth wants to see transparency on municipal project finances, such as the $6-million Gateway Loop project (the finances of which are expected to be detailed at an upcoming council meeting).

"These things, I think some people in the community want a public execution. I just want a public accounting of how it all goes," he says.

"The staff work hard and I think they do a good job, I just want to have an understanding of how these things happen."

When it was first announced, Forsyth's portfolio was dubbed Infrastructure and Community Investment before being renamed to Audit and Finance.

Aside from some potential maintenance for the nearly-25-year-old Meadow Park Sports Centre, Forsyth says his approach to the municipal books will be one of frugality.

"There's nothing big that I want to see built, that's for sure," he says, noting that the municipality must also be aware of when the best time to invest is.

"I remember years ago we were going to do a renovation of city hall, and people went crazy because it was going to cost like $2 million or something like that. Well, guess what? If we tried to do a renovation of municipal hall now, it would be $20 million," he says. (Editor's Note: Back in 2007, the RMOW proposed a budget of $5.7 million for the renovation of municipal hall. Eight months later, that projected costs had ballooned to nearly $16 million.)

"So I want to make sure that if we're going to do things that we're going to stick to our guns and do them, so that we're not stuck having to pay a lot later. But there's no shiny new stuff that I want to see."

That being said, the 2019 budget—which Whistlerites will get to see in draft form for the first time at an open house in February—will no doubt include some big-ticket infrastructure items.

On Jan. 7, the RMOW issued a Request for Proposals for water main replacement in White Gold (similar to a multi-million dollar project completed in Alpine in 2017).

Other infrastructure projects planned for 2019 include a significant rebuild of the Spruce Grove Sewer lift station; major relining of the trunk sewer between Alta Lake Road and Function Junction; the Meadow Park cardio room expansion, and; three new washroom buildings in Whistler Village

In 2018, property taxes went up 2.25 per cent, solid waste user fees went up 4.5-per-cent and sewer parcel taxes 1.1-per-cent, while there was no increase to water rates.

Any proposed tax changes for 2019 will be revealed at the February budget open house.

You can reach Forsyth at 604-935-8229 or rforsyth@whistler.ca.

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