Whistler to elect new mayor in October 

Coun. Maxwell also out; others undecided ahead of Oct. 20 election

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF THE RESORT MUNICIPALITY OF WHISTLER - CHANGING FACES At least two of Whistler's elected officials—Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden and Councillor Sue Maxwell—will not seek re-election this October.
  • PHOTO Courtesy of the Resort Municipality of Whistler
  • CHANGING FACES At least two of Whistler's elected officials—Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden and Councillor Sue Maxwell—will not seek re-election this October.

Whistler's council table will feature some fresh faces after this October's municipal election—including in the office of the highest elected official in the resort.

Both Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden and Councillor Sue Maxwell have opted not to seek re-election on Oct. 20, while others say they are not yet ready to announce their intentions.

Wilhelm-Morden said she made the decision while visiting her daughter in Colorado this February, but wanted to give herself time to make sure it was the right choice.

In the end, it wasn't any one thing that tipped the scales—after 17 combined years behind the council table, it was just time.

"It has been an absolute privilege to serve the community for the last seven years as the mayor. We've accomplished quite a number of amazing things over the course of that time," Wilhelm-Morden said.

"The top 10 that I ran on in 2011 have been met, for the most part—of course there's always more work to do, but it's time for me to step aside and to spend some more time with my family and with my friends, and devote more time to my law practice as well."

In a wide-ranging and at times emotional interview, Wilhelm-Morden talked personal successes, unseen setbacks, favourite moments and the future of Whistler.

"I think we have to continue to recognize that partnerships are key to our success, so really cementing the partnership with the government in Victoria ... we've got a very strong relationship with Tourism Whistler and with the Chamber of Commerce, the Vail Resorts people are the new kids in town, and we really need to work with them to keep that partnership strong," Wilhelm-Morden said.

"I think it's one of the things that really sets Whistler apart from our competitors, is this very healthy partnership that we've had in the past, so I hope the importance of that is recognized by the new council."

Another area of focus Wilhelm-Morden hopes to see continue is a commitment to the resident community—a priority she takes great pride in.

"Something that I've worked hard on my entire political career is supporting and strengthening the resident community—that's been my first principle," the mayor said, fighting back tears ("we should be doing this by email," she joked).

"I have confidence that a new council will recognize the importance of that, because without the strong resident community we would be just another resort."

Over the past seven years in her role as mayor, Wilhelm-Morden has accomplished or made progress on most all of the things she campaigned on—including no tax increases for three consecutive years, action on illegal spaces, reducing the mayor's salary, developing a robust cultural plan, diversifying the economy through education and other initiatives, fixing transit and restoring trust in municipal hall.

"Back in those days, people were embarrassed to say they worked at municipal hall. Employees were going off on stress leave, (and) there was a very dysfunctional relationship between the municipal hall and the community," Wilhelm-Morden said.

"I think that for the most part community members think that their council is working in their best interests, and that they have confidence that we are making the right decisions."

But you can't please everyone, and Whistlerites have never been shy about voicing their displeasure with the direction of mayor and council.

"I'm a trial lawyer, so I've got a thick skin, but I have to say that social media has been a challenge. We all know about social media trolls, and some of the comments can be really hurtful. Like, really hurtful," Wilhelm-Morden said.

"It's tough to be a politician in a small town, but on the other hand, it's also incredibly rewarding."

Much of the online anger directed her way in recent years likely stems from frustration over the housing issue, Wilhelm-Morden said—one of the areas she admits more should have been done sooner.

"We talked about it at the beginning of 2015 ... do we need to pay attention to it? Are we OK with it? And with the advice of some of our partners we thought we were in a good place with housing," Wilhelm-Morden said.

"But then the economic boom just swept us up, and between the population growth and the demand for employees from the economic boom, we were caught flat-footed on housing.

"I know it's been a source of frustration for residents and for employees and for employers, and I'm sorry that we weren't on top of that file the way we ought to have been."

That being said, the work of the Mayor's Task Force on Resident Housing, with its seven recommendations targeting 1,000 new beds in five years, is another point of pride for Wilhelm-Morden.

"I think there is going to be a bit of a legacy with that," she said. "It's a challenge when we live in a narrow valley with limited land space, when we've got limits to growth set out in our Official Community Plan, but when we are such a desirable place to be and to live, we've got this push/pull effect. We've had it from the beginning and we'll continue to have it, but I think we're approaching a good place with the Mayor's Task Force."

Another area of resident frustration recently was the reintroduction of paid parking—with some pointing out the mayor originally campaigned against it—but times change, and politics is about compromise.

"I campaigned on pay parking in Day Lot 1 only, with Day Lots 2 to 5 being free, but I had to compromise with the other members of council who were elected at that time, so we had pay parking in Day Lots 1, 2 and 3," Wilhelm-Morden said.

"I think where we are right now with pay parking, having been extended to Day Lots 4 and 5, I think we've made, again, some good compromises, with not having pay parking in shoulder seasons, with the carpool pass, and with the lower rates and monthly passes and so on.

"And most particularly, with using pay parking revenues to augment transit, and not getting dumped into general revenue, so I think that's been worked out well."

At 17 combined years on council, Wilhelm-Morden is the longest-serving elected official in Whistler's short history—and with so many years under her belt, it takes her a moment to single out the things she's most proud of.

"I am really proud of the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA). That was prescient, and over the years we took a lot of heat about establishing resident-restricted neighbourhoods and having the WHA as almost a 'socialist model' for providing housing, as opposed to just throwing things wide open and saying 'developers come on in, build it,' so that really stands out. And the Audain Art Museum, of course—it has changed the face of Whistler in so many ways," she said.

"I'm sure if I looked back in my diaries I would see many, many other things that have occurred. This has just been such a special town to live in. I've grown up with this town."


Meanwhile, Coun. Sue Maxwell will also withdraw from local government after serving one four-year term—an experience she described as a real pleasure.

"I think four years is a fair chunk of time, and you need a fair amount of patience to do this, and I feel that I would need to replenish my stock of patience first," Maxwell said with a laugh.

Maxwell has not been shy in the past to voice frustrations with municipal processes—processes she feels could be improved for future councillors.

"We should follow the governance model pretty much to the letter, or we should modify it if we're not going to follow it ... we should have a governance committee, we should have an HR committee that's following along what it's supposed to do, (and) same with the finance and audit committee," she said.

"We should have a really good council retreat that is facilitated by an outside facilitator, right at the beginning of council, and then we should also develop and use a very strong public engagement process."

In detailing her experience on council, Maxwell described a mixed bag—along with some of her noted frustrations, she also learned a lot and made valued connections with community members and peers in other local governments.

"Although I'm not going to be running for council, I do want to still try to use this knowledge to continue to serve the community," Maxwell said.

A good democracy is built on several pieces, she added: A strong council with good governance, quality reporting in the local press and transparency.

On the last point, Maxwell said the community must be willing to accept mistakes if it wants to see more transparency.

"I think if we were to do something in a more transparent, open way, that you're starting to see more of the 'sausage making,' so you might see more mistakes. The community has to be willing to allow councillors, and council as a whole, to learn," she said.

"So there is going to be some mistakes, and we need to be a little forgiving of the mistakes, and we need to talk about issues, but we shouldn't really talk about people."

But just because her stint on council is over, that doesn't mean Maxwell will no longer be involved. She said she plans to focus more energy on volunteer work and connecting the community.

"I'd like to do more community-minded things, so I might be the person attending council meetings and speaking up," she said with a laugh.

Councillors Cathy Jewett, Jack Crompton and John Grills all said they are not yet ready to announce their intentions regarding the upcoming election, while Couns. Jen Ford and Steve Anderson said they have not decided one way or another if they will seek re-election.

The nomination period for the Saturday, Oct. 20 election opens Tuesday, Sept. 4 and closes Friday, Sept. 14.

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