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Opinion: Could Whistler's backroom deal come back to haunt it?

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If there was one issue that seemed to unify most voters in the lead up to last year's municipal elections, it was a desire to see more transparency and fiscal responsibility from local government.

Frustration came to a head during the third and final all-candidates meeting, when a local developer called out the previous council and staff for its handling of the redevelopment of the village bus loop.

The capacity crowd at Maury Young erupted in applause; the Gateway Loop project had clearly become a focal point for public concern about wasteful spending at muni hall.

The Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) first pegged the redevelopment at $3.1 million in 2014; its final price tag was $6.8 million, which was on-budget after council signed off on an increase to the cost of the project.

(The structure's massive roof, with German-made components, had a total cost of $2 million alone, and Whistler's difficult construction market certainly didn't help.)

It's against this backdrop that the creation of a new senior-level position at the RMOW has angered so many.

In case you missed it, in July, the municipality announced that its highest-paid employee was stepping aside and a new chief administrative officer would be hired.

Yet rather than leaving the municipality, council decided (without any public consultation) to create a new position for current CAO Mike Furey.

Under the terms of the agreement, Furey will step into the role of chief of strategic policy and partnership once the RMOW hires a new CAO. (The hiring is ongoing, with the RMOW recently hiring a firm, at $75,000, to headhunt someone to fill the position.)

According to an RMOW release, Furey's new role will entail "accelerating strategic initiatives" and furthering the municipality's relationships with provincial and federal government and local First Nations.

Furey will carry on under the terms of his current contract, which saw him take home $246,043 in total remuneration last year. This new position was not posted and, according to the RMOW, will end in early 2021.

In defending the appointment, Mayor Jack Crompton said the arrangement will give the municipality "the capacity we need to deliver on the opportunity to provide a strong transition to a new CAO," as well as further key projects, such as the official community plan, strategic planning committee process and economic partnership initiative.

"Mike is a content expert on the files that he will carry forward," said Crompton.

"This arrangement allows the RMOW to move those projects forward effectively."

Yet for many, this rationale falls flat.

Indeed, if having a skilled leader to navigate critical relations is of such importance, why place a seemingly arbitrary end-date on the job?

And will the RMOW's new big boss really benefit from the old one looking over their shoulder?

As pointed out by Dawn Titus—a retired schoolteacher who ran in last year's election—the arrangement adds another layer of bureaucracy onto a system that doesn't appear to be broken.

"There are five newly appointed and very capable individuals on the newly created Strategic Planning Committee at the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW). Do they really require a 'Chief?'" asked Titus, in a letter to Pique.

Whistler is, without a doubt, an impressively run municipality, which has undoubtedly benefited from Furey's hard work.

As Crompton pointed out, Furey has helped secure $22 million in provincial money for tourism-related infrastructure and programming via the Resort Municipality Initiative funding program.

There is, however, increasing concern with how Whistler's largesse is being spent.

This week the RMOW's proposed budget revealed that it has earmarked $4.58 million for three bathrooms slated for construction.

This is an increase on the $3 million price tag previously discussed—a figure that was already widely interpreted as outrageously high. Whistler also spent close to $10 million on its latest 24-unit rental-housing complex, which works out to about $411 per square foot of building—very close to market rates for a high-end Whistler build, but notably high for employee housing.

Whether justified or not, there is a perception of wasteful spending at the RMOW, and many are questioning the CAO arrangement.

Going forward, could the arrangement lead to problems for the RMOW and taxpayers?

Next month, the RMOW will begin renegotiating its contracts with staff and its fire service.

The last four-year agreement for municipal staff covered between 2016 and 2019, providing for wage increases of 1.5 per cent in 2016, 1.5 in 2017, two per cent in 2018, and two per cent in 2019.

It is yet to be seen what kind of increases workers will see this time around. But it is safe to say that they may be thinking about the deal struck at the top of the organization.