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Council newcomers find their footing after first year

One year into a four-year term, council rookies are rookies are no more



Much was made of the harmony amongst Whistler's mayor and council over its last term — from 2011 to 2014, the number of dissenting votes could be counted on one hand.

How does current council compare, one year into its four-year term?

"We've had more than two, I know that, (but) I wouldn't say more than a handful, maybe five or six in total," said Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden referring to dissenting decisions.

"So it's not as if this is a group of rebels, but it is a different dynamic."

With three rookie councillors joining the fray after the November 2014 municipal election — Sue Maxwell, Jen Ford and Steve Anderson — a new dynamic was perhaps inevitable.

But one year into the job, Whistler's newest councillors are settling in.

"They've done very well. There's a learning curve when you first come into a position like this, and particularly when you're joining others who have already finished a term," Wilhelm-Morden said.

The learning curve was made steeper by the multitude of plans and projects already underway, Wilhelm-Morden said.

But at its second annual retreat, the difference was "night and day" in terms of everyone being on the same page.

"I think that there's been a real renewed sense of all being on the same ship, rowing in the same direction," Wilhelm-Morden said.

By all accounts, much of the first year for Whistler's newest councillors has consisted of learning the systems, understanding who is who and who does what.

"For me personally, there's obviously been a lot of learning," Maxwell said, citing the Local Government Leadership Academy, UBCM convention and council's trip to Colorado as good learning experiences from the past year.

"So just getting to know the fellow councillors better and understanding where they're coming from, and they all come with a lot of knowledge of different areas as well, so that's been really good," she said.

For Ford, winning her council seat made her feel something like "the dog that caught the car" in the sense that she wasn't quite sure what to do with it once she had it.

"But I was a lot more prepared than maybe I gave myself credit for, because I knew what was happening beforehand," she said. "I remembered a lot of what had gone on the previous three years, so that really gave me an advantage."

Ford's knowledge of recent Whistler history and her time spent watching council in the years before being elected helped ease her into the role, and having the experience of Wilhelm-Morden, as well as returning councillors John Grills, Andree Janyk and Jack Crompton helped as well, she said.

"(They) really made the transition smooth for us, and helped us understand all of the stuff that we didn't know, so that the learning curve wasn't as bad as you would think," she said.

"And the staff do amazing work with preparing you for what's coming up, so you're never blindsided."

Anderson said it was crucial to keep the momentum of the previous council going, especially in terms of ongoing projects like the Master Wayfinding Strategy.

"I think it's pretty important for the subsequent council to keep the ball rolling and keep the momentum happening rather than to torpedo something because you don't like it or take it out at the knees," he said.

And while each member of council brings their own opinions and viewpoints to the table, there's a mutual respect that keeps things moving in the right direction, he said.

"It's very diverse... but there's nobody insulting one another, as I've heard has been the situation in previous councils," Anderson said.

Looking ahead to the next three years, Anderson said he wants to focus on improving transportation in and around Whistler, including completing the Valley Trail from Nesters to Alpine.

"We're just establishing the Transportation Advisory Group, and I see that as being a really important thing for the town," he said.

As for completing the Valley Trail, "I'm confident it will get done," Anderson said. "That's one of those things that I'm pretty big on, separating pedestrians and bicyclists from automobiles.'

Having been on the board of the Whistler Housing Authority prior to her election, Ford said she's been hard at work trying to improve Whistler's rental situation.

"That 27-unit building that we're working on at the moment down in Cheakamus, I feel that's come a long way, and I'm really excited about that project," Ford said.

"I just want to keep looking at every angle of affordable living in Whistler, and making it possible for locals to live here and stay here... I think we can continue to work towards protecting renters and making sure that renters know their rights and have all of the tools so that they're not being gouged, which gives Whistler a bad reputation."

Moving forward, having a year's experience under her belt will be helpful in terms of understanding the time it takes to fix certain problems, or knowing who to talk to in different situations, Maxwell said.

"All of us are on at least five to seven different committees, so understanding what's going on with those and the links between different committees... has been helpful," she said.

Maxwell said one highlight from year one was her work on updating the climate action plan, and seeing the volunteers who lined up to help.

"There's a lot of them for the climate action plan but also on all of our committees as well," she said.

In terms of other highlights from the year, Maxwell said that "partnering with AWARE on the education around compost and recycling for the businesses and stratas has been a positive step... and moving forward on developing a water-conservation plan has been good (too).

"I think there's been a lot of good moments."

From the perspective of returning councillor Grills, his decision to seek re-election was based in part on keeping a sense of continuity between the previous council and the new.

"With the three councillors and the mayor being re-elected I think this was very helpful for the three new councillors getting up to speed quickly," Grills wrote in an email.

"As well, it has been instrumental in 'staying the course,' which was the message we all heard often during the 2014 election."

Looking ahead to the next year, Grills said there's a lot on the horizon.

"I am looking forward to seeing the interest from the community at the open house on Dec. 16 regarding Whistler's response to the Syrian refugee crisis, (and) early in the New Year we will have the opening of the Audain Art Museum," Grills wrote, adding that regulations around the federal Temporary Foreign Worker Program and Whistler's stock of available housing will be on council's agenda as well.