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Editorial

Dialogue and the public process

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It is important not to confuse dialogue with decision-making. Dialogue precedes decision-making, but the shared frameworks, language and expectations that result can make subsequent negotiation and decision-making both more coherent and productive. We need to make room for real dialogue at the front end of our most important decision-making processes, and to do so in a more explicit and systematic way.

— Steven Rosell, Changing Frames: Leadership and Governance in the Information Age

On Monday, Aug. 15 Whistler council will receive a report from staff that is likely to recommend that Whistler forfeit the Paralympic arena to Squamish. Sometime between Aug. 15 and Sept. 6, when Whistler council is expected to formally endorse building the Paralympic arena in Squamish, an open house will be held where Whistlerites, if they feel so inclined, will be welcome to provide their input on the arena.

This is known as a public process in Whistler.

Ignoring for the moment that building the arena in Squamish may well prove to be in Whistler’s, and Squamish’s, best interests – the Electrolux argument, which so far has taken place in a vacuum, is that the numbers show Whistler can’t afford the arena – what has happened to public dialogue?

The first hint that Whistler might not build the arena came out of a Squamish-Lillooet Regional District meeting in June. While there has been months of closed meetings and private negotiations to discuss the arena options, there doesn’t appear to have been any opportunity for public discussion built into the decision-making process. It was only after Pemberton area representatives announced at the SLRD meeting that they, too, would like a shot at the arena, and the subsequent public outcry in Whistler, that Whistler councilors decided an open house was in order.

The Paralympic arena itself is not the answer to all of Whistler’s problems, but it has come to symbolize some of the community’s frustrations, both with the public process and with the state of Whistler affairs in 2005.

Part of the reason for this is that opportunities for public dialogue, and faith in that process, have been gradually eroded over the last few years. Some examples include: the annual town hall meetings which ceased several years ago; back in 2002 Whistlerites were asked for their time and input to help choose the original consultants for the Comprehensive Sustainability Plan, and then that input was ignored; and the decision to fund the entire $8 million library, when previously the municipality could fund only half of the $10 million library/museum, which was announced with little explanation.

But it would be wrong to suggest that the municipality hasn’t sought public input. To the contrary, the municipality has actively solicited input in developing first the Whistler 2002 vision document and now the Whistler 2020/CSP. But going back to the Whistler 2002 document, this has been a seven-year process. The problem has been (effectively) engaging people in "big picture" planning for that length of time when most people have more tangible and immediate concerns. The Paralympic arena is something tangible Whistler is turning down at a time when many believe it is what Whistler needs.

So where do we go from here? Last month a hastily-arranged Tourism Whistler meeting drew more than 100 people to begin that dialogue. It was not furthered by acting-mayor Nick Davies’s defensive response to questions about the Paralympic arena.

A second meeting is scheduled for next Wednesday, Aug. 17.

Setting aside the Paralympic discussion, Whistler needs a forum for dialogue to build better understanding; where concerns can be aired, actions proposed and the collective effort rebuilt. Part of that should include a discussion of plans for Lots 1 and 9.

And the dialogue needs to happen independent of this fall’s municipal election. That, of course, will be difficult. But the dialogue should be Whistler people discussing ideas, rather than candidates for council pitching election platforms at Whistler.

Through incremental steps over a number of years the opportunities for, and faith in, public dialogue has been eroded. Similarly, it will take a series of incremental steps to bring back those opportunities and to rebuild faith in them. But there needs to be parameters for that process; dialogue can’t go on indefinitely and decisions can’t be delayed until everyone gets up to speed.

The important thing is to build in opportunities for dialogue before decisions are made.

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