Voters need to stake out the middle ground
After four straight winters of declining room nights; after three years of council members on such different wave lengths that the mayor gave up and moved to Hawaii; after performing a couple of full gainers on hosting all the Paralympic events and building an arena; after thoroughly messing with the mind of one neighbour to the south; and with most of the serious preparation work for the Olympics still ahead — not to mention improving on all of the above — Whistler faces a critical election next month.
We are now two weeks into a relatively brief five-week campaign period, between the close of nominations and the election, and the race for mayor seems to be, in many people’s minds, a showdown between polar opposites. Based solely on scuttlebutt, Ken Melamed and Ted Nebbeling are the two frontrunners in the seven-person contest for what is figuratively, and perhaps factually, the town’s top job.
If the race is close — and again, we are unaware of any current polling or other method of measuring support — it is the only area where the term “close” could be used to describe Melamed and Nebbeling. We won’t do either the disservice of trying to sum up their backgrounds, approaches or campaigns in a few lines, but each has their passionate supporters and each is anathema to their critics.
The rumour mill says that most of the municipal staff is working to get Melamed elected, and ready to quit if Nebbeling is elected. Meanwhile some in the business community hint that they may be ready to pack it in if Melamed becomes mayor and are doing everything they can to make sure Nebbeling tops the polls.
The truth, as it does so often, may lie somewhere in the gulf between these two extremes. And that middle ground is in itself interesting territory. Is the great divide between Nebbeling and Melamed wide enough for another mayoralty candidate to come up the middle and win?
Staking out the middle ground always seems to be a successful campaign strategy in Canadian elections, with the federal Liberals the undisputed masters. The middle ground is like middle earth in a Canadian election, exerting a gravitational pull that increases as the campaign wears on and draws candidates and parties to the centre regardless of where they may have been positioned prior to the election. While there is nothing so Machiavellian in Whistler’s little election as there is in federal politics, voters should keep in mind there is often a difference between what the candidates say and what the candidates feel they have to say to be elected.
More importantly, voters need to remember that this election is more than an all-or-nothing contest for who becomes mayor. By December Whistler will have a new administrator, a new mayor and at least four — possibly six — new councillors. That’s a wholesale change and no one can predict how this new group will function together. It’s quite possible that if Melamed is elected mayor the council, collectively, will be to the right of him; if Nebbeling is elected mayor the council could well be to the left of him.
Regardless of the outcome on Nov. 19, the new council and administrator will have a tough job ahead of them. It’s not a job that any one or two people can do by themselves, nor should they be allowed to do it by themselves.
It’s also not a job that council and the administrator and staff have to do in isolation. The voters, the people of Whistler, have shown repeatedly — with the World Economic Forum, with the athletes village site, with the arena — that they want to be included in the decision-making process.
The requirements of council candidates are really no different this year than any other election year. Whistlerites need to elect a council of intelligent, sensible people willing to work hard for Whistler. Who among the 24 candidates are most qualified? That is going to require some work by voters to determine.
The format for this year’s Chamber of Commerce-sponsored all candidates meeting is coming under some criticism. After each candidate makes his or her opening remarks they are expected to mix with voters and take questions one-on-one, rather than taking questions from the floor. While this takes some of the sport out of seeing candidates perform, or squirm, on stage — and performance in front of the voters is part of the job description — it does level the playing field. There won’t be any planted questions, there will be fewer personal attacks, fewer half-hour statements by people who don’t seem to have a question, and all candidates will get the opportunity to answer questions.
What the format does is put greater emphasis on voters to attend and meet the candidates. That is, it requires a bigger commitment from voters. And in an important election, where it appears the main choices for mayor are at opposite ends of the spectrum, that’s not a bad thing.