It happened very late in the campaign, but Monday’s debate involving four of the five candidates for Whistler mayor showed the value of a format that limits the number of participants and allows them time to delve into issues and detail their positions. Those who were able to attend the debate saw, perhaps for the first time in the campaign, some serious differences between the leading contenders for the job, incumbent mayor Ken Melamed and challenger Kristi Wells. For that reason alone, the debate was a good addition to the series of all candidates debates hosted by the Chamber of Commerce and other organizations.
So what did the debate reveal that we didn’t already know about the candidates? This is, after all, Wells’s second consecutive run for the mayor’s job, after 12 years as a councillor, and Melamed had nine years on council before he was elected mayor three years ago. These candidates should be very familiar to Whistler voters.
Keep in mind there is a distinction between what needs to be said and done to get elected and what can be said and done once elected. Perhaps there shouldn’t be, but that is often the reality. Fomenting questions, sewing seeds of doubt about your opponent and making promises is part of campaigning, and that was all on display Monday.
The theme for Wells’s campaign has been leadership, direction, action. She has emphasized that Whistler needs new leadership and has missed opportunities in recent years. Her willingness to call the bed cap “archaic” and her suggestion that newer and better methods of measuring and controlling physical growth are needed is refreshing. But when asked Monday why Whistler should change course now she replied that electing her mayor wouldn’t be much of a change of course.
She concluded Monday’s debate by saying she could have run for council but Whistler needs leadership. “I’m authentic. What you see is what you get.”
Wells is a skilled politician, confidently handling some tough, pointed questions at various times during the campaign. However, on Monday she mishandled a question about financial contributors to her campaign. It took her a long time to come up with the names of three contributors.
Melamed also scored some points when he asked Wells if her past work as a consultant for the Squamish and Lil’wat Nations and their developments in Whistler wasn’t a conflict of interest. He also suggested that the First Nations’ Alpine North development was not in Whistler’s best interests.
This was where Monday’s debate was valuable. It exposed some differences and generated some sparks between the candidates, while remaining civil.
For his part, Melamed has run a fairly safe campaign, running on his record, admitting a few things could be improved and avoiding any major new initiatives.
“We’re on a path, we’re on a roll,” he said Monday in response to the question about why Whistler should or shouldn’t change course now.
The importance of continuity and maintaining momentum has been stressed by incumbent council members the last several elections, and it’s getting tiring.
Responding to a question from Wells about the tail wagging the dog at municipal hall Melamed said communication is improving and the RMOW has a good governance manual. “Our success is showing,” he said. He also mentioned improved relationships with Victoria and boasted of building “a culture of teamwork” at municipal hall. These are positive things, although more work needs to be done.
They also point to Melamed’s growth as a mayor. When first elected as a councillor in 1996, a time of rapid development in Whistler, Melamed represented people concerned about the environment. As mayor he has grown substantially, taking a more rounded view of Whistler while maintaining his green roots. At times he has let his partisan frustrations show — the Riverside Campground expansion, the industrial rezoning near Mons and even the first draft of the temporary housing project come to mind.
But he has also been willing to admit mistakes and to adapt to new information. Melamed has also — correctly, in my view — identified the budget as the biggest challenge facing the municipality.
The question that remains: Is the incumbent mayor the leader Whistler needs right now, or is he just a good manager? That’s not easily answered.
The next question would be, is there another candidate who would be a better leader for Whistler the next three years? The answer is no.