The role of local government is largely to keep the streets safe and clean.
- The Economist
The Economist may hold an outdated perception of local government but it's worth reminding ourselves of the modest responsibilities and expectations we once placed on our city councillors.
Municipal governments have long looked after sewer, water, waste and parks, and managed the budgets to ensure these services continued to operate. In recent decades the number of departments grew as local governments took on responsibilities such as public transit, parks programming and land-use planning.
Whistler, of course, has always been an exceptional child, as its "Resort Municipality" designation infers. From day one, planning has been a critical function of the Resort Municipality of Whistler. It was the lack of a plan for the valley, and the conscious decision to build an international destination resort here, that led to the incorporation of the municipality.
Whistler decided to fund a large and active parks department because of the town's focus on tourism. Likewise, the town's infrastructure has always been planned and built to accommodate a tourist population that can swell to five times the permanent population.
Given that the community was based on tourism and there were few precedents for a town like Whistler, at various times the municipality has stepped well beyond the Economist 's view of the role of local governments - into real estate development, event planning, funding community organizations, facilitating housing and coordinating the efforts of various interest groups. In recent years the municipality's role has come to include planning a new neighbourhood and managing forestry.
For better or for worse, the Resort Municipality of Whistler in 2010 is responsible for much more than keeping streets clean and safe. It didn't come by these responsibilities overnight; the current council and municipal staff are largely working on responsibilities and commitments made by their predecessors. And most of those responsibilities and commitments are for things we, the people of Whistler, have demanded. If the municipality were to drop any one of them the cacophony would be deafening.
So how are the people who guide the good ship Whistler doing half way through their term?
The midpoint in a political term is rarely the high-water mark as far as popularity. The initial public enthusiasm has waned and voters want to see some results. The politicians are now familiar with their surroundings and one another. They've started to chart their own course and made their own decisions, as opposed to reacting to commitments made by their predecessors. The posturing and promise of another election is still more than a year away.
The current term is particularly interesting with its built-in crossroads of pre- and post-Olympic eras. It's not quite as monumental as the BC-AD division of time but when measuring Whistler's history it will be seen as a significant period.
It's also significant to those of us in Whistler today.
There is a sense that this council has antagonized a lot of people. Some of that is inevitable in a post-Olympic world where the economy is still full of question marks and tax hikes have become an annual occurrence - a consequence of too little action by previous councils that should have anticipated the end of the development boom and too many infrastructure projects coming due prior to the Olympics. Pay parking, one of the outcomes, never increases a council's popularity. Implementing it in tough economic times makes it a little harder to accept, even if it had been anticipated for years.
The decision to move the asphalt plant 150 metres from its present location is perhaps the most unpopular decision by this council. Many people still don't understand or believe the rationale behind the decision, no matter how many times the municipality tries to explain it. They don't believe they're getting the whole story. And it's more than just the handful of people who protested last weekend. There are people with no stake in Cheakamus Crossing who don't like the way the whole thing has been handled.
Whether the current council's hands were tied by decisions made previously is unclear, but it is the current group that has to deal with the fallout.
Many years ago the municipality, with considerable input from the community, set a course to become more sustainable. That has included many "green" initiatives as well as numerous social efforts, such as affordable resident housing. The current council and their predecessors are rightly proud of those accomplishments. However, there is a growing feeling that more needs to be done on the economic front. It is Tourism Whistler's role to draw visitors but many feel that the municipality could do more to further business in Whistler.
Whether that can be done while also keeping the streets safe and clean is a problem for council to tackle in the second half of its term.