Midterm reports Half-way through their three-year mandate, Whistler councillors look at where they’ve come from and where they’re taking us Part 1 By G.D. Maxwell About seven months ago, editor Bob Barnett and I discussed doing interviews with Whistler’s municipal councillors to get a first anniversary fix on how council thought they were doing. Being the hard working, diligent procrastinator I am, we decided several months later a mid-term appraisal might be more appropriate. During the last two weeks of May, I had the opportunity to talk in a relaxed atmosphere with all six councillors and get their thoughts on where they thought council had been, where it was going and what they wanted to accomplish during the second half of their three-year term. Over the next two weeks, Pique will present the edited interviews and councillors’ answers to half a dozen or so open-ended questions. If you’re not a local politics junkie, you might want to turn to the crossword puzzle now. But if you have any interest in the people who sit in Whistler’s hot seats — and who doesn’t — read on. This week, we’ll share the thoughts of the two returning councillors, Dave Kirk and Kristi Wells, and Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, the only new member of council with past council experience. Next week, the shell-shocked tenderfeet — Ted Milner, Ken Melamed and Stephanie Sloan — will have their say. To top the politico-fest off, we’ll give you an interview with the Big Kahughna, Mayor Hugh O’Reilly, himself. Enjoy. Nancy Wilhelm-Morden PIQUE: How has being a councillor this time around compared to your past council experience? N.W-M.: It’s far different than the last two times. In the 1980s, it was a completely different atmosphere. My first term, 1984-86, Whistler was just barely coming out of recession. Any time somebody lifted a hammer in this joint, council cheered and asked what we could do to further the process. The second term, 1988-90, we were a very gung-ho, pro-development, council. That was the tone of Drew Meredith, the mayor then. "Make hay while the sun shines," was his phrase. Every now and then, I’d pipe up and say, for example, "Well, I’m not sure about this Bjorn Borg thing; it doesn’t sound like a good idea to me," and I’d get beaten down pretty quickly for that kind of view. This time though, the pressure that’s being brought to bear on council’s every single decision is remarkable. I knew there would be a lot of pressure from developers and wannabe developers and from homeowners and wannabe homeowners, but I never thought it would be as intense as it is. Since we’re at the end of the development game, every decision we make in that area has huge consequences to everybody involved. It’s interesting. Also, after this council was elected, I thought we had more or less the same viewpoint. I thought I was hearing the same things coming out of everybody’s mouths on the candidates’ stage during the campaign. Well, clearly we don’t have the same viewpoint. That was a bit of an eye-opener. PIQUE: What’s the most difficult issue that’s come before council? N.W-M.: One that I hadn’t anticipated was going to be contentious was illegal nightly accommodation. That seemed to be a simple thing to me: you put the tourists where you planned to put the tourists, and you put the people where you planned to put the people. You might tinker a little bit but you don’t throw the whole scheme out. It took 15 months to convince the other members of council that’s the way it should be. And I still haven’t been successful because we’re going to go through this thing about having prospective chalets coming in for rezoning. Of course, they’re all going to get turned down. Nobody in the neighbourhoods want any of them. So, we’re going to put on this charade about, "Yeah, come on in for zoning you’re not going to get." It’s kind of nonsensical. PIQUE: How would you describe the working dynamic of this council? N.W-M.: It would have been easy, until this last go around, to say there was kind of a lineup with Kenny and me on one side, being community agenda promoters, with Ted and Kristi on the other side of the spectrum, being kind of pro business development, and with Dave, Stephanie and Hugh wandering around in the middle. It would have been easy to characterize council that way. Most of the votes, until recently, broke down that way. But the last issue dividing council, was nightly accommodation. Ted Milner, Dave Kirk and I were on one side, which we’d never been before, and the rest were on the other side. Hugh was the deciding vote. PIQUE: What has this council done that you feel has been a personal victory or that you have felt particularly good about? N.W-M.: I was proud of council as a whole for having the fortitude to pass third reading on the 19 Mile Creek proposal. I also thought we made the right decision about refusing to entrench the Blueberry Hill gate into the OCP. Generally speaking, I’ve felt good when we’ve been able to withstand pressure from a particular interest group and make a decision I thought was in the best interest of the town. A lot of what we’ve done has been putting foundations in place. When we went into Muni Hall in November, it was a mess internally. There were no policies or procedures in place. The staff was decimated and those who were there were devastated. It took us 12 months to just get policies and procedures in place and make people feel unthreatened. That might have been boring to people outside but it was rewarding because I think we’re fixing an organization and setting it up to move forward. I feel good about that; it’s not going to win any awards, but it had to be done. PIQUE: Has council taken positions or decisions you felt were a personal defeat or left you wondering how in the world such a decision could be made? N.W-M.: One of the frustrations I have is I still can’t seem to get through to some of the other members of council about the importance of a community agenda. The recognition that it’s not the end of the world if somebody gets their knickers in a knot when we take our time to make a decision and consider things calmly and coolly. If they leave town or don’t proceed with their development as a result, they shouldn’t have been here in the first place. The Emerald Forest is a topic that’s dear to my heart. There are some members of council who are quite willing to trade development, to trade off some zoning, for part of the forest lands. My position is, if you build one house in there, you’ve wrecked it. Because you’ll need a street, and they’re not little streets, and they’re not little cars, and they’re not little lawn mowers, and they’re not little houses. It’ll wreck that place. I’m having difficulty with that and I’ll be disappointed if we lose it. I still don’t like the idea of swapping bed units for amenities. Whistler’s had a history of doing that and I don’t think it’s something we should be doing. On the other hand, when I said let’s not use bed units as currency, let’s use currency as currency and it might cost each of us an extra 50 bucks on our tax bill over the next 20 years, I’ve run into a stone wall on council. So the compromise position is, use our other currency, use bed units, or let it go, let it be developed. And I’m certainly not going to do that. So I’ve had to compromise. PIQUE: What would you like to see accomplished during the second half of this session of council? N.W-M.: We still have a long way to go to wrestle the affordable housing issue to the ground. That’s obvious. We’ve got to get out there and deliver the product. We take a step to do that and people say, "Don’t do it in my neighbourhood." We need to have the fortitude to carry on and do it. Neighbours certainly have an opinion to express. That’s legitimate and I’m going to listen to it. But employee housing is one thing I want to see done in the next year and a half. The financial long-range study is another thing. There’s a whole bunch of facilities we still need to build and the money’s simply non-existent or there isn’t enough of it. I think the inevitable answer is, we’ve got to go to the province and convince them to let us retain some of the taxes we raise in this town for the needs of the town. I really want to see us get on with the expansion of the library. It’s got to get to the top of the agenda. PIQUE: What is your view on how we should be altering the municipality’s revenue sources to avoid every increasing property taxes to fund future operating costs? N.W-M.: That’s part of the financial sustainability plan being worked on. We’ve done some things in the last two budgets about investing our funds so we get a better return. But the fundamental problem is we’ve got a municipal budget that’s funded primarily through property taxes. The 7,000 portfolios we have here fund 20,000 to 35,000 visitors in winter and all the capital infrastructure that’s required to operate a resort. So far, we’ve been financing ourselves to a large extent on development and those days are numbered. We have to look at other revenue sources, not increased taxation. We went to the province in the 1980s and as a result we got the hotel tax initiative. We get a huge amount of dough every year from that tax. So we’ve got to talk very seriously with the province about keeping some additional revenues here. The property purchase transfer tax dollars that go out of this town are staggering. We should be keeping some of those dollars here. That’s something we’ve got to bring out in a more forceful way. PIQUE: I know it’s early, but will you be running again? N.W-M.: I doubt it. My kids wanted to have this interview at home so they could tell you how much they hate me being on council. Who knows? It’s a year and a half away. It takes a huge amount of time. I’m not a career politician. ******* Dave Kirk PIQUE: How has being a councillor this time around compared to your past council experience? D.K.: I don’t think I had any preconceived ideas about how this council was going to work. I think it’s maturing and finding its way. We’ve had to deal with some very difficult issues. This community is in transition. We’re moving away from mostly having to deal with development issues, to dealing more with social issues, such as the environment, such as employee housing, such as trying to maintain the balance between the community and the resort and make sure they mesh together and everybody recognizes they are integral to each other. PIQUE: What’s the most difficult issue that’s come before council? D.K.: Probably employee housing. How to actually enact the responsibilities we are supposed to deal with in terms of employee housing. Getting employee housing built. We were elected on a platform, we all spoke as candidates on an employee housing platform. Our mandate, I think without exception, was to create employee housing. And today we are creating employee housing. I have to remind people, including those people who object, that the welfare of this place depends on the success of the resort. Without businesses operating here, including the mountains and the village, the appeal to this place would diminish very quickly and very significantly. That would have a dire effect on the value of real estate. I’m not saying the business side of the resort should be out of step with the community, but without it, we wouldn’t exist as we are today. PIQUE: How would you describe the working dynamic of this council? D.K.: I think we’ve been a very dysfunctional council for at least a full year. We are maturing as a council. I think when you come to the table to discuss, there are ways of doing it, there are ways of talking and trying to put your perspective across, without being divisive. It’s not hard to be divisive. By that I mean, you can, with 1998 knowledge, look back on past events and be extremely critical. All I can say is, you have to have been there to experience it. PIQUE: What has this council done that you feel has been a personal victory or that you have felt particularly good about? D.K.: The discussions we’ve had as a council, since the first year, have been productive. I think we’ve been able to express different opinions and still have everybody walk away thinking they’ve said what they wanted to say and voted the way they wanted to vote and still talk to each other because we respect what was said. That wasn’t always the case. There have been some discussions since the new year and particularly in the last two or three months where I felt we had a good discussion. I’m a very pragmatic person and I think I make decisions based on good, common sense. I am very supportive of environmental issues. I’ve simply found that some of the environmental people of this community have not been particularly constructive in their comments. They’ve always taken a very negative side to things. They haven’t offered constructive criticism. It’s always been a very negative type of criticism. They’ve done things at times without full knowledge of the situation. Haven’t always realized that we’ve been dealing with, for example, zonings that have been given years ago by law. They’ve criticized, but they have not come in and said, "We accept this is going to happen, let’s just make this the best it can be, here’s what we suggest." That has rarely happened. I support the environmental side of this community very much. I’ve begun to revise my thoughts and thinking on this council as well. I supported the golf course over at the proposed Hyatt hotel a year ago and today, I would probably not vote the way I did because I’ve just begun to change the way I think about certain situations here. It’s part of the evolution, of the transition we’re in from building a large commercial core to dealing with other issues. I don’t know what the catalyst was for this change. Times have changed and I’m trying to move with the times, I’m trying to listen to Ken, who has come in there as a very strong advocate for the environment. I’m trying to listen and respect what he has to say. I’m trying to listen to what AWARE is saying, and I think they’ve also changed their approach as well. Hopefully we can mesh together. PIQUE: Has council taken positions or decisions you felt were a personal defeat or left you wondering how in the world a such a decision could be made? D.K.: I think the campground, which happened over a year ago, was an interesting one, because we were still a very fresh council. We were not very satisfied even before we gave third reading. There was some hot discussion trying to get this project whipped into better shape. And is it fair to be doing that to an applicant at that stage, or should it have happened before? If you don’t like it, don’t give it third reading — don’t even give it first or second reading — have a workshop on it, discuss it, and tell them to go away and never come back or tell them, before we take it to the public, you’ve got to do more than what you’ve got here. We’re just not satisfied with your environmental stuff, your densities, whatever. The campground was interesting, but I thought we came together as a council on that one, finally. The chalet/villa thing took a long, long time. I went around and I changed my position on that to the point that I came almost full circle. I still believe in maintaining the neighbourhoods, but we had lots of good discussion on that. PIQUE: What would you like to see accomplished during the second half of this session of council? D.K.: I would like to see village revitalization moving a little more. Maybe that’s happening. Maybe it’s happening behind the scenes. I’d like to see more employee housing in place before we finish this term. I’d like to see not just the projects okayed, but I’d like to see some of these projects on the move. We have the responsibility to provide some opportunities for younger people, and I’m really disappointed when younger people come along and are cut off. We need that vitality in this community. We sure as hell can’t survive on all of us being old and decrepit. An ageing community needs to have more than an ageing population. Unfortunately, employees are stereotyped as being six month, seasonal visitors who party and drink every night and raise a lot of noise and are irresponsible. I don’t know whether this is a reflection of the pasts of a lot of people who live here today or not. I’d certainly like to see some of the RR1 lands dealt with because some of the actions initiated by this council should be finished, hopefully, so they don’t have to be passed on. Everybody there today understands what they’re dealing with and a new council would have to be educated to deal with those issues. They’re very complex. PIQUE: What is your view on how we should be altering the municipality’s revenue sources to avoid every increasing property taxes to fund future operating costs? D.K.: We have to always consider the size of the infrastructure we’re creating. If we’re going to expand our infrastructure, we’re going to have to consider how that’s going to be paid for in the future. We’re going to have to — and this council’s not going to achieve this — convince the government that we are a huge, economic engine here, not only for this corridor, but also for the province in terms of tax revenues returned to Victoria. And if they want us to remain a healthy entity, then we have to look at how we share our revenues. We’re going to have to make a case to Victoria that they’re going to have to share some of the revenues back to us that we generate for them. If they give them back to us, it probably will allow us to generate even more for them in the future. PIQUE: I know it’s early, but will you be running again? D.K.: Too early. I promised I wouldn’t. It’ll be nine years (when this term is over). It takes time and it cuts into your personal life in the sense that, my wife would really like me to be able to go away for more than two weeks at a time. We can take time off from council, but I haven’t done that in nine years. Sometimes I wonder how long a person should stay. I really think I have something to contribute, most of the time. I’m not the kind of person who rants and raves. I like to think that I’m reasonable and bring reason to the discussion. But that’s my method of doing business, whether in the classroom or in my business or in council. ****** Kristi Wells PIQUE: How has being a councillor this time around compared to your past council experience? K.W.: I didn’t have a lot of expectations, but it certainly moved at a slower pace than I expected or was used to. We (on the prior council) were on a roll and moving along and then it was a dramatic halt. Understandable, but frustrating too. I found it challenging. It was a reminder of when I first started on council and how very little I knew. Because I was pretty much the only one at that time, it was much easier to bring me up to speed than to bring a big majority up to speed. It takes a lot of time. PIQUE: What’s the most difficult issue that’s come before council? K.W.: The illegal nightly rentals has been the big issue. It was really tough. More generally though, has been the whole attitude towards growth and a lack of understanding behind the history of what’s been committed to and what hasn’t been. It’s taken us a long time to learn where each other is coming from and put some respect on it, the entire mediation process that goes along with that. We’ve had to sit around the table and recognize that the perspectives all have value and figure out how to put those together. PIQUE: How would you describe the working dynamic of this council? K.W.: As a group, it’s taken a long time to even create a working dynamic. To figure out how, as individuals, we need to express ourselves. And how we have to listen and work through that. I think we recognize we can’t rush that. A lot of time has to be put into things even if it’s repetitive; it’s just the nature of this council. Sometimes that’s beneficial. There was almost a bit of a vigilante thing after the election, a sense that things weren’t working before so let’s change everything. That created some defensiveness and divisions. There was a very negative attitude, that this was wrong and this was wrong and not very much was right. Finally, we’re at a point where we’re not so much looking backwards as looking forwards. People are beginning to see the benefit of that. PIQUE: What has this council done that you feel has been a personal victory or that you have felt particularly good about? K.W.: After spending a lot of time on issues, I felt it was a victory whenever we finally got through something. Even if we’ve gone full circle and said the same thing 20 times. When there’s closure and I think we’re not going to revisit something again, it’s a victory. Decigon is one issue, for example. We’ve been talking about it for six years. It’s a work in progress. What that represents philosophically, right through the valley, are individual priorities, almost moral issues. I’m really proud of council for working through a very preliminary "step A" on it. A lot of hours were spent getting there. Bed units for amenities is not a black and white issue, either on council or in the community. It’s very easy for people, when asked, "Would you trade development rights for amenities?" to say — because they’re not given the whole picture — flat out, "No!" But if you ask, "Would you have your taxes increased for amenities?" they say, "Whoa, let me think about that." If you complicate it by asking them to choose between five different things and being able to put off some of them, well, no; they want it all. So when you make the picture even a little bit bigger, it’s not black and white. One of my biggest fears going into these discussions, and Decigon is one example, but we’ll keep coming up against this, is, are we setting precedent? Are we saying, it’s alright, just in this case, to talk about trading bed units for amenities; now let’s talk about it? Or are we going to say it’s alright every time? That’s what I was afraid of. We’ll come across this debate more and more in the next while and I hope we go through the same exercise, no matter how long it takes, to answer that question. Because sometimes it (trading bed units for development) is the best answer we have and it’s the best form of currency and we’re so much luckier than anyone else because we can get things that are far beyond what a municipality of our size could be capable of getting. Things that would benefit everybody. PIQUE: Has council taken positions or decisions you felt were a personal defeat or left you wondering how in the world such a decision could be made? K.W.: Yeah, I had a real problem with the RR1 downsizing. I think it was a terrible mistake council made. I think it was reactionary and I think it was an uneducated decision. But council made the decision and, of course, you stand by it and we’ve reacted accordingly. I had to stand up against it. I thought it was immoral. It didn’t sit right with me and it still doesn’t. But it was an individual decision and I can’t reiterate it; it’s long since passed. I had a really hard time not making the library municipal right away. Even though it’ll happen and the commitment is there, I just thought it was a well voiced and well supported initiative that could have sparked a lot of cultural developments and commitment around the community. Not just a library building, but an overall, long term commitment to education, some potential partnerships with different colleges, the private university, things like that. I think taking on that responsibility would have created a few more links to making things happen in a very creative way. PIQUE: What would you like to see accomplished during the second half of this session of council? K.W.: I’d like to ensure the muni has purchased and zoned employee housing property. Whether or not it’s physically built, just to know we have the land banked and zoning in place to do it right. I’d like to ensure the wait-list procedure is a fair and equitable one with equal opportunities. There’s a lot of fine tuning that needs to be done on that and there are some good people working on it. I think the employee housing issue is where some of the community has chosen to voice some of their dissatisfaction: the speed of change, the rate of growth. I might be naive about that; it may be just a reaction to employee housing specifically, but I don’t share that opinion. I think it’s an overall response. It’s a fear response and I think it’s more deeply rooted than employee housing. The reaction hasn’t surprised me, but it’s surprised me how it’s become an individual thing. I was a little disappointed and taken aback at how personal it became. I don’t see the necessity for that. PIQUE: What is your view on how we should be altering the municipality’s revenue sources to avoid every increasing property taxes to fund future operating costs? K.W.: The long term financial plan in the works is the document that will address those things. That’s the document that’s been missing for years. It’s not too late to be working on those issues. From an overall budget point of view, we don’t have enough of an income to sustain what we hope to sustain the next 10 years. This is my perspective. We need to find a new tax or new tax base. We need to put the stepping stones in place to start a lobby with the provincial government. A case needs to be made, why we should get some of our provincial taxes returned. Not another added tax to the community. Rather, a percentage of our provincial sales tax returned, or the real estate transfer tax. It’s a tool we don’t have from a marketing, from a hotel tax point of view, from an overall infrastructure point of view and it’s easy to justify. Much of our planned capital projects are strictly related to tourism, that is, how a community of 8,000 people has to support a community of 65,000 on a weekend. If I do run again, it’ll probably be my number one goal. PIQUE: I know it’s early, but will you be running again? K.W.: I don’t know because of my personal life. If I had to answer the question right now, it would have to be no. A year from now that might be different. Looking at if from my degree of involvement and where I see Whistler going, it’s more critical than ever to have some leadership. I think my past experience would be useful. I’d like to run again, from that point of view. I don’t know if I’d run again for council. The mayoral seat is a personal goal. I know I have a lot to offer the community. I’m finishing study in mediation and those skills would be very useful and were inspired by what I’ve learned on council. I recognize how much I enjoy that. Next week: Ted, Stephanie, Ken and Hugh.