Midterm reports, part 2 Half-way through their three-year mandate, Whistler councillors look at where they’ve come from and where they’re taking us By G.D. Maxwell Last week the three veteran members of Whistler council shared their thoughts on what they felt this council had accomplished during its first 18 months, where it was going and what they wanted to achieve during the second half of their term. This week the three rookie councillors, Ted Milner, Stephanie Sloan and Ken Melamed, give their views. Ted Milner PIQUE: How’s being on council compare to what you thought it would be like? T.M.: It’s been a great learning experience. I knew nothing about the Municipal Act, the process or any of the ways things move forward. It’s been very interesting and I’ve learned a lot. Council’s a stilted forum to put your views forward and I’ve spent quite a bit of time learning that. I’m used to give-and-take dialogue, whereas (in council) you stand up, do your monologue, then somebody says something outrageous and they all drive off in another direction. That’s been very hard. You can’t say, "Wait a minute, that’s ridiculous." You can, sort of, but it’s very hard. You’ve got to put up your hand and be recognized by the chair. PIQUE: What’s the most difficult issue that’s come before council? T.M.: There are a couple of things I’m working on. I’m on a committee of three with Hugh O’Reilly and Jim Godfrey. The three of us are working with David Strangway to try and find a way to put a private university here. It’s a tough go. There are those of my colleagues who don’t want a private university, at almost any cost. I can’t understand their attitude, so that’s been difficult. The Emerald Forest is another one. I’m extremely unhappy about the way that one’s rolled out. We could have done a better job. I don’t know what the result will be; it isn’t finished. I don’t think we’ve got the basic premise right there. That land has been disturbed. There are two gravel pits on it. It’s all second growth forest, but it is bottom land, and it should be respected for sure. But it’s park; it’s not old-growth wetland. It ties in so beautifully with what we’re after. If you look at the Rainbow Park master plan, then the wildlife preserve and then the Emerald Forest, which should all tie into Meadow Park. Council’s been dicking around with this for a long time. The difficult part is we think any development there renders the entire property worthless, which I think is bullshit. What I’m concerned about is if we continue to duke it out with those people, we may end up losing it all. PIQUE: How would you describe the working dynamic of this council? T.M.: Everybody I’ve talked to seems to think the balance of different interests is a good thing. But it has made it extremely painful, with many split votes during the first year. It seems to have eased off lately though. There are a number of things hanging fire that haven’t been resolved and the way they get resolved will colour the way I would answer that question. There’s a certain amount of intractability about looking at the big picture that I don’t feel will be resolved. I guess in the democratic process, that’s a good thing because I sense — and I don’t know about past councils — that there was a lot of homogeneity before which doesn’t give you a very good debate, does it? PIQUE: What has this council done that you feel has been a personal victory or that you have felt particularly good about? T.M.: I was pleased everybody held their ground over 19 Mile Creek, although there hasn’t been a fourth reading. I was very much behind it but I wondered, with the level of excitement of the surrounding neighbours, whether people would have the courage to go forward on it. I mean, we’ve seen council capitulate on some things I think they shouldn’t have. For example, I think the gas station was a bad decision. In a town of our size, you would normally have six or seven gas stations. If you’re going to be concerned about traffic and especially if you’re concerned that it’s locals on the road a lot of the times, we should really have some essential services at either end of town. If you’re concerned about the highway, then you would want it off the highway. And if you’re concerned who the operator’s going to be and having a little diversification in operators, then you want somebody other than who’s already here. If you stand on that site, there isn’t a resident anywhere you could hit a driver to, except those two houses that are right next to where a huge hotel is going in. I mean, give me a break. Council capitulated on that one. And you know something, if we’d built it, the people who were complaining would be using it today. 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? T.M.: In our first offsite, in Parksville, we had this facilitator guy. He gave everybody little stickies and had a whole bunch of potential projects on the wall. The idea was to go over and stick your stickie on there and the things with the most stickies, got higher priority. At that process, I swear to God, quarterly financial statements lost out to nametags on the staff at the Hall. You know how frustrating that was for me? PIQUE: What would you like to see accomplished during the second half of this session of council? T.M.: Well remember, I came in on a financial responsibility platform, and we’ve done a number of things. We’ve come a long way. Our new investment policy, for example, is something I’m driving. We’ve finally got a policy in place to invest our cash. We’ve got something like $25 million in the bank at any time and it was being invested 30-60 days at a time. If you go a little bit further out, which I’m recommending, we can safely raise our return from 3 per cent to 8 per cent. Five per cent on $25 million is $1.25 million a year, which is a new park, for example. We’re also putting together a long term financial plan which takes us through buildout, through 2002 or so, to see where we really need the money so we can invest it properly. We worked hard on the vision which I pushed. We’ve come a long way from the unstated position on council that if we look at a vision and if we’re specific on the elements of the vision, wouldn’t we be held accountable? Yeah, we would, and we should. The other big item I’m pleased to see move forward is the employee housing issue and the housing fund. When I was elected, there were a lot of people trying to get their mitts on the housing fund. And the issue was, if they get their mitts on it, they want it to subsidize private developments. Then it’s gone. What I wanted to do was retain the housing fund and build rental housing we own. That’s the stuff private developers don’t want to build because there’s no one to own it — you may have noted they always want to build to sell. So I went wild in camera one day and pushed through the Housing Authority and I’m the chair of that thing. Rick Staehli has come in and we’re building a bunch of rental stuff and if we find we don’t need it one day, we can sell it. But the money stays with the town, which I think is good. So, I need to finish my play on a financial firm footing, relative to a long term plan that ties in with a vision that has some elements we can be held accountable for: stewardship of our resources; management of our housing fund; and property investments over which we retain control. PIQUE: What is your view on how we should be altering the municipality’s revenue sources to avoid ever-increasing property taxes to fund future operating costs? T.M.: You really have to look at the big picture to see what it is you’re trying to achieve. That’s why I hate making decisions in isolation. What I seek is consistency and balance right across the board. The budget as presented initially, didn’t have the sources flagged. And really, the budget is a sources and uses statement, but all that was presented to us was a uses statement. And I said, "that’s great, but where are you getting the money to spend?" I mean, we’ve got reserve funds and so on, but where is the money coming from? Ken Derpak (director of finance) is working on a presentation for the provincial government to try and deal with too high assessments and see if we can’t keep homeowner grants for taxpayers, which I think is very worthy because assessments have gone way up and that hurt a lot of people. But too, some of what’s going on here has to be paid by the guests. We have more infrastructure than the town really needs, because of the guests. So we’re trying to expand the hotel tax to include some sharing, in form at least, of sales tax, which would augment property tax. That presentation is being worked on and is going to be put forward. PIQUE: I know it’s early, but will you be running again? T.M.: I don’t know. I’ve had a lot of people congratulate me on what I’m trying to do and that’s pleasant. And I’ve had a lot of people who have really pissed me off, so I don’t know. On the family side, we’ll see how it looks when we get there and make the decision when the time comes. ****** Stephanie Sloan PIQUE: How’s being on council compare to what you thought it would be like? S.S.: It’s not a lot different than I thought it would be. Maybe what I didn’t realize was what a big responsibility it is. It’s one thing passing building permits and stuff, giving reads on simple development permits, and it’s another thing when you’re talking about employee housing in neighbourhoods and the long term responsibility for what Whistler will look like in 10 years. Responsibility for some of those long term issues is a tough decision. You have to think long and hard about how you’re going to vote on things. I like responsibility, I just didn’t think there would be so many issues that would be quite as difficult to make decisions about. PIQUE: What’s the most difficult issue that’s come before council? S.S.: It mostly comes down to neighbourhood things. You want to do what’s best for Whistler as a whole. I’m trying to look at the big picture, but you also have to realize you’re dealing with real people who live in different little enclaves and neighbourhoods. You don’t want to upset their lives, either spiritually or physically. I’m leaning a little bit more towards the individual neighbourhoods and trying to protect them, rather than looking at what’s best for Whistler as a whole. It’s a balance; you’re always balancing. I think it’s very important for our neighbourhoods to be preserved. They’re our community; that’s our community. When council went on our resort tour, we saw a lot of them had lost their community and they’re trying to get it back by building some resident or affordable housing projects so they can have their work force live and work and be a neighbourhood, a community again. We have a community. We have neighbourhoods. We have people living and working in Whistler and I think we need to protect the existing neighbourhoods and we need to have some employee housing projects to accommodate the work force. The people who are moving to Pemberton because they can get a condo that’s a little less expensive there, I hope they will be able to move back. I hope we can change the employee housing guidelines so they will qualify. Just because they purchased in Pemberton shouldn’t exclude them from coming back and buying into an affordable condo here. I think it’s important to have a happy community. PIQUE: How would you describe the working dynamic of this council? S.S.: I think it’s very good. It’s very democratic. We do all want to live in the same kind of utopian place. How we get there, we don’t always agree. When it comes down to the vote, we’re all enough our own character to vote the way we genuinely feel about things, but we all listen, I think, and we have a lot of discussion so we’ve got a lot of facts on the table. We’ve heard the opinions of everyone else, mushed them around in our mind and, when it comes down to it, I think we all vote the way we think is going to be the best for Whistler in the future. That, to me, is democracy. I can’t think of a better system. PIQUE: What has this council done that you feel has been a personal victory or that you have felt particularly good about? S.S.: Yeah, I voted against the Chevron gas station and I felt good about not putting another gas station in Whistler. There’s a lot of reasons to have a gas station in the north end of town. The transportation study that’s underway indicates we would reduce the number of cars going down to Creekside to get gas. But you don’t want to put in a gas station in a neighbourhood at a dangerous intersection like that if you don’t have to. And we didn’t have to. There are other sites. The political process takes some time, to get a location and go through the whole permit, zoning and whatever else you have to do to get a gas station somewhere else. But we’ve got time. We can do it; we can wait and get the right place. 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? S.S.: I was quite upset about the reaction of all the other council members when it came to 19 Mile Creek and the public hearing. I know a lot of those people who live in Alpine. They’re my contemporaries; they’re about my age. They’re working their butts off to live in Whistler. They’ve got kids and they were concerned about certain aspects of this density moving into their neighbourhood. They’ve put up with increases in traffic, increases in lineups on the hills, the beaches being like Coney Island in the summer. They realize we need a lot of density in the village to have guests, to make it viable for everybody to live and work in Whistler, for the ski areas to succeed. So when they see that density being moved into their neighbourhood, they become concerned. The intersection there is terrible. So, I listen to them. I am them. I thought the other councillors took it way too personally. People get emotional; you can’t help that. Part of why they get emotional is because they love Whistler so much and they’ve seen some mistakes made. When they see a developer who does not have the best track record move into their neighbourhood with a high-density development, they’re concerned. So, I was frustrated we didn’t revamp that project, fine tune it and go back to a public hearing and do it a little more sensitively. I was the only one who voted in that direction but I felt I couldn’t vote any other way. PIQUE: What would you like to see accomplished during the second half of this session of council? S.S.: I think the housing issue is a big one. We need some affordable housing and I’d like to see some really good affordable housing projects go in that work with the neighbourhood. I think it’s going to be a challenge but I’d like to see it done tastefully so everybody, or almost everybody, is happy and we get people moving into those units and having their own home. If we can do it, and satisfy the neighbourhood those projects are going into as well, I think it would be great. A real accomplishment and I’d like to be a part of that. The transportation study that’s coming out is going to be a real challenge to do what’s best for Whistler as a whole, to keep the traffic flowing properly. But not to the detriment of the neighbourhoods. Again, the community can only pay so much for the tourism that’s here and has been created. Most people who live here rely on that tourism base, so they’re willing to give a lot, but if you’re going to put a bypass road through a neighbourhood, you’re going to have huge opposition. I don’t know if that’s going to happen or if it’s in the proposal or whatever, or if we’re putting bypass roads through environmentally sensitive lands. That’s another horrible consequence of growth I hope we don’t have. I want to work out a transportation plan where we have lockers where we can lock up our skis and boots, and showers, so people can take the bus and get changed and leave their equipment there and it’ll be dry in the morning when they get back. They can just use public transportation so they don’t have to bring their cars and have all their equipment in the car when they want to go shopping in the village or to the bar or have a coffee. Same with bikes. In the summer, there should be a bike lockup place like the ski check, with an attendant there so you know your bike’s safe. So we’re talking about a transportation centre and hopefully it’s going to have all those things in it. That’s exciting stuff. PIQUE: What is your view on how we should be altering the municipality’s revenue sources to avoid ever-increasing property taxes to fund future operating costs? S.S.: What we have in the 1998 budget that I think is exciting, is some funds set up with an annual contribution in different departments: water sewer, etc. So we’re setting up these funds and we’ll be contributing to them while there are development funds coming in. PIQUE: I know it’s early, but will you be running again? S.S.: I’m not sure. It depends on what I’m doing. I hope so. Sometimes I say yeah, other times, maybe not. But probably. ***** Ken Melamed PIQUE: How’s being on council compare to what you thought it would be like? K.M.: I had all these perceptions about what it was going to be like. In my mind I thought council had a little more control, a little more power. Now I think we have less. It’s a team effort. It’s council’s job to make the hard decisions and set the policy, but staff does 99 per cent of the work. You can go in and be hard-nosed and pushy and try and roll over the staff, but then you’re going to have a non-functioning hall, which is what it was in the previous term. PIQUE: What’s the most difficult issue that’s come before council? K.M.: Well, the one nobody anticipated was the nightly rentals thing. That was a real sleeping tiger. It’s probably become the hardest issue for us to deal with overall. It’s so complex. There’s so many sides, so many different parts of the community affected. And the worst part is the history of it, being allowed to go on illegally for so many years that it’s created almost a de facto legitimacy. The hardest challenge has been to deal with the legacies of the past administration. The very first one was Spruce Grove. Basically it was a development that had gone through — and we get criticized a lot for attention to detail — with a definite lack of attention to detail. This council has a different mandate than past councils. This council has a mandate more directed toward control and planning long term for the community, as opposed to "get on the buggy" because it’s racing past. In general, there’s been a lack of long term planning to try and deal with some of the larger land use issues that were looming. The RR1 lands, for example. This council’s approach was to downzone, an almost interim measure, interim to a better thought out plan. I don’t think that’s going to work in the long run. People are going to find ways, the development pressures are there and are going to increase. Employee housing was probably the biggest issue and the one we had the clearest mandate on from the last election. It is clearly this council’s job to do something, anything on that issue. PIQUE: How would you describe the working dynamic of this council? K.M.: I feel overall quite positive about it. It’s been good working with this council, getting to know them. Two things we did early in the term helped a lot. The retreat where we began the visioning process was our first opportunity to get to know each other and work as a tight-knit group. We spent long hours working together and learned there was a strong commitment and work ethic in the group. The second was the Colorado tour where we spent 10 days together. If you just meet for council meetings and workshops, the agenda is so packed, there’s no time to get to know each other. But getting to know each other, you get a sense of how the group works best. Let’s face it, getting anything accomplished takes strategy and tactics. If you want to go in there and achieve a goal, you have to know who you’re dealing with and what they feel about it, and what causes them to feel that way. PIQUE: What has this council done that you feel has been a personal victory or that you have felt particularly good about? K.M.: The Spruce Grove compromise is a victory over what it was before. It wasn’t what I wanted, but there was more positive than negative about it. We worked hard to achieve some major improvements over the project. I’m pleased with Vision 2000 and the amount of commitment to environmental sustainability. I’m happy with the direction we’re going. Of course, it never happens fast enough. That’s something, as a politician, you just sort of throw your arms up in the air and say, it happens at the pace it happens. 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? K.M.: There hasn’t been anything really devastating. I think I was one of the few councillors who didn’t like the Riverside Campground proposal. It didn’t fit with our environmental objectives. It encroached into the park. But once the decision was made I kind of let go of the anger and frustration and tried to make it work as a project. There have been a couple of times I felt pretty marginalized, not just for my environmental positions, but for my political views too. I’m not a huge advocate of the free market. I think the free market has failed Whistler to a large degree, especially in employee housing. And most of council is very pro business, anti-intervention. I’m not sure that’s a fair thing to say, maybe it’s just a feeling I have. The public reaction to 19 Mile Creek surprised me. I was heavily involved, before I got on council, with some of the early employee housing ideas and attended some of the Alta Lake Ratepayers meetings. My sense from those meetings was that people were opposed to the quick-fix nature of the earlier solutions because they didn’t make sense, not because they were opposed to employee housing. But I’m not sure now. To my mind, that project makes sense. I’ve talked to a lot of members of the community who also think it makes sense, not just people desperate to own a piece of property in Whistler, but other homeowners. My position on that has strained some relationships I’ve had with friends. Some will be renewed after this has passed and others won’t. I definitely felt friendships have been compromised because of it and that’s too bad. It’s been uncomfortable. I said some things at the council meeting that probably exacerbated that, but I felt those things and people need to know. PIQUE: What would you like to see accomplished during the second half of this session of council? K.M.: I want to complete some of the major works underway. The Vision 2000 has a very large section on sustainability: environmental, social, and economic. I think the three are interconnected. I’m not going to achieve my goals for environmental sustainability without addressing the other two. So, laying the framework to achieve sustainability is critical in this term. I think we’re on the right track with employee housing. We’ve got Rick Staehli there but I would like to see approval of something: The Beaver Flats and Lorimer Road, the two properties we just purchased. We’ve got Nordic going, 19 Mile Creek, Spruce Grove, Beaver Flats, Lorimer Road and the Whistler Mountain one that was approved two years ago. PIQUE: What is your view on how we should be altering the municipality’s revenue sources to avoid ever-increasing property taxes to fund future operating costs? K.M.: There’s a critical document we’re waiting for which should be out very soon and that’s the five year financial plan. The budget encapsulates the general direction. The five year plan is going to be looking at things like ongoing costs. It’s a concern. I think council is very much aware of it and we’re waiting for this document to answer that question. Mind you, I think our standard is maybe a couple of notches high enough that it could come down. One of the things in this budget that wasn’t in the last is this looking to the future. Probably the biggest criticism from a financial/economic standpoint is that Ted Nebbeling’s regime left barely a pot to piss in for future projects. Every nickel they got in they spent. There was a very, very small legacy. So we don’t have any money to make some of the deals we might like to make including the library, a project I’d like to see get moving. There’s no question in my mind that maybe instead of putting three bridges here on Village Gate Boulevard, we could have had a legacy of $10 million or more. That would have alleviated the painful process we have now where, if you want to build a library, you can’t have washrooms at Rainbow Beach, or you can’t repave West Side Road, or you can’t redevelop Lake Placid Road. This budget now begins to address those things. PIQUE: I know it’s early, but will you be running again? K.M.: Unless something negative happens, I think I will. I love it. I love the challenge. I love being in there and I think I add value. I think I represent a lot of people in the community and the feedback I get is I’m doing a good job. All things being equal, I can’t see why I wouldn’t run. My only concern is the time thing: if I feel I can’t keep my life ordered enough to see my family and have a relationship with my wife. I’ll do it, but not at the cost of jeopardizing those.