Midterm report, part 3 The view from the mayor’s chair By Bob Barnett In the third and final instalment of our midterm report on Whistler council, Mayor Hugh O’Reilly shares his thoughts on what’s been accomplished in the first year and a half of this council’s mandate and what he expects to see in the next 18 months. PIQUE: How has being mayor compared to being a councillor? H.O.: It’s different, there’s no doubt. You’re here all the time, that’s the big one. You’re a lot closer to the day to day issues. The scope of the issues you’re dealing with is significantly different. I spend a lot of my time trying to build relationships up and down the corridor. I think that’s been a real priority, because we impact Squamish and Pemberton tremendously. If you read the paper and listen to their communities, a lot of their problems they like to focus back on because of Whistler, whether traffic or housing or a lot of things. So, sitting on the regional district board, through the Olympic bid and other committees, I’m really trying to build bridges and build relationships, so if in fact we are part of the problem we are also part of the solution. I think the regional district feels, amongst its members, that there’s a lot greater sense of awareness of the issues. I think our tour last year helped. This is the first time that the regional district has had all the mayors sitting on it... and I think issues at the regional district level have really evolved in the last few years — the solid waste management plan, growth management strategies... I’m in Whistler a lot, but I’m also spending a lot more time trying to anticipate what’s coming at us, because I think the Olympics and the GVRD are coming our way. I think we’ve been fortunate in that a lot of the growth in the Lower Mainland has gone up the (Fraser) Valley, but I think it’s only a matter of time before people sort of wake up and the Furry Creeks start to take off and that growth starts coming our way. And with that comes all the problems with congestion and roads and infrastructure. We’ve been able to buy some time and we’re going to try and develop our long term plan. That’s one of them. As mayor I meet a lot of groups, have a chance to interact with a lot of people who are new to the community, whether they’re here on conventions or businesses, and I really enjoy that. It’s interesting to hear how we’re doing from somebody who’s here for the first time. Provincially, the Olympics have been one area where I’m starting to meet people in the city that I haven’t really had a relationship with: the mayors of Vancouver, North Van. Sitting on the Lower Mainland Treaty Advisory Committee I’m starting to meet those people. You have to sort of sit up high and look at what’s going on around us a lot. So you have that responsibility, you’ve got your neighbours, and then you’ve got your municipal agenda here, that we’re working hard at. Add that all up, it’s pretty much full time, and that’s the big difference. You’re here every day. PIQUE: What’s the most difficult issue that’s come before this council? H.O.: I don’t think there’s a particular one that council’s taken on. There’s a couple of the real big issues that have been out there for a long time that haven’t really been wrestled to the ground, and we’re attempting to do that. One is nightly rentals. That just didn’t happen overnight that’s been an ongoing issue, and has increasingly become a bigger issue because it’s gotten to the point where it’s very flagrant now, it’s out in the community. The other one is the housing fund. We collected the money for a number of years but hadn’t really taken any initiatives. So by creating the housing authority we’re really moving forward on that. Those are the two really big ones that need to be resolved. There’s a number of minor issues: relationship building with the WRA, some things that we’re dealing with now that I think weren’t big issues, they were just things that hadn’t been getting done. I think for us to maintain our level of success we have to build better working relationships and communications with the major players in our community: the mountains, the WRA, the chamber, the school district. I think a lot of that flows back from the 2002 vision process, it’s a major initiative. PIQUE: How would you describe the working dynamic of this council? H.O.: I like this council. I think it’s very challenging, it has strong individuals, which makes it tough at times but at the same time it’s their greatest asset. This council has strong opinions and they’re willing to stick to them and they’re willing to vote with them, and I think that’s great. It’s been interesting, I would bet within the first six to eight months, I probably saw more split decisions than I’ve seen in eight years — where I had to make the deciding vote. We haven’t had as many of those recently, but I think we’re fortunate we’ve got a council that brings a lot of experience and variety of backgrounds and they want to share it and they’re willing to stand up and defend their point of view. I think that’s what a good healthy council is all about. It’s not just everyone moving in the same direction. We debate it and then there’s a majority at some point, and we move forward. PIQUE: There were three new councillors, and it took this council some time to get a handle on a few of the issues. H.O.: I think so. I think that you’ve got a bit of a mix there. Obviously Nancy (Wilhelm-Morden) has been on council, most of the issues she has the background on so she came up to speed pretty quick. Stephanie (Sloan) and Ted (Milner) had probably the largest learning curve. I’d say that they’re right up to speed now, after a year and a half. And I think that the other one that’s very interesting is Kenny (Melamed). I’ve been really pleased with Ken. He’s been on the outside and he’s done a lot of attacking through AWARE and criticizing the municipality, and I think now that he’s on the inside I think he’s been able to effectively implement a lot of the things he’s wanted to see, but I think he’s also really come to appreciate the complexity of the issues we deal with. Unless you’re involved in a day to day issue here... people have no concept of the complexity and the difficulties and how hard we work to try and deal with issues. It’s a tough job. I think council is really working around trying to establish their priorities and judge their decision making based on that. That’s why I’m excited about 2002. I think that’s going to be a real tool — that’s how I look at it, as a tool for us to help prioritize and put out our business plan for the next three, four, five years. PIQUE: Is there anything this council has done that you’ve felt has been a personal victory or that you’ve felt particularly good about? H.O.: The fact that we’ve taken the time — I’m a big believer, obviously, in the 2002 document. To do that effectively you have to basically, kind of hold everyone at bay for a little bit — and the pressure is tremendous to make decisions today. We’ve asked people to hold on for another year, 14, 15 months while we come back with a real solid piece of work that says "here are the issues, here’s the funding envelopes, here’s the business plan, here’s what we have for resources." And project ourselves out to buildout so that we can come in and say "you know we can achieve certain things, but not every thing," or "to do it all we have to do something else, we have to find it." And it’s hard because you’re under tremendous pressure to decide today, not wait that little bit of time. But I think, when we finish our three years and that plan is in place and people see it — I’ve already seen a glimpse of the power that it has — I think that we’ll be very proud of that, because the next council will have a much easier time, because they’ll have a really good plan to start from. And if they want to change it, they absolutely can, but they’ll have good information to work from. And they’ll be making priority decisions because the plan will talk about priorities and tying that to dates and financial resources. And every time you want to move something you’ll know what you’re taking off the plan, and that never gets talked about. It’s A and B, and you can have one or the other but let’s talk about that, and that can be a real open community debate. The community will have the same information. So if I had to pick one thing, even though we haven’t got it in its final form, it would be the 2002 plan. And the last half of this term will be significantly easier for us because we’ll be working from that. Hopefully in July we’ll be able to see the financial plan, which is a key component. The input from 2002 has gone up to Simon Fraser University so all that information should come together this summer and we should be able to see at least a draft of that business plan in the next little while. I’m really counting on that document to be a significant piece of this council’s orders. PIQUE: How about the opposite: has council taken positions or decisions you felt were personal defeats or that frustrated you? H.O.: Not really. All the split decisions early on left me to cast the deciding vote, so any issue that people got into a position that they felt pretty passionate about, on one side or the other, I ended up making the decision, so they all went my way. I’m happy with all the decisions that we’ve made. There’s nothing out there that I’m really frustrated by. I took all the information, listened to both sides and some times went with one side and sometimes went with the other. At first it looked like there was sort of an alignment going, and then those have crossed over now. We’ve seen that three-three vote go different ways. It shows you what I think is real maturity and also the complexity of some of the issues. People are really listening to each other and they’re not lining up with any individual. They’re taking principles that they really believe in and discussing them really well. When you get that three-three split that’s when I come into play, otherwise most decisions lie with council, not with me. Once people make their decision, they put it behind them and move on. That’s, again, a sign of maturity. I’ve never sat in anyone else’s council chambers but I hear horror stories at UBCM and talk with other people about just how personal it can get and I would say that we’ve been very fortunate we haven’t had that situation. PIQUE: And no party politics. H.O.: Yes. I think that would be a sad day if we got to that. I think Whistler’s still very small town, very personal. We choose people on their individual merits not on platforms. You know, most people out there voting probably know their councillors and their mayor well enough to walk up to them and ask them something in the street. I mean, I can’t go anywhere in the village without someone asking me something. Any time, day or night, the phone rings and I get talked to. And that’s the way it should be. PIQUE: What would you like to see accomplished during the second half of this council’s mandate? H.O.: Well obviously the 2002, that will be significant because out of that really falls everything else. That really talks about the business plan, putting down the priorities, and then putting our resources and running our people through it. And we’re starting to meet some deadlines. Whether it’s the Emerald sewer line or it’s the library or some of these other facilities, really take one at a time and complete it, or three at a time and start to work to complete them and put them to rest, and then start on the next one. I guess the other one that’s a real big one, it being tax season right now, is the ability for us to go to the province and talk about us as a partner with the province. We’re a huge economic engine for this province and there’s very little return investment by them to us. Tourism is a huge opportunity for the future. I think we all know what’s going on with logging, it’s going to get to significantly lower levels to be sustainable. Fishing is going to have a tough time of it in the next few years. Tourism is an opportunity. The dollar’s great, we’ve got world-wide awareness of the province. In my opinion this province... Whistler’s a great vehicle to bring people to this province. And the Olympics may be part of that. But we need some help (on taxation) because the burden is getting heavy. The (taxation) model doesn’t fit us very well. School taxes is one example. We’re paying an exorbitant amount of school taxes. I think that if people saw their tax bill cut in half, or 30 per cent or 40 per cent reduced, and still made a significant contribution to the district, you could buy a lot of P.R. with that. But otherwise there’s a potential here for people just to bail, to say "I can’t afford it," because of the tax burden. I’ll defend our (municipal) budget, I think we do an excellent job. We’re striving to maintain a facility of the standard that it should be to attract people and charge the rates that we charge and meet people’s expectations. I mean, if we diminish service I think that’s the start of the rust setting in. But, there’s a certain side of that tax equation that I can’t deal with, I don’t have the power to do that. So we either have to deal with reducing that or find other vehicles to bring funding in so we can reduce our side of the tax equation, perhaps. If we had other vehicles or other sources of funds we could lower our side and school taxes could stay the same. It’s the collective pot we’ve got to look at. I think we can make a strong business case to the province and that’s one of the initiatives from 2002 that will be going forward this year. We’re going to work very, very hard on that, because that has huge long-term implications for the viability of the community and the resort. I think we’ll do it with our partners — the mountains, the WRA, the businesses, probably the school board — and take a strategic approach, present them with something they have a hard time saying "no" to. We’d like to be taken off the grant system and provided tools, not grants — because grants are inconsistent. We have no control. We went from $380,000 (provincial grant) down to $80,000 — we lost $300,000. We hit a magic number in our population and took on $1.7 million in RCMP costs. Those two effectively increased our expenditures by $2 million per year. But we have no new tools, other than taxes — that’s our only tool. And our competitors don’t use that. They use a real estate transfer tax, they use a resort tax, they have the mountains contributing to transportation. So when it’s all said and done, I think that’s really the model we should be building for the province. PIQUE: With several issues that have developed over the last 18 months — 19 Mile Creek, chalet and villa accommodation, the Whistler Creek pension court case, the Chevron station — there has been a strong feeling among some property owners that they’ve had to "protect" their neighbourhood. Do you see more of this happening in the next year and a half? H.O.: I’m not sure that’s really any different than it’s ever been. I mean, we put employee housing in Brio and there was a huge uproar. I think if you went back and asked anyone there today if it’s had an impact, I’m sure there’s some, but I don’t think it’s at the level it was portrayed at the council meetings. When you want to go against an issue it’s just a good strategy to go and try and find as much as you can about why not and build on that case, the worst case scenario. That’s just strategic thinking. But generally the reality is it’s significantly less. Nothing is ever as bad as it’s portrayed. It’s probably never as good as we’d hope it would be, either. I think council looks at priorities. I think the Chevron is an example. It wasn’t a top three priority so it was one where we said: OK, it may still be a great location, maybe should have gone ahead, but is it that important right now? Probably not. Housing; council still feels very strongly about it. Nineteen Mile is still trying to go through. Council has shown some recognition that we think the site is good, we think there’s a lot of good things about it. There’s still some unresolved issues that have to be satisfied before it will get approval. Do I think it will be a huge detriment to that neighbourhood? It will have an impact, especially during construction, that’s always the worst part. But once it’s built and matured and trees have grown and come back, I think that it’s overall value to the community far exceeds the impact that it might have to the resident neighbours. Some of the issues at 19 Mile are management, some of them are getting that stop light to work properly — that’s an issue whether the project goes ahead or not. You have to distinguish between what’s directly related to the project and what’s an issue already unto itself. So, are we going to see more of it? Probably. I think that anything we do we can’t turn without impacting somebody, whether it’s a handful of houses or a whole neighbourhood, or the north end of the valley vs. the south or our neighbours in Squamish. I think that’s part of the reality. You make no decisions and you maybe don’t impact anybody, but when you’re always making these choices nothing’s ever going to be 100 per cent. It’s always been like that and it always will be. The market’s giving indications that we’re off base right now. I don’t believe that. I think we’re lucky to have a lull right now that we can maybe respond to because when the crunch comes you can’t build housing in two weeks. I think the strength of Whistler is going to be achieved by having those people in our community, and it’s really important to the long term sense of community. PIQUE: As we approach buildout do we have to re-examine or remember the balance between resort and community needs? H.O.: I don’t think there’s anything about remembering, it’s who we are. We are a resort community. It’s really hard to pull the two apart. If we don’t have a strong community the resort’s going to fail. If we don’t have a strong resort the community’s going to fail. Right now I think we’re seeing a few people in the community who are saying "gee, it’s not as busy this summer, construction is down, there aren’t as many jobs as there were, people aren’t getting the wages maybe they anticipated." So they’re already starting to see what can happen when there’s just a minor slow down. Everyone’s going to go through that. We’re going to be changing from construction to maintenance. We’ve got a good product, hopefully we can bring our levels, our volumes of people through to support the businesses here. It’s always top of mind for me, that balance. I mean, I have to have a livelihood, if I don’t have that I won’t be able to stay. I’ll have to leave. And that’s sure not what I hope to see happen. I think that our relationships with our partners are absolutely paramount. Our customers are not only our residents but also people coming here on holidays, and everyone in our community has to recognize that. Hopefully we don’t get to a situation where there’s too much of a community here that has no direct relationship to the resort and its financial viability, because their income isn’t derived from it. You look at the Vail model. When your taxes come from your sales tax — a big chunk of them — and how well the resort hums and moves and how successful it is goes directly to the bottom line and the ability to deliver services. So if all of a sudden we lost 20 per cent of our business and the municipality was 20 per cent short on funding then everyone in the community, whether you work here or are a second homeowner, would feel that impact. But the system we’ve got now doesn’t relate those two. So our job as council is to fill that gap. That’s how I see it. My job is to represent the community against the Intrawests, because they’re a big player, and make sure the small guy is represented. At the same time they’re a key player and we have to have a relationship. So we’ve got a dancing partner, not by design, but that’s who we’re with. And I hope we don’t trip and fall too often, that we can move smoothly through the issues and talk to each other and build strong relationships and help each other periodically. We need their assistance and sometimes they need ours. You have to give and take. I don’t think you can talk about "resort" and "community," it’s "resort community." PIQUE: Will you run again? H.O.: Yep. I’m doing all this work now, the fruits are coming down the road. I want to see the plan in action. I want to be there. And then after that, I’ll have been around a long time. We’ll see. You take a corporation the size of the municipality, and I think we’re really making some tremendous changes. I’m really excited about the things that are happening. I’m extremely pleased with the new administrator, just the wealth of knowledge he’s brought, both to the community and to the municipality but also he’s been able to sit on the board of directors of the WRA and has really extended our relationship to the other community members. I’ve tremendously enjoyed working with him. I think we’re on the right track. I think we’re going to be really proud of where we are in four or five years. I think there’s some really exciting things. I think education is going to be a big component of our future. I think we’re going to go from just being a recreation resort to including education. And education, the thing I like about it is I think we can offer it in a way that maybe no one else has done, that benefits residents, neighbours and the community, can fill beds but also give us a whole other industry. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see the software development companies moving here, because the people who work in that industry are young, they’re well paid. I think Whistler is affordable for them. I think we’re going to see more and more of them moving here, adding a new dynamic to our community.