October 27, 2011
Most politicians have the gift of gab, but Tuesday night's marathon all-candidates meeting hosted by the Whistler Off-Road Cycling Association pushed voice boxes to their limits as candidates met with community members to answer questions for almost three-and-a-half hours.
The format is similar to speed dating. Members of the community sat at tables and the candidates for council and the mayor's chair moved from table to table. Each candidate had five minutes at every table to introduce themselves and answer questions. Roughly 150 people took advantage of this first opportunity to meet all six candidates for mayor and 24 of the 25 candidates for council, with Roger McCarthy away on business.
While it's impossible to sum up an event with so many politicians talking for so many hours, Pique asked candidates what issues had come up the most during the round of the tables. Some of the issues in common include pay parking, municipal budgeting, funding priorities for the budget and RMI, the asphalt plant issue and the tone of the political debate in the resort.
Here's a brief summary of the candidates' responses to questions at Table 27:
Brian Reid was asked where he stood on the issue of pay parking. "We all came and we parked in the rutted-out gravel lots and now we have this great paved facility we spent a lot of our savings on. But if it's something we don't want to pay back, that's what we can do. I like the idea of having pay parking in Lot 1 and keeping everything else free..."
Mayoral candidate Miro Kolvek was asked why he was running for mayor and not council. He summed it up as business experience. "One of my big concerns is municipal hall and the budget, and taking a close look at costs... we need to take a close look at how it is run. From what I hear it's not run like a business... they have huge salaries, there are two or three people making more than the Prime Minister of Canada. And the mayor makes too much. Three years ago they moved the salary from $40,000 to $80,000, which is a 100 per cent increase."
Council candidate Allan Jenner said one of his issues is the budget, and use of consultants to make decisions. "One of the things that I think that council and the RMOW do too much of is hiring consultants to tell them what to do. We have a professional staff sitting at municipal hall and they know what to do. And to have a blue ribbon panel (on the budget) and then have them say 'no expenses can be cut so the only solution is raising taxes...' I say nonsense. Of course you can cut expenses."
Council candidate Hi Brooks was also asked how he would address the budget. He said it could only be addressed by building consensus within council. "There isn't a budget that hasn't been passed by council," he said. "Whether it's been a four-three split or whether members voted against budgets, it's clear (councillors) haven't influenced others to the point of changing the process. That's the problem."
Council candidate Rob Leblanc said he was more concerned by the role of council, which he said is to oversee the Chief Administration Officer and budget. "We're in a bad financial situation, and we need to do everything we can to be as efficient and effective as can be. Council needs to tell the CAO, 'you need to tighten up the ship.' My other (priority) is to ensure that council is sticking to their role as defined and making sure the policies and procedures we set up to move proposals through are clear and identifiable so we know what things we're going to do and how we're going to get there."
Council candidate Steve Andrews was in favour of open source government, leveraging the technology to create better two-way communication within municipal hall and in the community. He's also concerned that the municipality is trying to do too much. "I think we've spread ourselves too thin, that municipal government has lost its focus. The Olympics played a big part in that, creating all these different roles, but a lot of roles should be handled by Tourism Whistler, Chamber of Commerce, Whistler Blackcomb - they had the maintenance of the parking lots for years and then that was taken over by the municipality."
Council candidate Corinne Allison said she would try to work out an agreement with the asphalt plant owner before the case goes to court in late November to avoid the judicial system. "We can't go back in time, though I'm still stumbling over how we managed to build something like (Cheakamus Crossing) next to an asphalt plant... my efforts would be to get a resolution as soon as possible, rather than dragging it out and avoid the whole judicial system."
Council incumbent Eckhard Zeidler was asked if he had any regrets from his second term and he was blunt in his answer. "It was absolutely horrific," he said. "I can list down all the major issues (in this campaign) based on what people are talking about... but I feel the overarching issue needs to be addressed, and that's that council is not well regarded in the community at all - and the RMOW as an extension is not well regarded, which is a most incredibly unfair thing...
"That's why I'm an unabashed supporter of (mayoral candidate) Nancy (Wilhelm-Morden), because I think that she is capable of rebuilding that relationship with the community and showing the community the respect it deserves."
For her part, mayoral candidate Nancy Wilhelm-Morden was asked questions about pay parking, the asphalt plant and the culture at municipal hall. Wilhelm-Morden said she was a supporter of pay parking when it was a way to boost transit, but said she stopped supporting it when the money started to go into general revenues. "That was then, this is now. We've got a downturn in the economy, destination visitors are not coming," she said. "Most visitors are now rubber tire visitors and the first thing we do when they come to Whistler is ding them with a parking charge."
Council candidate Duane Jackson said the RMI funds need to be spread around to ensure Whistler's success. "We've got a lot of money coming in from the province and that money, because of the priorities of the Olympics, has been hi-jacked a bit. There were some things that were critical like the Olympic Plaza, but it hasn't been used in its primary role of leveraging assets and selling ourselves."
Mayoral candidate Brent McIvor said the community is at a watershed with its budget. "The budget went form $47 million in 2006 to $77 million this year and I believe it's unsustainable," he said. "When I see a 57 per cent increase in the budget and taxes in the last six years, that's the reason I feel I would do a better job as mayor leading the community than in running for council."
Mayoral candidate Shane Bennett had an idea for cutting department budgets in the municipality. "I would go to every department and ask them to report on a one per cent reduction in costs per month. If we tell them to cut 10 or 20 per cent they would have to hire a consultant, but they can do small one per cent cuts. Over a year that's 14 per cent savings compounded. When we got to the point where services would be denigrated... then we were start looking at one per cent efficiencies after that."
Council candidate Richard Diamond said that Whistler has to start thinking like a city, and realize that pay parking is probably here to stay. "The money has to come from somewhere and I think they've come up with a reasonable rate. I think the issues around it and the resistance to it is a symptom of the tough economy in town... that's why we need to diversify the economy into something other than tourism to replace the jobs we're losing."
Council incumbent Chris Quinlan listed all the goals he's accomplished since joining council in 2008, including facilitating the first meeting with all the resort partners, and the first meeting with commercial landlords, tenants and the municipality. The budget is also a success. "When I took office our reserves were heavily depleted, we had diminishing revenues and increasing costs. We had to get a grip on that, we made it a priority and at the end of the term we were in a better financial position than when we started and our reserves were back up... I'd like to see that continue to the next level."
Council candidate Andrée Janyk listed her long public service resume, and stressed that it was important to have a woman's voice on council. She also has experience making tough budgetary decisions. "My first year on the school board we had to cut about $1.8 million out of a $32 million budget, when 89 per cent of that was fixed labour costs, but we did it... at the school board we had a conversation on what we want for the schools and what we're focusing on, and when you do that you find very quickly that money very easily falls off the table."
Council candidate John Grills has 30 years of business experience in town and said that the situation is at a low point. "In the past I feel the working relationship with businesses and the municipality was much better, and when opening my restaurants we very much worked together on it. Now, there's more of a divide, and it's not the same relationship, and I think we should go back to that."
Council incumbent Ted Milner said it's been frustrating dealing with a split council on many issues. "The elephant in the room is the rapidly growing budget, and one of the main statistics I look at is wages and salaries which have jumped $16 million to $24 million since 2008, which is a 50 per cent increase. It's too much." Milner was also concerned that the municipality was encroaching on other organizations and the private sector by using RMI funds to host events.
Council candidate Jack Crompton said he's running for the same basic reasons he was in the last election, including municipal finances. "Last time I talked about a healthy economy and the need to spend within our means. I didn't get as much traction last time because we were ramping up for a Games and we needed to be ready, but now everybody is saying the exact same thing - to live within our means and no more tax increases."
Mayoral candidate Ralph Forsyth said the resort needs more collaborative leadership, and he regrets that he wasn't able to halt the rise in property taxes - and wants to make amends moving forward. "I don't think we needed to do that, to be quite honest, and I think we failed to provide leadership to the community... I cringe when someone's vision is Whistler when it was at its peak 20 years ago- we have children and we need opportunities going forward. The nostalgic view that it was so great 20 years ago is not going to have any effect on our future."
Council incumbent Tom Thomson said he would be lying if he said he was satisfied with the last term, but there was good as well as bad. "I go across the country and this town is revered for what we did with the Olympics, everyone wants to know how this little town pulled it off," he said. "The world saw it, and it was hugely gratifying. But the pay parking roll-out was a disaster. And then we tried it again and it still didn't work, and now we have something out there that will hopefully become ingrained and catch on."
Council candidate Jess Laframboise said his campaign was focused on the budget and bringing back the Squamish Commuter. "One third of Squamish comes up here to work, so a healthy Whistler helps Squamish as well... The Squamish commuter helped hundreds of employees, and it was previously subsidized by BC Transit, Squamish and Whistler. It no longer a reality because Whistler cut funding, but if Squamish's tax base is $30 million, Whistler's is $80 million, and if Squamish can find the money then we can to."
Council candidate Jen Ford said it will take a team of councillors to fix Whistler's problems, and believes she has the skills and work experience to pull that team together. "I think I bring a common (residents') perspective to the table. I don't own a house, I don't own a business. My husband and I want to raise a family here, but right now we couldn't afford to put a kid into daycare. These are some of the concerns we have... and I think the team at the table needs to be seen as a team."
Council candidate Jay Rolston had ideas how to fix pay parking. "It's my strategy to validate parking," he said. "If someone comes to the village and spends $100 at a restaurant they should get free parking. And they should be paying when they leave - right now it's paying up front and people don't feel good about it, it makes a bad first impression and that's not the way we want to greet our visitors."
Incumbent mayor Ken Melamed said his priorities if elected would be to work with the province to renew the RMI program, to update the resort business plan to reflect the recession and to reign in costs and taxes. "We started that process in 2010, and we're already seeing success in the first phase and there will be more phases to come. It will be a nuts to bolts review to find efficiencies and create a leaner government to keep costs down."
Incumbent councillor Grant Lamont said he wants to see a return to a traditional local government with departments for planning, engineering, bylaws and parks and recreation. He also had ideas how to help the tourism economy. "One question I got was what was the next big thing that Whistler has to market, and I said it was the value-added stuff - all the things we take for granted in the community that people are blown away by when they see it. That's our lakes, parks, trails, open spaces - all things that people can come to Whistler and enjoy for free."
Council candidate Kevin Rea said the resort needs a clean slate. "At the end of the day, a new slate of councillors and mayor is required, and the group to come in for the next three years has to have the same goal in mind. The finances of our government is the overriding issue."
Council candidate Steve Anderson said the next council would have to be tough. "What set me off and got me running for council was that budget meeting and the announcement that our taxes would be going up 20 per cent in three years, which was a big hit for homeowners. And to be honest from what I've seen I don't see how we're going to avoid more double digit increases - it's going to be tough... I feel there are other ways to deal with expense issues than raising costs."
Council candidate Dave Buzzard said there was consensus at most tables over the top issues, namely the budget and pay parking. "People wanted to know what I was going to do about the budget, and I basically said it was an 800 pound gorilla that needs to be wrestled to the ground. And it was interesting because we had people from the municipality there, some long-term employees... and even those guys seemed to agree with that. And the thing to do with pay parking is to take the hard line and fine $1 million per year n the budget to cover the cost and bring it back to free."
The Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE) is hosting a meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 2 at Millennium Place, running 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. The Chamber of Commerce is hosting an all-candidates meeting on Nov. 7 at the Millennium Place, running from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. The Whistler Forum will host a meeting at Summit Lodge from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m, Nov.14.