Whistler’s election got heated Sunday as mayor candidates played a round of the "blame game," taking each other to task over past actions and failures.
It was the first time the seven mayor candidates have taken the floor together, in a two-hour debate sponsored by the Whistler Forum.
When moderator William Roberts urged candidates to "shake it up a bit" the antagonism among some became apparent, with incumbents defending council’s past actions and Ted Nebbeling defending his role as MLA in the provincial government.
Sparks flew when the issue of Whistler’s financial tools, or the ability to collect more revenue either in an additional tax or in a larger share of the provincial hotel tax, was addressed. The inability to get these financial tools from the province for the past three years pitted Councillor Nick Davies and former MLA Nebbeling in a battle of blame.
"I know this is a sensitive issue because you didn’t help us," said Davies to Nebbeling.
Davies said he was in the same room as Premier Gordon Campbell when the premier personally promised to deliver financial tools to Whistler.
Nebbeling said: "You’re misleading the people by saying it was a commitment."
"I was in the room, Ted. You were not in the room," replied Davies.
Councillor Kristi Wells, who was sitting between the two, put an end to Davies and Nebbeling talking over one another when she stood up and took control of the debate. She joked that she felt like a rose stuck between the thorns – aptly put as she was wearing a red blazer.
She reiterated that Whistler has had no relationship with the provincial government for the last eight years.
"Thank you," said Nebbeling, who was MLA for the area during that time.
Nebbeling then argued that no one from Whistler ever asked him to help the municipality secure financial tools.
"The mayor never called me once," he told the packed audience at Millennium Place. "The administrator never called me once."
Wells replied: "I guess your phone wasn’t working because you never called us either."
Councillor Ken Melamed stayed out of the contentious debate. But his past actions were also under scrutiny when Roberts began taking questions from the audience.
Melamed was asked why Whistler should support someone who did not support Whistler’s dream of hosting the Olympics. The three-term councillor attempted to clear up the misconception that he was anti-Olympics.
"I didn’t vote against the Olympics," he said, adding that he withheld support for the Games when Whistler’s council was asked to endorse the bid. Melamed explained that he wanted more security for the legacies Whistler believes it was promised, namely financial tools, the 300-acre land bank and a boundary expansion, none of which have been resolved in the three years since council’s endorsement of the Olympics.
"Had council been with me to withhold support… we wouldn’t be where we are today," said Melamed.
"No one is more committed to making these the best Games and leverage the best potential for Whistler."
His comments drew loud applause.
Nebbeling, however, took the opportunity to question incumbent candidates why Whistler has not applied for Olympic legacy funding, saying Whistler had "missed the boat." Nebbeling, who was minister responsible for the Olympic bid, said there was a fund specifically to support the ongoing costs of Olympic facilities after the Games.
"That’s something you should have been negotiating because it was doable and achievable and your failed to do it as a council," accused Nebbeling.
"And you were our MLA," shot Davies in a deadpan retort, a comment which drew laughs and whistles from the audience.
Most of the tough questions were directed to Nebbeling, who like Melamed was also asked to explain parts of his track record.
One audience member asked the former mayor if he would stay on until the end of his term if elected this time around. The question, which is a sensitive one these days in the wake of Mayor Hugh O’Reilly’s early departure to Hawaii, referred to Nebbeling’s early departure in 1996.
He explained that when he became MLA in May 1996 he remained working as Whistler’s mayor, commuting back to the resort every week after his work was finished in Victoria. He said it was the first time an MLA from Whistler had been elected and that was a good thing for the community.
"I was running two jobs," added Nebbeling. "I didn’t have a day off. I did a good service to the community."
That comment was followed by a wave of support from the audience.
If support, however, can be gauged by applause of the roughly 200 audience members, Melamed came out as the clear choice for the community at Sunday’s debate. Nebbeling was a close second.
In his opening statements, which he began in fluent French, Melamed said the resort needs a mayor to represent Whistler on the world stage. He said he would be the community’s ambassador.
"I’ve made no enemies in Victoria or elsewhere," he said.
Nebbeling in his closing comments said: "My experience in Victoria will open doors for Whistler."
Wells addressed the perception of a two-man horse race in this election between Melamed and Nebbeling for mayor.
"This election has been referred by some as a horse race," she said in her closing arguments. "You know what? I’m proud right now not to be called one of the horses.
"In a horse race there are no sure bets. It’s all about playing your odds. Our community cannot afford this kind of risk. Don’t take a gamble."
Wells encouraged the crowd not to vote strategically to prevent another candidate from getting in, and not to vote loyally for friends or as payback for past favours. Instead she encouraged Whistler to vote for what they want.
"To get what we want you each have to make the right choice for the right reasons," she said. "I am that choice."
Most of the debate and questions from the audience were directed to incumbents, Councillors Melamed, Davies and Wells, along with Nebbeling.
The three newcomers to politics, Stacy Kohut, Mike Brew and Brian Walker, were not drawn into the critique over past actions. Indeed Kohut pointed out that they come with no baggage.
"Fresh blood is fresh blood," he said. "I am fresh blood."
Judging by the audience questions, affordable resident housing is top of mind on the list of things to accomplish in the coming years.
The polls open at 8 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 19. They will be open until 8 p.m. The new mayor and council, barring any unforeseen problems, should be announced within an hour and a half of the polls closing.