Less than a week before general voting day, incumbent Mayor Ken Melamed and challenger Kristi Wells pulled out the big guns during the campaign period’s only mayoral debate.
Wells asked Melamed about the perception that the “tail is wagging the dog” at municipal hall; Melamed came back with an equally fiery question about whether Wells’ work with First Nations is a conflict of interest.
The debate took place in front of about 100 people at the Rainbow Theatre on Monday, Nov. 10. Candidates Brian Walker and Miro Kolvek also participated, although there’s was little question that Melamed and Wells are the election’s front-runners.
In response to Wells’ question about municipal staff, Melamed said “perception is reality” and so he is “going to have to work on it.” He called for a review of municipal hall’s staff and said, if other elected councillors agreed, he would make this a priority.
The mayor also stated he had a great working relationship with the municipality’s chief administration officer Bill Barratt.
“I’m nicely surprised by Ken’s comments, because that was not the tune he was singing last week when he said that municipal hall was understaffed and he was not looking at taking a review,” retorted Wells.
“There will be a mass exodus after the Olympics at municipal hall, and we need to be sure we are poised with the internal people.”
But Wells also got her turn on the hot seat when Melamed asked about her working relationship with the Squamish and Lil’wat First Nations on the Function Junction and Alpine North developments.
Wells said while her business consulting company’s main client has been the two First Nations, the contract ended in October of this year.
“In a small town, there are often conflicts of interest,” said Wells, who also referenced Melamed’s earlier work as a Whistler-Blackcomb employee.
“This is not a legal issue, but a judgment call.”
All candidates were also asked to reveal the top three financial contributors to their campaigns. Melamed said he has received $1,000 from Whistler-Blackcomb, $750 from Telus and $500 from John Fraser.
Wells hesitated but when pressed named her mother and herself as top contributors, before adding Art Den Duyf. A day after the meeting she said it was actually Clifftop Contracting Ltd. that gave her $500.
Walker said Richard Klinkhamer was his only contributor, and Kolvek said his campaign is entirely self-funded.
The debate was organized by Melamed’s campaign team to give the public more information on their candidates. Candidates fielded seven questions from the press, delivered by mediator Dave Davenport, and got a chance to ask one question to another candidate.
The format throughout the meeting was firm: after the primary candidate responded, each other candidate had a chance to speak. The primary candidate then had a final rebuttal.
The first press question of the night was aimed at Melamed, asking how he proposed to close the $5 million-$10 million gap currently painted in the financial plan.
“First of all, there is the long term financial plan steering committee, which is looking at trends and opportunities,” said Melamed, warning that the municipality is going to have to be very “austere” with its money in the coming years and that there are “no sacred cows.”
Wells argued she wants to cut operating costs on infrastructure like the compost facility.
To this, Melamed said: “It is interesting that Wells had no more inventive solutions than that.” He added that in her past terms on council, Wells did not show hesitation about increasing taxes.
Next, Wells was asked to explain her opinion that the bed cap is “archaic”.
She said that she believes here should be a system of growth management within the valley, but there are better tools out there than the bed cap.
“It is about time we become modern and move away from a system that is 40 years old,” said Wells.
In retaliation, Melamed said whether he supports the bed cap is not an issue, because it is the community that has asked for it.
Wells Fired back: “Let’s not kid ourselves, it is a shell game.”
“There is not a lot of room. The athletes’ village was subsidized by market units, which were over the bed cap. This happens continually. There are better ways. Let’s move into the future with better planning policies.”
The evening took a strange turn when Walker accused Wells of illegal campaigning and asked her to withdraw immediately from the campaign.
Walker said Well’s participation in the “Vino and Votes” event on an advance polling day was against the law because it advertised alcohol in exchange for votes.
“No, I will not be withdrawing,” said Wells.
She explained that one of the restaurants had asked her to participate in the event, which she understood was open to all candidates.
“About 80 people came, including a couple of councillors. It was an excellent discussion and people felt good,” said Wells.
“I would also like to point out that there was a Home Builders meeting with pizza and beer that Brian attended.”
Melamed said Walker’s statement that he too was taking action against Wells’s campaign was not true.
“I think this is close to the line, but I do not think there is any vote buying going on,” said Melamed.
Throughout the debate, Kolvek stressed his message that Whistler is facing tough times and needs to work together.
The owner and operator of Esquires Coffee House said the municipality needs to be more fiscally responsible and transparent. In particular Kolvek asked Melamed about his increase in wages from 2005 to 2008.
The current council voted themselves raises early in their term because they felt they were underpaid and the level of pay was keeping some talented people from running for council.
Mayor candidate Jag Bhandari, who is also running for council in Surrey, did not attend.