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Mike Furey, Whistler's new CAO, hits the ground running

New administrator brings fresh perspective after two weeks on the job

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If you listen closely to Mike Furey you might pick up on some telltale clues about the man now behind the top position at municipal hall.

Throughout the ebb and flow of conversation in his first media interview since becoming the Resort Municipality of Whistler's new CAO, there's a subtle Gaelic lilt to the odd word that can be traced back to Furey's Newfoundland roots. He unashamedly calls himself "a small town guy at heart."

But he's spent more time off the Rock now than on it, his accent diluting over time and across Canada in his 25 years in government service with the federal and provincial governments. Now, for the first time, he's in charge of running a municipal government. And not just any municipality; the one that drives the largest tourist revenues to the province, and one that is under enormous public scrutiny in the wake of three years of tax hikes. A small town with some big issues.

But fresh eyes and new perspective means changes are afoot at the hall and the long-held perception that it's staff controlling the show is now being laid to rest; mayor and council set the agenda, said Furey, not the other way around.

"I've worked in government, as I said, for a long time," he said, sitting at a boardroom table in the hall, flanked on one side by Mayor Ken Melamed, on the other by communications manager Michele Comeau. "As a public servant we take direction from the elected officials. So when I was with the province, Cabinet and the Premier gave direction on what areas they wanted the ministry and staff to work on and I see the same concept here."

He speaks with the kind of confidence that comes from years as a career public servant, knowing intimately how bureaucrats and elected officials work together.

Just days earlier his predecessor Bill Barratt initiated a lawsuit for wrongful dismissal against the Resort Municipality of Whistler (see related story p.12), the culmination of a long tug-of-war between the CAO and current council.

"In the past, I think you could say, the former CAO really tried to weigh in personally on a number of issues and wasn't necessarily successful in changing public opinion and so we see that as something to modify our approach," said the mayor.

He will now be the official spokesperson for the media and staff names will not be used, their comments for background information only, much like provincial policy.

The mayor also dispelled the perception that staff has been setting the agenda and controlling the direction of the municipality.

"To coin a phrase - bullshit," said a resolute Melamed. "I am actually quite bothered by councillors who infer at council meetings that staff did this or that or the other thing. Council has to take responsibility for every decision that's made because they're the ones that vote, they're the ones that give direction to staff and they're the ones that approve the recommendations or not. And yet somehow, and it's unfortunate this community somehow believes that staff have been running the show. They run the municipality. That's what their job is. But they do that following the direction of council and council sets the priorities and is the one that make the decisions.

"It's become very personal here."

Against that backdrop, with just two weeks on the job, Furey has been tasked in no uncertain terms to get costs under control at municipal hall.

"The mayor and council have directed me and one of my number one priorities is sound fiscal management," said Furey "Going forward I'm very aware of the difficult times Whistler is facing... I've spent a lot of time since I've been here with our finance team, getting to know our fiscal situation and getting to know the budget process, understanding where our cost pressures are and where potential savings might be to ensure that we can bring forward the best recommendations we can to mayor and council on how we can manage the fiscal situation going forward."

One of those directions is a service review that has been a year in the making, looking at the nitty-gritty services of all departments in the municipality. Furey said it was early days to comment. A report is on the way in the coming weeks and council has already had briefings on the results from the three biggest municipal departments.

The mayor reiterated the direction of that service review: "The mood of the day is control costs, control costs. How can we provide services as efficiently as possible?"

Furey highlighted the unique challenge that Whistler faces when it comes those cost pressures.

"I'm certainly conscious of the community-at-large's interest in fiscal restraint and turning over every last stone to do savings where we can," said Furey. "At the same time I'm sort of balancing that against... maintaining a good experience and the future of the community, the future of the resort."

Furey has spent the last two weeks on the ground getting to know the key resort partners from the top officials at Tourism Whistler and Whistler Blackcomb to the arts council, the chamber and the RCMP.

"I'm really in a listening mode right now," he said. "Listening and learning. I want to bring partnership and collaboration, as I said, to this position, and really build on the partnership and collaboration that the mayor, council and staff here have built up over the last number of years."

Outside the Whistler bubble, Furey has deep roots at the provincial government, a connection that will likely stand the municipality in good stead moving forward. And one that likely helped Furey secure the job.

His former ministry was in charge of the RMI (Resort Municipality Initiative) grant money that doles out millions of dollars to Whistler for tourism related development.

"This success of Whistler is so dependent on our provincial relationship," explained the mayor.

"Going forward we know that there are a number of really high profile, very important issues to Whistler. We're going to need provincial cooperation going forward."

Also key to Whistler's future success is its ongoing relationship with its First Nations neighbours, highlighted recently when Squamish and Lil'wat Nations stopped Whistler's Official Community Plan process, asking for more consultation. Furey worked extensively developing First Nations partnerships, particularly the Nis'ga treaty negotiations, while he was assistant deputy minister of Aboriginal Relationships and Reconciliation.

"Whistler is known throughout the province for its level of partnership with its First Nations neighbours," said Furey. "I certainly want to build on that."

Furey is spending his third week on the job at the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM) convention in Vancouver.

 

 

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