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The trust gap

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When council voted against rezoning a parcel of land 150 metres from where the asphalt plant currently sits - which would have made the plant more or less permanent in that location- the crowd went wild. It was a victory for the people who want the plant moved a lot farther than that, even if that victory ultimately means there's a chance that the plant might not move at all and that next to nothing will be done to capture or treat the fumes.

This wasn't the end of the battle by any means, just a rejection of the truce proposed by municipal staff that was initially backed by a majority of local councillors. The real battle is just shaping up, one where residents will lobby council, governments, the courts and Alpine Paving to move the plant out of sight, out of hearing and out of smelling.

If our mayor is right - and let's face it, Ken Melamed is a smart guy who cares about the community, with two decades in public office to prove it - this was a blown opportunity for Cheakamus Crossing, a chance to wring some concessions from a business that the municipality's still private legal opinion suggests has every right to be there, and would be very expensive (if not impossible) to move. He really and truly believed that this was the best and only solution.

Problem is, the people of Whistler had to take his word for it and nobody seemed willing to do that. In the end it was our councillors - the bulk of whom originally voted to move the plant, then voted for the compromise plan, then voted against that compromise - that voted this down, something I feel they had no choice to do given the weight of public opinion on the matter. And they had the same access to this private legal opinion that the mayor did.

So what gives? If this legal opinion is as ironclad as we were told it was, why did four councillors vote against rezoning last week? Was it pandering, a calculated move to get re-elected in 2011? Or maybe, just maybe, did they believe what the residents of Cheakamus Crossing proved by getting their own contrary legal opinion - that opinions are just opinions after all?

The bottom line is that people don't trust government or elected figures any more , especially when they ask us to trust them. That's not our fault, it's a reflex that's been ingrained into our psyche by endless broken promises, outright lies and other distortions made by politicians the world over since the Ancient Greeks combined two words, demos (people) and kratos (power) into a single concept 2,500 years ago.

I wonder how long it took those ancient Greeks to get cynical about the democracy concept? I suspect it was probably around 2,499 years ago.

After the vote, a defeated Mayor Ken Melamed noted that, "It was naïve of me to think that anybody could make that decision that didn't have access to the same information that our lawyers had, and that was most unfortunate."

Bingo. That's what columnists such as myself and residents from Cheakamus Crossing have been arguing from the beginning - release the information and the legal opinion, or you'll never convince people to share it. The fact that three and then four councillors were willing to vote against rezoning - and that a noted environmental lawyer contradicted the municipality's case - didn't give people a lot of faith. So far I haven't heard one good reason for keeping this legal opinion private, and with an absence of solid reasons people tend to make up their own. The conspiracy theory is born.

In the last few months I've heard a lot of speculation as to what that opinion might contain or reveal - something that makes a high-ranking member of staff look bad, or highlights a mistake made by the municipality years ago, before or after the plans for Cheakamus Crossing were considered. I've heard suspicions that there was a backroom deal made with a private operator or the province that could be embarrassing or might open them up to legal action. I've heard that the RMOW didn't do its homework, and completely overlooked the plant until residents brought it to their attention.

I find it hard to believe any of these things, and tend to subscribe to the idea that this was all just a series of mistakes made in the rush to deliver the Games. Alpine Paving's status and current zoning notwithstanding, this is something that really should have been dealt with before the location for the athletes' village was finalized. As great as the neighbourhood is, I've seen the trucks, heard the machinery and watched plumes of smoke rise over the hill - it's not the kind of thing you want to live next to, even if I do feel the whole "it's toxic and you're killing our children" argument was overplayed.

So, it's back to the drawing board. If nothing else, at least the asphalt plant's opponents succeeded in making the RMOW's legal opinion more or less irrelevant, whatever it said. Still, I would have liked to read it for myself - the mayor was quite right about that.