Opinion » Editorial

The engagement is off

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Less than a month before the Nov. 15 civic elections and it's quiet, too quiet. At least in Whistler.

The state of bliss on the local political front is at once a testament to the job the council of the last three years has done and a warning that apathy is setting in amongst voters. Consider the signs:

Even though three councillors chose not to seek re-election the final list of candidates shows just nine people vying for six councillor seats. There are two candidates for mayor, although Shane Bennett's odds of winning would charitably be described as "long." Whistler's two school trustees were acclaimed.

So of the 13 people who submitted nomination papers for political offices in Whistler only four will not win seats.

These numbers contrast with the 2011 civic elections, when there were 25 candidates for the six council seats and six candidates for mayor. There were also four candidates for Whistler's two school trustee positions.

Not only are there few candidates, it wasn't until mid-September that anyone other than the incumbents — Jen Ford being the first — announced they would be seeking election. In previous years candidates have publicly launched campaigns as early as July.

There is also a distinct lack of physical evidence of an election in Whistler, at least so far. While campaign signs have popped up in most municipalities across B.C., in Whistler they have been conspicuously absent. It is a part of the Whistler way that permits are required before candidates for office can post signs. And there have been some mild attempts in the past to discourage candidates from cluttering the highway with images of themselves and their names.

But it's not just the candidates who can put up signs. In other jurisdictions, particularly in the United States, many voters want to tell the world of their support for a candidate and do so by erecting a sign in their yard, though in most places they don't require a permit. And if someone on the same street puts up a sign to support a rival candidate it may trigger a sign war that escalates continually until the day of voting.

But we don't seem to do that in Whistler. We don't even have bumper stickers any more — remember "Village Arena, Yes!"?

The lack of bumper stickers reflects the lack of issues, or at least the lack of simple yes-no issues, at the moment. There are no Olympics to focus on, no major gaffs to undo and little to be outraged about. Which is a recipe for a low voter turnout, apathy by another name.

In the 2011 election there were 3,952 total votes. That translated to 54.8 per cent voter turnout. In 2008 the turnout of eligible voters was 43.3 per cent. Both percentages are high when compared to other Canadian municipalities. In Vancouver the 2011 turnout was 34.5 per cent; in Squamish 41.2 per cent; in West Vancouver 23.7 per cent.

All kinds of efforts have been made to convince more people of the importance of elections and voting. The most successful efforts — to get people to vote, though not necessarily convince them of the importance of voting — are those that institute voting as a requirement by law. But that's not going to happen here.

What we need to do is to engage voters. Not just when they are angry, as they were during the 2011 election. As Ann Patchet wrote in last weekend's New York Times, "Voting is like brickwork — the trick is to keep at it every election season, laying brick after brick."

In fact, it's even more than every election; it's every year voters need to be engaged.

It's not as though Whistler councils through the years haven't tried. One year there was a meeting where free beer was offered to try and get young people interested. Annually there are calls to provide input on the municipal budget. And public hearings are, by law, advertised twice to try and ensure everyone possibly affected by a proposed bylaw has a chance to comment on it.

But it's never enough. There is always someone who didn't see the ads or receive the notice attached to their door. It's only when their taxes go up or a rezoning is perceived to impinge on their enjoyment of their property that they take notice and become engaged.

Council has held the line on taxes for the last three years and there haven't been many significant development applications in that time, so most people are happy.

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't all be engaged. The most important job council has is managing revenue and spending. It defines what services the municipality provides and it goes to the heart of the issue that Whistler voters seem to care most about: their taxes.

After three straight years with no tax increases, with RMI money in question, with infrastructure aging and in a global economy teetering on the edge of another precipice, the next Whistler council is going to have to manage money and services very astutely over the next four years. Now is the time to become engaged in deciding who will make those management decisions.

Bob Barnett, Pique's founding publisher and editor, is re-joining the editorial pages to cover election issues.

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