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By Loreth Beswetherick Election 99 has spawned a familiar campaign refrain: "Too many decisions are being made behind closed doors." That refrain is being echoed in West Vancouver where at least one mayoral candidate, Andy Danyliu, has vowed to eliminate the private executive sessions attended by councillors and senior municipal staff prior to each regular council meeting. Whistler opted to go the route of the private executive session three years ago when it abandoned the committee-of-the whole system. At the same time the concept of "workshop" sessions for council was introduced. Both the workshops, which are generally perceived to be secret, and the executive sessions have proved somewhat controversial. The executive sessions have been criticised in the Lower Mainland as being dress rehearsals for the regular council meetings that follow. And, Whistler’s workshop sessions, although technically open to the public, are not posted or advertised. But Mayor Hugh O’Reilly says the system, tried locally for the first time this last council term, is working well. He said it is unlikely it will be abandoned unless there is a "wholesale change with the new council and they indicated they wanted it," said O’Reilly. "I support the system for a number of reasons. There are a lot more efficiencies with the executive sessions compared to the committee-of-the-whole meetings." O’Reilly said the new system saves money and is productive. It also helps speed up the process of governance. "One of the biggest complaints about government is we are as slow as molasses." But not everyone on council this last term is happy. Ted Milner doesn’t take much issue with the executive sessions but he says notice of upcoming workshops should be posted. "I think they should be advertised and I think they should be noted as open. I have been told they are perceived as closed. I wasn’t even aware of that," said Milner. "I always wondered why nobody came. I would rather have workshops that are more casual where everybody can provide input as interested and the mayor can run it with his gavel. People can come if they want and, if they think they are boring, they don’t have to come." Milner feels too many landmark decisions are also being negotiated in-camera. In terms of the Municipal Act, in-camera meetings are held for land acquisitions and labour and legal issues. Discussion, on the Emerald Forest deal for example, qualified as a land issue but Milner feels there were much bigger community stakes involved and council didn’t have the mandate to hold all talks in-camera. He had so much difficulty when the Emerald Forest issue started coming to a boil over the summer, along with lack of response to his concerns over the landfill expansion, he said he informed council he wasn’t coming to any more in-camera sessions. "I even skipped a bunch of the Monday (executive) sessions before things started to ease up," said Milner. "With the legal, land and labour things, it has to be in-camera but I think we are moving forward on real landmark deals, giving away batches of bed units. We need a process. We need hoops to go through and we need to have public input. That 500 bed units we blew on Emerald Forest still bugs me." O’Reilly said the move to the new-style format is a trend in progressive municipalities across B.C. and the workshops were one of the recommendations to come out of the 1996 Urban Systems review of Whistler’s municipal processes. Prior to 1997 council would attend committee-of-the-whole meetings which would run through the afternoon of a council meeting day. Between that meeting and the regular meeting, council would indulge in a dinner. "That was fairly expensive," said O’Reilly. Minutes were taken at the committee-of-the-whole meetings and all staff and recording secretaries had to be present for what was basically council’s debating session. In the evening, councillors would confirm their stand on issues and staff and recording secretaries were again present. O’Reilly said this was a poor use of staff resources. Councillors also had to do their own footwork and research and tie up staff to bring themselves up to date on policies and issues. This is partly alleviated by workshops and the private executive session, which is tightly-run, between 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Councillors can ask questions about items on the agenda but are not asked to make decisions and do not debate. No minutes are taken either. Councillors’ concerns left unaddressed can then be researched by staff prior to the regular evening meeting. O’Reilly said this can make the difference between delaying a decision for a further two weeks or having the necessary information at hand to take a vote, thus speeding up the process. "We are trying to be efficient. And, council is very cognisant of making sure they have good debate at the council meeting." At the moment, although workshops on topics that run the gamut from tourist accommodation, liquor licensing, crime and fire protection services, are not posted, O’Reilly said no-one would be told at the door to leave. "I think one of the clear messages that is coming out of the election right now is, we do a good job of communicating, but I think we could do more." O’Reilly said the public doesn’t understand the impact they can have at open houses before an issue gets to public hearing stage. "The public hearing is a formal process and it’s a very stilted one. I don’t particularly like it but it is all we have to work with in terms of the Municipal Act. So, what we have tried to do is hold open houses, put the information out and, instead of an open mike where someone can hi-jack the meeting, give sheets for comment. We then collect that information and staff addresses the concerns raised. I am not sure the community is aware of the power of that vehicle yet. If they attend and give input, it can really make a difference," said O’Reilly. "We have some pretty good processes. We just need to communicate them better. We are just going to have to address that. The Olympics is a great example where we have to come up with a blockbuster communication, community involvement program. That is the message we are taking back to the (Vancouver-Whistler Olympic Bid Corporation) board and the new CEO — that, okay, we are on side but if you don’t deliver on this you are going to lose Whistler. On the other hand, I think if we do a great job communicating, the community, in Whistler fashion, will get behind it and really support it," said O’Reilly. "I think this system is efficient. I have never attended a council meeting in another community. The system we had in place was the only one I knew until our new administrator arrived and suggested some alternatives," said O’Reilly. "It’s a trend in leading edge communities."

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