Terms like “strategic management” and “service enhancement” are arcane enough make the average person’s eyes glaze over – or turn the page – but for Stan Westby, Whitehorse’s new city manager, they fire him up.
“That’s what really excites me,” he said.
Westby started as city manager a week ago, but he’s still technically the chief administrative officer for Powell River, B.C.
“I’m actually on vacation right now,” said Westby.
With Whitehorse undergoing a big overhaul of its operations and a municipal election looming, Westby wanted to get a jump on things.
“I think that shows you how enthusiastic I am about, not only coming to this community, but in being part of the change that is happening right now,” he said.
Westby and his wife weren’t looking to come to the Yukon necessarily, but when he saw the job opening in Whitehorse he jumped on it.
“Whitehorse has a very good reputation in the municipal world,” he said. “It’s known as being very progressive in a number of ways.”
A big passion for Westby is sustainability, something that was reinforced when he travelled to New Zealand a few years ago on a municipal exchange.
“They actually have sustainability enshrined in their Municipal Act,” he said. “It’s absolutely critical that this country move forward in that regard, and I see that here in Whitehorse already.”
With a booming mining sector and an expanding population, Whitehorse has its challenges, but also the resources to meet them, said Westby.
“I just see this tremendous opportunity,” he said. “This city is at the opposite end of the economic cycle that we were at in Powell River.
Westby spent more than a decade working for the coastal municipality.
A chartered accountant, he started as the town’s director of finance before taking over as the chief administrative officer.
“It just was a fabulous relationship for 12 years,” he said. “We did so many positive things for the community.
“I really felt that together with mayor and council we really made a huge contribution to make Powell River a better community.”
It wasn’t always easy.
Powell River’s economy remains dependent on the pulp and paper industry. The local paper mill is the main source of revenue for the town, accounting for 60 per cent of its tax base.
With the owner of the mill, Catalyst Paper Corp., looking to scale back its operations, there was a good chance that it was going to shut down the mill in Powell River, said Westby.
“We stepped in and radically changed the tax structure,” he said.
The town reduced its dependency on the mill from 60 to 25 per cent.
“We took almost $20 million out of our tax base and had to maintain the level of services as best we could.”
It was a challenge, but it saved the mill, said Westby. The company ended up shutting down its operations in Campbell River instead.
During that time Westby helped oversee major upgrades to Powell River’s drinking water infrastructure.
“One promise that I made was that there would not be a Walkerton on my watch, and by the time I left I think I guaranteed that for the next 30 or 40 years,” he said.
But the biggest achievement was in repairing relations with the neighbouring Sliammon First Nation.
The municipality and First Nation had a very strained relationship, said Westby. Things came to a head during the construction of a walking path along the town’s waterfront.
“A contractor essentially violated some native artifacts that were on the waterfront,” said Westby. “Inadvertently and in error, but obviously it was very offensive to the First Nations.”
Under the direction of the mayor at the time, the town decided to ask the First Nation to take over the project.
“The trust that was inherent with doing that was pretty dramatic, particularly because the relationship was not very good,” he said. “What that did was just radically change the relationship.
“I think the First Nation turned around and just accepted us as neighbours.”
The town and the First Nation went on to form a development corporation, and are now in the process of developing an energy project.
“I’m so proud, not for what I accomplished, but just the fact that I was a part of it,” said Westby.
Westby has only been in Whitehorse for a short time, but he’s optimistic about the future.
The city just completed a major organizational review. Implementing the recommendations that came out of that report should go a long way to improving efficiency and serving the public.
“It’s going to be a challenge, but I wanted to be here to embrace the challenge and be part of it,” said Westby. “Believe me, in this business there’s nothing that’s easy, but that’s OK. It’s the challenges that are exciting, otherwise it would be a little bit boring.”
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