Frances Bula header image 2

Mayor’s comments about departing bureaucrats rile many

April 28th, 2009 · 32 Comments

Mayor Gregor Robertson’s comments that city hall bureaucrats are leaving because they can’t handle the pace of his aggressive agenda are really kicking up a s**storm.

The comments, for those who haven’t seen them, are in Jeff Lee’s story in the Sun here and the mayor said substantially the same thing to me, which will be in my Globe story tomorrow.  (Though he did cite other reasons as well in my story, noting that political change often results in staff changes.) The main bits of Jeff’s story are here.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson said Tuesday his aggressive new agenda and the looming 2010 Olympics are probably responsible for some of the resignations of high-profile bureaucrats.

Speaking only hours after James Ridge, the last remaining deputy city manager, resigned Tuesday, Robertson said he has demanded more productivity from people.

“At this point we are getting fantastic productivity from staff. We’re doing more in these last several months than I think city hall has achieved in several years’ time,” he said.

Asked if that increased tempo was responsible for the spate of departures of staff, Robertson said yes.

“Yeah, I do think that has something to do with it. Some of it is my agenda and my desire to get a lot more done at city hall, and some is the pressure of 2010 and the variety of forces that have come at us this year,” he said.

“It’s a change in how we are doing things here with a real focus on productivity, so there is undoubtedly more pressure this year, and that doesn’t work for everyone.”

NPA Councillor Suzanne Anton phoned me up literally spluttering with rage after reading those quotes, saying the mayor has “no grace” and is “gratuitously insulting.” I note that others on this blog are expressing similar sentiments.

Certainly it does seem odd to characterize Ridge, who’s a pretty energetic guy, as someone who can’t handle the hustle and bustle of city hall. Or to imply that Jody Andrews, the other 40-something deputy manager who left, couldn’t handle the pace.

But it reminds me a lot of when deputy city manager Brent MacGregor left, under former mayor Sam Sullivan’s regime, and the Sam camp put out the word that, well, he wanted to take it easy and he had other things to do and his resignation wasn’t really anything to do with city-hall politics. MacGregor, of course, is now busy consulting for Concert Properties and running the fireworks society and not showing a lot of signs of someone who wants to take it easy.

Categories: Uncategorized

  • LP

    So I have a question for you Francis.

    Back during the campaign or around the time Gregor won the mayoral election, I recall a post of yours where you stated (out of context), that Gregor seemed like such a sweet good boy, or something like that. I can’t remember the post or exact quote, or I would have searched your site for it.

    So, if do you remember writing that, I’m wondering after the consistently bad messaging coming out of his mouth, and the continued arrogance he seems to show when answering many questions from the media, if your opinion from before has changed, and how?

    Do you still think he’s still that innocent young man who can’t seem to do any wrong?

  • Rachel

    James was quite well liked by numerous staff even though he’s been there for two years. From what I’m to understand, he worked on the constant run and was difficult to catch because of his busy agenda. Maybe it has something to do with Penny Ballem who I’ve heard is a work horse…is she someone who encourages a work/life balance?? No!!!

    Gregor and crew are out to shove their agendas through before the next election and not giving any consideration of how to run a City. Not only is he going green, he’s showing that he’s green behind the ears. Get with it, Mayor Robertson. As a taxpayer, I want a City that is well-run and not just about backyard chickens and garden plots. Figure out how to push the economy forward, get building permits moving…those are just a few suggestions.

  • fbula


    The post you’re referring to is when I covered the Kensington branch library opening and I believe what I said was something along the lines of, However people come to judge his political effectiveness, he is what our mothers would call a nice young man — because he jumped up to raise the mike for one of the librarians who was struggling with it. I don’t recall every writing that he was an innocent you man who can’t seem to do any wrong.

    Unlike so many people in the blog/media world, I come to my opinions slowly and so I am unlikely to pronounce judgment because of a few notable flubs. I haven’t seen any continued arrogance — I’m not sure what exactly you mean by that. He’s hard to get hold of, but not that much more so than previous mores.

    There is definitely a pattern of choking at certain critical moments or not recognizing the political impact of what he says. It’s something that even his team have got to be worried about. But I tend not to judge politicians only by their message. I’ll wait to see the story unfold a little more.

  • Denis

    Of course the one and only NPA council person would say she is outraged. Isn’t the first time nor the last. she has to pop off so people might remember her name. The voters spoke so lets give he mayor a bit of slack as things adjust down over at city hall.

  • Alex

    I am a city employee who (regretfully) voted for Gregor and am disgusted by his public comments. James Ridge is a highly competent, dedicated and driven public servant who did his best to protect and improve on the interests of the City. Gregor’s comments are slanderous – inaccurate and disrespectful.

    Gregor is going to have a hell of a time attracting quality replacement deputy city manager(s). Who in their right mind would choose to risk their reputation by working for this administration?

  • Michael Phillips

    It’s natural that the upper-crust of staff would have tension when the political party they’ve been dealing with for 19 of the last 22 years is replaced by the Other, but the Mayor’s not making it any easier for himself with comments like this.

    Maybe he’s trying to save us some money by ticking management off so badly that they quit instead of having to be pushed so that we don’t have to pay them severance. I’m joking but seriously, the way people go on about how expensive these severance cheques are, that would be about the only alternative, unless we we’re so cheap as to keep our city on the same course because we don’t want to write the severence cheques.

  • Westender

    There is no severance payable to Mr. Ridge, and no need to force anyone out in order to “change course.” Having worked with James in the past, I can confirm that he is most certainly not afraid of work. His departure is a serious loss to the city at a time when it needs leadership. To suggest that more has been achieved in the last several months than in the last several years is an insult to the staff who have been working to make our city a better place and I’m very disappointed in these comments and in our mayor.

  • Frustrated Citizen

    Gregor is right on.

    It is not so much a matter of how hard people are working, it is how effective they are working. From what I can tell, there is way too much process at city hall that gets in the way of getting things done.

    Senior staff is also not very good at following the direction of council and providing them with the unbiased information they need to make a decision. For too long staff has ran the city. It is time that Mayor and Council, who are elected by the people, take back control of the city.

    It is not surprising that there is some resistance from senior staff, they are too used to having things their own way.

    It is also not surprising that the NPA is complaining. During Sam’s reign, we could have saved several millions of dollars by having no council and just let staff run the city.

  • gmgw

    I think that Gregor has the political instincts of a newt. He acts like a political simpleton, which is unnerving for someone who so clearly isn’t stupid in any conventional sense.

    Apparently out of a desire to look like a populist (a role he really isn’t cut out for), Gregor repeatedly takes the “first thought best thought” off-the-cuff approach, talks before he thinks, inevitably puts his foot in it, and then we are treated to the spectacle of Geoff Meggs coming along and playing Ron Ziegler to Gregor’s Nixon: “The Mayor’s previous statement is inoperative. What the Mayor *meant* to say was…”– which in turn makes said Mayor look like a dolt and a puppet, and plays right into the hands of Anton and her little band of acolytes at CityCaucus and the local MSM, who sorely miss the doltish puppet who held the mayor’s chair for the past three years (and whose Geppetto was frequently Anton herself, along with Kim Capri).

    Robertson is making himself an easy target for the dyspeptic right in this city. I voted for him, but I’ve wished a number of times (even while he was running) that there had been someone else I could have voted for who was a viable progessive candidate but wasn’t the NPA candidate. The worst sin a successful progressivist politician can commit is to screw up so badly as to ensure that progressivists will not be elected again in that bailiwick for many years (call it the Glen Clark syndrome). Is it too late to draft Cadman?

  • T W

    I am less concerned with senior staff leaving and more concerned with determining if the corporate culture at city hall is progressive enough to groom replacements. The one positive element is that senior staff evidently do not see work at city hall as the equivaleent of university tenure and are more flexible than the record would suggest.

  • rf

    Without getting overtly partisan (because I am), I really think even the most rabid Gregor supporter has got to be shaking their head at his comments yesterday.
    “(more accomplished in the last few months than the last few years)” – C’mon. It’s such an arrogant thing to say, especially with really nothing to back it up.
    And then says his employees were lazy and unproductive before he got there.
    God I wish someone wittier and sharper than Susan Anton was elected by the NPA…

    It makes me wonder if the only friends Gregor will have 950 odd days from now are similar eco-flakes, like Ed Begley Jr.

  • spartikus

    “It’s a change in how we are doing things here with a real focus on productivity, so there is undoubtedly more pressure this year, and that doesn’t work for everyone.”

    This was insensitive, but the other comments were fine, in my opinion.

  • spartikus

    Of the critics, I am reminded of the unintentional irony created by this editorial…for some reason.

  • LP

    Try as you might, Gregor is no Obama. Not even close. I applaud the effort though, you always come through with links and quotes.

    And rf, I love the Ed Begley comment.

  • spartikus

    Try as you might, Gregor is no Obama.

    True, and Suzanne Anton is no Karl Rove, no matter how hard she tries.

    The point was, though, that I find the charges of “politicization” a tad disingenuous, considering the sources.

    And, with all due respect, there are many comments on this blog by both you and rf in which you charge city workers with laziness and complacency. Which in my view undermines any objections to the Mayor’s comment.

  • rf

    point taken. I definetely recognize that contradiction in my surprise/bewilderment that Gregor would say what he said.
    I would likely be cheering if a right-centre mayor had been scoffing at left-wing appointees walking away because they didn’t like working hard and under pressure. It is indeed a contradiction.

    I just thought that commenting on city workers work ethic was a “third rail”….

    And I’m so sick of any politician trying to capitalize on Barack Obama. It takes a certain delusion of self-grandeur (sic?) to make such a comparison.

  • david m.

    it’s normal thing that folks like this leave.

    more than anything else, it signals that the mayor and council are running the show.

  • LP

    This is scary Spartikus, but I typed that Anton wasn’t close to being Rove as well, and then hit the backspace key. Surely we are not becoming more similar then either would care to admit.

    For the record in case you haven’t read all my posts, I’m not an Anton fan, nor was I a Sullivan fan. Chosing between Sullivan and Jim Green was a very painful exercise. I didn’t care for him from the start either.

    I actually hold the belief that if council/mayor version 2005-2008 was more effective, transparent and better for Vancouver, we wouldn’t be where we are today. I certainly don’t blame VV for that.

    As I’ve stated many times, Gregor is a very intelligent man and by no means due I buy into the belief that he has the “political instincts of a newt” or “that he is like a deer caught in the headlights”.

    He is who he is and over time people will eventually come to the realization that it’s just his character they are seeing. Some like myself believe there is an underlying arrogance that causes his “brain farts”, others will come to their own conclusions.

    If Gregor doesn’t jump ship and runs for re-election in 2011, I maintain people will have had enough – if these 4 months are how he plans to act and proceed for the other 32.

    And for the record if Anton happens to be the candidate for the NPA for mayor, I will vote for someone else.

    Lastly, I won’t argue as to whether I have posted comments specifically railing on city employees for being lazy and complacent, I just don’t recall using that terminology.

    Since you are so good with links though, feel free to post one or two to put those words in my mouth. I’m actually curious to see if I have.

  • A. G. Tsakumis

    This is what happens folks when viral arrogance sets in.

    Vision board meetings are all still self-congratulatory humpfests; Vision caucus is all about letting Meggs fart and having (insert name of almost any Vision councilor here) apply the smelling salts to the public, knocked out from yet another gaffe.

    What a “great” week for the Mayor. He eliminates all the incredibly inane shit in his green paper, but then kills any good news with the stupidity of attacking city staff.

    Regardless of the “politicization” lies peddled by the children at citycaucus, Gregor has really destroyed his potential best week in months.

    Gregor leaves the unmistakable impression that without Kevin, Mike and Maria, and a whole load of pre-determined, endlessly rehearsed messaging, if he’s left to a camera and even a moderately intelligent reporter, proverbially, he could completely f#@k up a wetdream.

  • spartikus

    Lastly, I won’t argue as to whether I have posted comments specifically railing on city employees for being lazy and complacent, I just don’t recall using that terminology.

    An admittedly quick search turned up nothing along those lines. I will happily withdraw the comment.

  • Mary

    we have now lost 2 of the hardest working, politically neutral/balanced/even handed senior bureaucrats to work at The Hall in a long time. Completely due to arrogance and disrespect. We thought things were bad under Judy Rogers. It proves htat one really should be careful what one wishes for. It would seem that the double whammy of Penny Ballem’s style of shoot from the hip and Gregor Robertson’s blinkered, ideology is going to be really bad for those who pay taxes or own a business in the city.

  • Dave R

    I am a city employee and I am sure a lot more people would leave. Not many san people can work with a city manger who trusts no one, micro manages everything, and a council who believes in its political agenda and is not willing to listen what staff is recommending.


  • Just Plain Sad

    For those who don’t really understand what’s going on at City Hall, the new regime is driving out all the good people, because good people won’t do bad things, tell lies, or take endless abuse from an inexperienced, egotistical miscreant and her pupeteers who have no place managing a massive public corporation. If you don’t know the people who are leaving, don’t write about them as if you do. More talent has left City Hall in the past 5 months than walked in after the election. And that is just plain sad for Vancouver taxpayers.

  • spartikus

    Just in case you missed it on the other thread, please give a specific example(s) of “ideology”, “micro-management”, and “shoot from the hip style”.

    Otherwise, I find these charges meaningless.

  • gmgw

    Just Plain Sad:
    Since your use of the term “inexperienced” automatically disqualifies the considerably experienced Penny Ballem from inclusion in the potential list of female “egotistical miscreants” to whom you might be referring, would you care to enlighten us as to who it is that you’re speaking of? I have to admit, I’m curious as to who this shadowy power-broker might be. What do you know that the rest of us don’t?

  • LP


    Penny Ballum is a hematologist and was an unemployed administrator from the public health sector when hired by Gregor and co.

    That pretty much qualifies her as inexperienced with respect to running a city. Please don’t try to suggest that her experience is transferable and applicable to the job she now holds.

    Most cities hire or promote experienced engineers to the position of city manager to ensure the city is being run effectively.

    I believe the last one or two city managers were also non-engineers, and considering the disdain I’ve heard from most of you on their running of city hall, why would you think a now third – inexperienced, non-engineer would do a better job?

    Her performance so far is showing why she was unemployed at the time of her hire.

  • gmgw

    Re your calculated dismissal of Penny Ballem (note correct spelling) as an “unemployed administrator…”: Save your faux-ignorant bullshit for the rubes, OK? Just to counter your clumsy attempts at distortion, here’s the woman’s actual record (and this is from a 3 year-old document):
    “On August 27, 2001, Dr. Penny Ballem was appointed Deputy Minister of Health Services. Over the last 22 years, Dr. Ballem has been a health administrator, an advisor to health policy-makers, both provincially and nationally, and a practicing academic physician. She was previously the Vice-President of the Children’s and Women’s Health Centre of British Columbia, having responsibility for the largest maternity hospital in the country, and held a position of Clinical Professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Previously, she held the position of Deputy Medical Director of the Canadian Red Cross, Blood Transfusion Service in British Columbia. Dr. Ballem currently holds an appointment on the Board of Directors for the Canadian Institute for Health Information.
    Dr. Ballem received her medical degree in 1978, and her specialist fellowship in 1983, both from UBC. She is sought after as a speaker on health systems, health policy, and women’s health. She is known in British Columbia for her work in developing innovative interdisciplinary health services, especially in the area of women’s health and has received awards for her work in education, research and advocacy in women’s health.”
    I know it must pain you, LP, but Ballem is one of the most respected figures in the country in the field of public health, and equally, is regarded as one of the most capable administrators in that field. Her departure from her deputy minister position was motivated by personal integrity, when she could no longer countenance the Campbell government’s determination to undercut health care funding in this province.
    I may not agree with everything that Ballem or Robertson do, but she has my deepest admiration and repect for her abilities as an adminstrator and as an advocate for public health. (And where does it say, BTW, that the city manager has to be an engineer?)

  • gmgw

    Something I didn’t have time to say in my hurriedly-written-on-coffee-break previous post: If you want to criticize Ballem, fine. But be straight-up about it. It irritates the hell out of me when people on the right *or* left attack a public figure by distorting, understating, or otherwise misrepresenting their CV or their professional accomplishments, which, in Ballem’s case, are considerable (both as physician and administrator), no matter how you feel about any perceived political overtones to her appointment . That’s just dishonest, and it reflects negatively on the accuser, far more than it does on their target. And by the way, public health is an absolutely crucial element of any city administration. In some ways it’s even more important than your beloved engineering. As you may have deduced if you’ve been monitoring the news this past week.

  • Mary

    Health, even public health (sadly in the case of public health) is now the sole responsibility of the senior governments. To run this City one needs at least a generalist’s knowledge of municipal responsibilities. I’m not saying she isn’t smart, but she has the arrogance typical of medical specialists. She feels no need to listen, ask questions first, or respect the experience and perspective of others. Specific examples of ideology and shoot from the hip are covered in Frances’ blog and the dailies – the constructive dismissal of Jody and James are 2 excellent ones. There are other examples of callous disrespect for hard working, dedicated City Hall professionals, but prvacy and job security concerns prohibit ‘outing’ the details.

  • OMC

    I said it before and I will say it again, Robertson owes James Ridge and all city staff an apology. City hall is full of hard working people who do not deserve this kind of abuse.

    Furthermore, Robertson is wrong – I have seen no evidence of his council achieving anything spectacular in the last few months. Certainly no more than past councils have done.

    He may have a “big agenda” but as a resident, I don’t see it. What I see is my garbage being picked up, streets being cleaned and maintained, etc. It was like this before Robertson became the mayor and it will be long after he is gone. And it’s not because of his agenda but because of hard working staff at city hall.

  • spartikus

    Specific examples of ideology and shoot from the hip are covered in Frances’ blog and the dailies

    I’ve seen the Mayor’s penchant for the occasionally awkward quote covered, but I’m mystified, truly mystified, by what is meant by “ideology”. Once again, could please go into specifics as to what this means?

    the constructive dismissal of Jody and James are 2 excellent ones

    These two were not dismissed, they resigned by choice. And in the latter’s case, he specifically disputes your characterization:

    I’m a bit dismayed by some of the speculation about why I am leaving. I’ve worked for six mayors in the last six years, in three different municipalities, so I am very accustomed to change and transition. The reason I’m moving on is very simple: I have been offered an extremely challenging new job in a great university.

    Is Mr. Ridge lying? Why would he go to the effort to write to Francis? If he felt pushed out, he could have just kept his mouth shut. Instead he took a proactive choice to publicly deny the City Caucus spin.

    There are other examples of callous disrespect for hard working, dedicated City Hall professionals, but prvacy and job security concerns prohibit ‘outing’ the details.

    How convenient.

    I don’t believe you.

  • gmgw

    “Health, even public health (sadly in the case of public health) is now the sole responsibility of the senior governments.”

    Well, Mary, based on the recent (and deranged) court action brought by the Feds against Insite, I would say they at least agree with you. However, there is a good deal more to public health administration in a large city than making decisions on hospital funding and how pathetically few nurses with which the system can scrape by.
    I know Ballem has a rep as a micromanager and a tough boss. Does that mean Judy Rogers remembered all her staff members’ birthdays, gave them lots of hugs, and took them to Maui every year? Why is it people get so exercised when a high-level public sector manager starts acting like she’s a private sector manager? Double standards?