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The doctor is in: A close look at Penny Ballem

October 14th, 2009 · 20 Comments

My latest column in Vancouver magazine is on Vancouver city manager Penny Ballem, who seems to be enjoying her job more every day. (Heard her ALL over the radio all day today telling people they should leave their cars at home during the Olympics.)

She’s a fascinating woman to watch in action and to hear stories about. Her public persona is disarming — warm and relaxed and, when she doesn’t know something, she says it flat out.

But I’d love to be a little webcam on the wall in her office. I hear her technique is to deliver the bad news immediately and fast, pulling no punches, and then move on to “okay, now what can we do about this?”

And, although she’s an acknowledged nanomanager with a sharp tongue, it seems clearer to me with every passing day that she’s the kind of leader who forms a strong bond with those whom she sees as part of her team. The question for many is whether her drive to centralize and control the sprawling city hall of tradition will be an improvement or whether something will be lost in the process.

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  • Darcy McGee

    > I hear her technique is to deliver the bad
    > news immediately and fast, pulling no
    > punches, and then move on to “okay, now
    > what can we do about this?”

    Vote Quimby!

  • Mira

    Ok Frances.
    It’s easy for some to say they enjoy their job when they have no clue what their job is really all about, and when nobody questions their skill, ability and authority.
    It is just natural for the lead dog to enjoy his/ her ride. It’s the others dogs that have no change in scenery, the butts in front is all they see. So yes, I understand why Ballem is happy, she jumped off the HM eHealth Titanic just in time to see it go down…from the safe distance of a “continent”(to me it feels like a witness protection program move) and from the cushioned benches of a Vancouver rescue boat.
    I don’t see anything fascinating about that.
    You are the one that worries me Frances, your short comment and many others in the past.
    It seems that you are trying too hard to get inside the Vancouver Vision’s apparatchik circle, either in ways of a web cam or a fly on the ceiling I may add, it doesn’t matter.
    You should know that Bolsheviks are used to break communications devices off walls and are Masters in the use of the Zapper.
    Ballem, Robertson & comp will fall eventually, rather sooner than later, and what are you going to do then…
    Go back to the basics?

  • jack the bear

    Note to Mira: wha?

  • Dollarton

    I love a refreshing gulp of Vision bathwater!

  • City Observer

    Sad to say, but Mira is correct.

    Although Frances is a great reporter, and writes well in a discompassionate manner, one can’t help but think – anytime Frances writes about Dr. Ballem – that she’s been ‘drawn into’ Penny Ballem’s ‘inner circle’ … that to some extent Frances has allowed herself to become ’embedded’ within the Vision Vancouver ‘machine.’

    Frances’ consequent lack of distance from her subject, and subject matter, represents a palpable ‘loss’ for her loyal, and appreciative, readers.

    As for Dr. Ballem, this is one writer who’s been far from impressed with our City Manager, who we’ve found to be disingenous, and more than a bit of a bully. Hardly traits we ‘require’ in our lead civil servant in Vancouver.

  • spartikus

    You should know that Bolsheviks are used to break communications devices off walls and are Masters in the use of the Zapper.

    Also, the Clapper(tm). They also put fluoride in the water that saps our precious bodily fluids. And Ballem is a doctor!

    Coincidence? Surely not.

  • FBT

    Although I’d like to try and refrain from piling on Frances (as this thread seems to have become), the opportunity is just too ripe.

    As Francis has aged, albeit gracefully, her beliefs and politics are being exposed in her writings more and more. Francis circa (-10 years or more) was far more balanced than she appears today.

    That said, it is her blog and it is her right to do as she pleases. I do not find her bias an issue, but I do find her continual denial that she is not biased one.

    As for Ballem, regardless of Francis’s girl-crush on the city manager, she is turning out to be the worst city manager we have ever had in this city and will quickly be fired when a new party gains office in city hall.

  • Frances Bula

    I have to say, it’s kind of refreshing to be criticized for being too kind to this city manager when only a year ago I was being criticized for being too kind to Judy Rogers.

    I expect that when a new regime comes in and I also find both good and bad things to report about whomever rolls in next, I will also be accused of being biased/partisan/soft and so on.

    It’s nice to know some things never change.

  • MB

    I don’t agree with Mira’s incoherent shoot-the-messenger commentary, or City Observer.

    I read the article twice and found Frances to be detached enough from the subject to inject critical comments from past and present colleagues of Bellam’s. It was far from being an embedded hack-out-the-party-line puff piece.

    Frances doesn’t do puff.

    Anonymous armchair criticism is easy. Attempting to put yourself in the subject’s shoes is another matter. Managing a city is a tough gig, and Ballem’s qualifications are as good or better than any other past manager’s.

    Moreover, anyone who judges a city manager’s performance after less than a full electoral term — let alone a year full of some of the greatest challenges Vancouver has ever faced — has grossly underestimated the complexity of the position.

    Perhaps it’s more accurate to say those who attempt to judge this early are still smarting from the results of the last election.

    Give Ballem a chance.

  • Frothingham

    Ev’rybody’s talking about
    Rogersism, Biasism, Webcamism, Madism, Blogism, Visionism
    This-ism, that-ism
    Isn’t it the most
    All we are saying is give Ballem a chance
    All we are saying is give Ballem a chance

    Just Give Ballem a Chance

  • jaymac

    Frances: I found both your opening comment and the article in Vancouver Magazine to be informative and based on fact. I don’t see why people see it as being opinionated. I’m curious why the headline in Vancouver Magazine uses the french spelling “Medecine.” Is this a play on P.B’s New Brunswick background?

  • JohnnyCanuck

    The onlybad thing about Penny is, she is a Hab’s fan!

  • I found the article quite interesting. I just wish it had been longer.

    One other thought. While some might question whether someone with a medical background could be an effective City Manager, Edward de Bono often likes to point out that many of the significant advances in medicine came from people WITHOUT a medical background, because they didn’t know that they wouldn’t work!

  • jack the bear

    What is the fuss? If you want raw unfiltered bias check out that other erstwhile observer of the civic scene Alex Tsakumis, who is trying desparately to show he is worthy of the mantle of the late Doug Collins. Lest anyone jump the gun and remind me that Mr. C was much more conservative than Alex, sheer politics is not the motivator for the comment. Rather it is the nasty habit of attempting to demean any and all he is critical of with silly rhymes and the like. Re-read FB’s work and count your damned blessings!

  • Blaffergassted


    Your prodigious journalism is thorough, well written and entertaining. Unfortunately, readers will always find the political bias they seek, and there’s nothing you can do about that.

  • The linked article in Vancouver Magazine is a fine profile of an important public servant. Frances described P.B. with a good balance of personal and professional information. Readers who perceive bias started with their own.

    A Doc I know worked with (not for) the Health Ministry under Ballem. He said she was “scary smart”, quickly able to identify the vital core of a complex matter. People who could not keep up intellectually were intimidated.

  • JC

    At least Penny Ballem is responsive and visible. How many Vancouver-ites could have picked Judy Rogers out of a crowd? How many times did she face a microphone.

  • “That required, among other things, recalling the provincial legislature to change the Vancouver Charter—a first.”

    To . . . errrr . . . turn a civic government into just another real estate speculator shows very faulty judgment. The Campbell provincial government changed the charter: indeed beyond naiveté, it shows desperation.

    Whether or not the gamble pays off is irrelevant: an unacceptable precedence has been set.

    Perhaps the city’s OV penthouses may be attractive at the multi-million, two-weeks-a-year occupancy, level but for the other 242 units . . . ummmm! That the social housing component is in jeopardy show little commitment to essential civic responsibilities and portends ill for the future.

    “Ballem has already headed off Vision Vancouver utopians at the pass when she thought their plans were not optimal or efficient.” And yet, according to the above, she clearly has not.

    Genuflecting before over paid bureaucrats is probably not a wise move Frances. Your attempt to beatify Brent and his chica and now the city manager and her illustrious cabinet member family says a lot about you.

    My own personal pedigree is far more illustrious than Pen’s yet I feel no need to flaunt it nor hold taxpayers ransom for bad advice.

    A good civil servant is to be seen and not heard.

  • T W

    The eternal navel gazing is puzzling to me.

    The issue is really whether the city administration and the elected representatives have addressed the unfolding risks and taken steps to manage those, to the extent practicable.

    I would say, with no specific knowledge, that the city is a far better manager than it was one year ago – but still has a long way to go.

  • sv

    Urb-your mention of your “pedigree” says a lot about you.