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Vancouver’s revolutionary city manager is gone, leaving behind a lot of change and debate over her record

September 17th, 2015 · 13 Comments

The rumours about city manager Penny Ballem leaving the city had been circulating for so long that many of us got lulled into wondering if, in the end, nothing might happen.

So the announcement Tuesday that she was out came as a surprise, as the mill had been quiet for a while. (My story in the Globe here on the day’s events and also pasted below.)

The mayor’s decision to terminate her contract has prompted a flood of response. (And curiosity about why now. One rumour is that headhunters looking for a new head of engineering, head of community services and head of planning were reporting back that potential candidates were saying, I won’t work with her.)

Of course, lots of relief and jubilation from the large group of current and former staffers who detested her abrasive, nano-managing style. Also relief from many in the development industry who found that it had become pointless to go to the planning department, since all decisions were being made by the city manager (sometimes right down to the FSR that would be granted).

But that wasn’t across the board. I talked to someone who works on health care in the Downtown Eastside who was very sorry to hear she was gone, as Penny was driving through lots of needed changes on the city side to help improve things there. Another former planner said that what people often didn’t see was how progressive she was in much of what she was trying to do. Her efforts on homelessness were superhuman.

And former head of engineering Peter Judd, in a good story by my competitor/colleague Jeff Lee at the Vancouver Sun, exemplifies the point of view of at least some people at city hall who said, yes, she’s tough and demanding, but she gets things done and demands the best from people.

A complex, controversial person who undoubtedly has had a lasting impact on the city, whichever way you look at it.

VANCOUVER — Special to The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Sep. 15, 2015 5:13PM EDT
Last updated Tuesday, Sep. 15, 2015 10:19PM EDT

The hard-driving and controversial city manager who steered Mayor Gregor Robertson’s ideas for change in Vancouver the past seven years has been ousted.

Mr. Robertson said it was time to replace Penny Ballem, a doctor and former deputy health minister, because unhappy voters in last year’s election campaign said they wanted more collaboration and a different tone at city hall.

“I made a commitment to doing things differently,” said the mayor, who held a news conference late Tuesday, a few hours after city council decided at a closed meeting to terminate Dr. Ballem’s open-ended contract.

The motion came as a surprise to the city’s four councillors who are not members of the ruling Vision Vancouver party and to many city hall regulars.

Dr. Ballem had been in her city manager’s seat at the morning council meeting, doing her usual job of defending city decisions. (In this case, it was the decision to allow federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau to use city property to make an election announcement the previous week.)

At his news conference, Mr. Robertson also said that with the city in the process of hiring new heads of engineering, planning and community services, it was an opportune time to bring in a whole new generation of leadership.

“We have a good moment for change here. And new leadership can create new momentum,” he said.

Dr. Ballem, who is 65, will be paid $556,000 in severance, since her contract entitled her to 20 months’ pay whether she was let go with or without cause.

She has been a divisive figure since the mayor fired long-time city manager Judy Rogers in December, 2008, shortly after he was first elected, and installed Dr. Ballem.

She was known to work exceptionally long hours, and was also passionate about reducing homelessness and helping those living in poverty. But she was viewed by her critics as controlling and a political appointee who cared more about her Vision Vancouver masters than the well-being of the city.

Mr. Robertson praised Dr. Ballem’s work, noting that she took charge of difficult files, from the Olympic Village debacle to the city’s initiative to reduce homelessness, and created real change.

“She was a force of nature and she got an enormous amount of work done at the city. Her leadership, her energy, her drive have served us well,” said the mayor, who worked closely with Dr. Ballem.

However, many senior city hall staff left under her watch, saying privately that they couldn’t work with someone who micromanaged, took control away from departments and made what they saw as poor decisions to serve council’s political agenda.

The public often blamed Dr. Ballem for their dislike of Vision Vancouver’s actions. And some of the city’s developers said they had taken to bypassing the planning department because it was obvious that either Dr. Ballem would be making the key decisions or she would be enforcing what council wanted.

There was an effort in the mayor’s office before the last election to encourage her to resign. But Dr. Ballem, who felt that she had tackled some of the city’s worst problems and turned them into wins for the Vision council, resisted that, say sources with knowledge of the discussion.

Mr. Robertson acknowledged that Dr. Ballem didn’t have “intentions to retire.” He said it had taken 10 months after the election to decide what to do about her contract, because the city had been unusually busy with the transit plebiscite and affordable-housing initiatives.

The mayor said the city will start a global search for a new city manager, which could take up to six months. In the meantime, deputy city manager Sadhu Johnston is the acting city manager.

Non-Partisan Association Councillor George Affleck said this latest move in senior management is a sign that Vision Vancouver is doing a terrible job of managing the city. And, he said, it seems to be more about politics than anything.

“Vision is just trying to refresh their brand,” he said.


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