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Back to turmoil: Distressed city employees, West End muddle continues, media in a flap

September 3rd, 2010 · 68 Comments

Slowly, slowly getting my post-summer brain into gear this week as I re-enter the slipstream of Vancouver politics. I note that it feels like campaign time already, though the election is over a year away.

This promises to be a tough fall. Those of you who don’t like fights should tune out now, because opposition parties will be going all out to knock Vision off balance and show prospective candidates that the party is vulnerable (and therefore worth investing the energy and money to run against), while Vision will be doing its best to create an image of unstoppability.

In the meantime, a few things have broken out in the media while I was on my silent retreat.

First off, the memo from Vancouver city hall’s non-union employees outlining their concerns about the morale and dissatisfaction at city hall. That group of employees doesn’t speak out often. The last time was a decade ago, when a raft of them quit after the council of the day cancelled the four-day week that had been a prized employee benefit, and a survey much like this one showed high levels of employee dissatisfaction. (My story of the time is attached below)

It’s easy for bloggers from the right to leap on this as proof, yet again, of how incompetent and generally horrible Vision Vancouver is or for bloggers from the left to say this is all part of some smear campaign orchestrated by the right, with a compliant mainstream media aiding and abetting.

Too bad about all the politics, because it undercuts the need to deal with a real problem at city hall. I heard about this survey just before I left for my vacation and just ran out of time to ferret out a copy. (A lesson to all reporters — don’t go on vacation.)

Those who are inclined to can dismiss this as just the whining of a group of already highly paid people who can’t deal with change. And certainly, as any professor of organizational behaviour will tell you, change is always going to be met with resistance by a core group of people who have been doing things the same way for 30 years and just don’t want to have to make any adjustments. And change is never going to be accepted by everyone.

But I am hearing real frustration at city hall from all kinds of people: those who are young and enthusiastic and up for a revolution; those who agree with Vision’s goals and don’t just think they’re a bunch of crazy chicken-raising bike-riders; those who just take pride in doing a good job. They’re going nuts.

Or if they aren’t personally, they’re having to deal with people all around them who are. They say they can hardly get any work done because they have to listen to people griping all day about how city manager Penny Ballem is demanding to see their emails and memos before they get sent out. Or they’re losing good people, people who are actually working on projects that are at the top of Vision’s priority list, because they can’t stand either the micro-managing or the workload.

There are people at the hall who feel empowered and freed up to do creative new things by the new administration and Ballem. But they seem to be a minority and that’s a problem.

A lot of people, including the business community, think that city hall’s senior levels needed a shake-up. But that shake-up has to result in positive results at the end. So far, it’s not clear to people inside or outside the hall how things are getting better.

Number Two: The saga of the West End continues. Vision has convinced the developers of the 1401 Comox Street project to stand down while they deal with the mess. West End Neighbours issues statements approving this new decision, while continuing to press for a halt to everything until a new community plan is created. What a mess here.

Number Three: The media world is abuzz about an apparent “enemies list” of reporters/bloggers concocted by Vision. A sad sign of the current state of journalism that this is being taken by some as gospel truth.

Do I think that some cranky Visionista might have concocted a list of reporters/bloggers that he is most annoyed by and sent it out to a bunch of other members? Sure. I’d bet most dedicated politcos, be they from the B.C. Liberals or Stephen Harper’s Conservatives or the Hayseed Party, have a list of Reporters We Love to Hate.

Is Vision a little OCD about controlling the media? Sure. I have it on excellent authority that Vision candidates were repeatedly told during the election campaign NOT to talk to reporters without checking in with HQ first for instructions. And they were especially warned not to talk to me. (Though I’m not on this list.)

But would Vision leaders set up and circulate an enemies’ list? That doesn’t make sense. What would the list be used for? To cut off people from access? Bloggesrs like the CityCaucus boys and Harvey Oberfeld never call the mayor’s office anyway. So they’d do what — go out and soap their windows? Tell them they weren’t allowed to have any of the snacks the city puts out when there’s a special event at city hall?

And some of the names just don’t make sense.

Geoff Dembicki from The Tyee hasn’t had a city hall story in over half a year and, while he did cover homeless protesters, he also wrote glowing stories like this about the mayor’s green plans. Wayne Moriarty from the Province? He’s the top editor; he doesn’t even write. And I don’t get any sense he holds back his editorial staff from dumping on Vision.

The Vancouver Sun’s Jeff Lee is on, even though he’s only been on the job as city hall reporter for the last few weeks, but the Sun’s Miro Cernetig isn’t? Granted, Miro has left the Sun and his more recent columns about the mayor were glowing. But current coverage doesn’t seem to be the list’s concern (see references to Dembicki) and Miro always like to jump around so he also took some swings at the mayor in his time. And where’s Bruce Allen? He’s way more aggressive in his attacks on city hall than Christy Clark.

I don’t know. It just smells to me. More like something put out to poison the relationship between city hall and the media. Which, actually, the Vision group doesn’t need that much help with. Or it could be part of that strategy I see being used so much these days, of labelling reporters as lapdogs or noble investigative reporters, depending on whether they’re echoing your party line or not.

AND here’s my previous story about the city professional employees’ revolt.

From March 31, 2000

Citing low wages, limited career opportunities and the abrupt cancellation of a four-day work week, more than two dozen managers and professional staff have quit their jobs at Vancouver’s city hall in the past two years.

That’s an attrition rate about double the norm for the city.

And coming on top of the usual retirements and sick leaves and the high-profile departures of city manager Ken Dobell in November 1998 (he now is the CEO of TransLink) and the March 1999 firing of deputy city manager Ted Droettboom, it has left the remaining senior managers scrambling to operate with a depleted pool of expertise.

“A lot of the staff who’d left were here for nine or 10 years and it’s difficult for the organization to respond with that loss of knowledge,” said Tom Hammel, an engineer who is vice-president of the 300-member association that represents the non-union professional and managerial staff.

Engineering has been particularly hard hit, losing 13 staff, from senior managers down to intermediate engineers, in the last two years, including one senior manager who also went to TransLink and another who went to the city of New Westminster.

“Good managers are hard losses to take,” said engineering head Dave Rudberg. “As a result, some of the programs in water, sewer design and transportation have had to slow down.”

Finance is another department that took some body blows. Two senior people leading its now controversial computer-restructuring program were lost when one went on sick leave and one died of a heart attack. Then-finance director Hugh Creighton left to work at E- Comm, the Lower Mainland’s emergency communications hub.

Said deputy city manager Brent MacGregor: “We are concerned about it, certainly. It’s not good to lose a lot of talent all at once.”

MacGregor said the city’s top managers and human resources are currently doing compensation comparisons, and looking at improvements to pay or benefits the city can make to attract people.

MacGregor said the city’s salaries for professional and management staff are definitely lower than those paid by other municipalities. Some $50,000-a-year human resources advisers have left the city for double the money in private-sector organizations.

The non-union staff have received about the same increases that union members got in the last two contract rounds.

But, while higher pay might help, a survey done by the non-union staff association indicates there are other problems.

The survey, obtained by The Vancouver Sun, was done early this year after members of the Vancouver Association of Civic Managerial and Professional Staff started to notice the exodus.

It showed 23 people left the city between mid-1998 and the end of 1999, on top of 15 who retired or went on sick leave. (A few others have resigned since then or have indicated they are leaving.)

Although those contacted from the first group mainly said they’d left to get better pay and career opportunities, many of them mentioned the negative effect the city’s cancellation of the four- day work week plan.

One professional contacted by The Sun, who moved to a new job after many years at the city, said he left because the city’s management and workplace atmosphere had gone downhill and it was difficult to see how it was going to turn itself around.

The compressed work week was a watershed issue for everyone at city hall, he said, because of the arbitrary way it was abandoned after being in place for 22 years.

He said that, even though he worked a full week himself, it made it hard to manage because people were so resentful about the way they’d been treated.

That sentiment is still running strong inside city hall among those left.

“It was not just the functional loss of the day, which many of us never used, but the sense of betrayal by city council,” said one professional, who said he’ll be moving on as well as soon as the economy picks up in his field.

Union representatives at city hall say the staff losses aren’t only in the ranks of management, but they say they haven’t been able to get information from the city to quantify how many union staff have left.

“We know they are going, we just don’t have the specifics,” said Rick Gates, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees local that represents the city’s office workers.

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