Changing of the Guard

No government agency is more important to

the Lower Mainland’s quality

of life than Metro Vancouver. So when Carol Mason took the reins of the unnervingly anonymous organization – the one that delegates millions in taxpayer dollars each year – it was more than an admin change. It was a…

Carol Mason, the most powerful bureaucrat in Metro Vancouver, took her chair at the Metro board table for the first time on September 21, 2012, and said nothing. Absolutely nothing. For the entire meeting. Mason suggests this was not a big deal. “I won’t say anything if I don’t have anything to say,” she explains. “And I didn’t have anything to say.”

But if she was making a point – and it’s hard to imagine she was not – the new chief administrative officer (CAO) could hardly have made it more forcefully: Metro Vancouver is under new management. The guard has not just been changed; it’s been entirely restyled.

This – so far – hasn’t been received as huge news, which might give a wary taxpayer pause. Metro Vancouver can be unnervingly anonymous, given the hundreds of millions of dollars that flow through its coffers in the course of a year.

But Mason’s silence seems less strategic and more stylistic: a comment on both her and her predecessor, Johnny Carline, the man who managed the regional planning and utility monolith over the past 16 years. Carline is a charming and garrulous raconteur – a bureaucrat with a politician’s fondness for the microphone. At his going-away party last spring, he spoke – without notes – for 49 and a half minutes. It was a speech that, by its length, would have seemed Soviet in temperament, except that it was warm and funny – an entertaining valediction from a man who basked in the limelight.

But there, again, is the contradiction. Unless you’re a particularly avid student of regional government, you may be thinking, “What limelight?” Or more particularly, “Who is Johnny Carline?”

For that matter, you may be shaky on the whole notion of Metro Vancouver – and no one could blame you for the confusion. When Carline stepped into the big shoes in 1996, the organization was still called the Greater Vancouver Regional District, or GVRD, and he got the job, in part, on the strength of his quite vociferous criticism of what he claimed was an unaccountable and spend-thrifty bureaucracy. In his previous job as the Richmond city manager, Carline had complained that the GVRD led “an unexamined life.” He cast it as an almost-invisible government entity annually spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars with no direct electoral oversight.

Yet today it’s an almost-invisible government entity with a different name, spending – this year – $636 million, with no direct electoral oversight. That’s $448 per household (based on an average assessment of $714,000). Which raises questions like: What do we get for that money? And: Who’s minding the store?

First question first: “Metro Vancouver is literally the life support system for this region.” So says Ken Cameron, an adjunct professor of urban studies at SFU and a former Metro Vancouver director of regional planning. “For the quality of our water, the quality of air – the availability of open space – no agency is more important,” Cameron says.

Indeed, if you think of all things that are good – or bad – around the house, Metro Vancouver is responsible for bringing them in – or carrying them away – wholesale. The clean water that flows into your house is retailed at the municipal level. If you live in New Westminster, the one-inch pipe that bends in off the street belongs to the Royal City. But the water comes from a 585-square-kilometre watershed around and behind the North Shore mountains – a closed resource that is protected and maintained by Metro Vancouver. The monster pipes and mega-dollar treatment plants through which that water flows are also Metro property, right up to the point where they connect to municipal systems. Metro itself manages more than 500 kilometres of water pipe.

By the same token, the sewage that leaves your house might flow into an eight- or 12-inch municipal pipe that later spills into the Metro system and one of the enormous – and enormously expensive – Metro Vancouver treatment plants. And while the trucks that carry away your garbage and recycling cast-offs are owned and operated by municipalities, the transfer stations, the incinerator (that is, the “waste-to-energy” plant) and the semi-trailers that still carry most of our trash to the Cache Creek landfill are all part of the Metro Vancouver system.

“We’re a big utility provider that does some other stuff, as well,” says Metro Vancouver chair and Port Coquitlam mayor Greg Moore. “Although people tend to think of us more around the regional growth strategy,” he adds, referring to the sometimes controversial framework for how the region will accommodate population growth of a million people in the next 30 years – without any of the region’s municipalities stepping on neighbours’ toes.

Moore also represents an important part of the answer to the second question: Who’s minding the store? The Metro Vancouver board has only one member who is elected directly. Right now it’s Maria Harris from Electoral Area A (basically, UBC and the surrounding University Endowment Lands). The other 36 directors – mostly municipal mayors and councillors – are appointed by the 21 municipalities in the region and the Tsawwassen First Nation.

Included in this group are some people who are fairly accustomed to making themselves heard, or as Greg Moore puts it, “people who have the capacity to garner a lot of media attention.” For examples, Moore named Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson, Surrey mayor Dianne Watts and Burnaby mayor Derek Corrigan – nary a shrinking violet among them.

That, says Johnny Carline, raises a challenge for the Metro CAO, one that no one on the recruiting committee probably mentioned to Mason: “Whenever she attends a meeting, she is the only person in the room with the prime responsibility for looking after the interests of the region.” Everyone else, every board member, was elected specifically to defend the interests of his or her own fiefdom. At the board table, at least, that means that Carol Mason is the only voice with no conflicting interest. For residents of Metro Vancouver who would rise above territorial preferences for the common good, she is the champion.

On first meeting, Carol Mason looks like someone who may have passed much of her career being underestimated or, perhaps, taken for granted. In a world full of larger-than-life characters, she is slight of frame and surprisingly soft-spoken. Nanaimo mayor John Ruttan, who dealt with her a great deal in her former role as the CAO of the Regional District of Nanaimo, describes her haltingly: “I don’t want to say that she’s shy . . .” he begins, but it’s clear that he wants to say that she’s shy. Mason pretty much agrees: “I’m a private person. I’m not the life of the party.”

Born in England and raised in Welland, Ontario, Mason did her first degree, a BA in English, at McMaster University in Hamilton. She followed with an education degree at the University of Fredericton in New Brunswick and then, after marrying and having two children, an MBA at UBC.

When her husband, an engineer, got a job in Port Alberni in 1991, Mason took her freshly minted master’s degree to the City of Nanaimo and signed on as an administrative assistant to then-mayor Joy Leach, managing what turned out to be a transformative strategic planning process called Imagine Nanaimo. Gordon Harris, now the president and CEO of the SFU Community Trust, was working with Nanaimo as a development consultant at the time and remembers Mason for her “quiet competence.”

“She’d just go off and get it done,” Harris says. “She was one of those perfect lieutenants who would make it all happen and take none of the credit. I guess someone finally gave her the top job and she proved that she could do it better than anyone else.” The top job he’s referring to was at the regional district, rather than the City of Nanaimo, a circumstance that put her in good stead when it came to competing for the Metro Vancouver job.

As Ken Cameron points out, the regional district system is unique in Canada. The districts are like cooperatives, where municipalities pool their resources to tackle big capital or regional planning processes and where almost everything must be managed by agreement. “It might have been tempting to bring in some hotshot administrator from another part of the country,” Cameron says. But noting that “Nanaimo has been one of the better-run regional districts,” he adds that Mason has already proved that she understands how to make this system work.

This, again, could be attributed to Mason’s “charming, quiet manner,” according to Nanaimo mayor Ruttan. “She’s a workaholic,” the mayor says, clearly regarding this as a positive trait in a civil servant, “and she maintained a very good relationship with the municipalities. If our senior administrators had an issue with the district, they’d just call her. They always enjoyed a very collaborative approach.”

Mason’s collaborative management style could well be the reason she was hired. It was prominent among the reasons cited when the board hired Carline back in ’96 – that he was a consensus builder. But the consensus today seems to be that he was not.

Judy Rogers, who was Vancouver city manager during much of Carline’s tenure, dodged elegantly the question of whether Carline cooperated with his municipal counterparts, saying, “Johnny worked hard at keeping his relationship with the board and councillors very strong.” Within Metro, another former senior administrator says that Carline was known more as a micromanager (“Johnny wanted to drive every vehicle.”), a charge that Carline accepts and defends. “You have to sit back on the technical stuff,” he says, generally leaving the engineers and department heads to carry forth major recommendations. “But because you’re dealing with political issues and, often, with trade-offs between departments, the CAO has to be on top of everything.”

And Carline was. Former Vancouver city councillor George Puil, who was a GVRD/Metro Vancouver chair for two terms, says flatly, “Johnny was a control freak. I enjoyed him and got along with him well. He’s a bright individual and he did a good job. But he surrounded himself with people who conformed to his thinking.”

This centralized control could be an issue in an organization whose life was, in Carline’s own critical analysis, “unexamined.” The Metro board is managing a huge number of large files and political oversight is provided exclusively by mayors and councillors who, again, have divided loyalties and primary responsibilities elsewhere. Some of those board members also have jobs aside from their political calling, which leaves them precious little time to stay abreast of complicated and expensive Metro issues.

Metro chair Greg Moore downplays the potential problem, saying most of the board members are full-time politicians and many are accomplished professionals. Burnaby mayor Derek Corrigan and Richmond mayor Malcolm Brodie are both lawyers. North Vancouver District mayor Richard Walton is a chartered accountant and Moore himself was a professional planner even before he went back to school to do his MBA.

But there is still some sense that the bureaucrats – and one especially talented bureaucrat in particular – may have exercised rather too much control of the agenda. One purely jocular reference brought the house down during a series of roasts at Carline’s going-away party. It came from former GVRD/Metro Vancouver CFO and now TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis, who spoke of the great lessons he had learned from past bosses. Asking, rhetorically, what he had learned from Johnny Carline, Jarvis proceeded to enumerate the lessons, including such strategies as “agenda management – placing strategic investment and budget decisions after debates on off-leash dog bylaws.” Other lessons Jarvis attributed to Carline include remembering that “numbers get in the way of a good story – never, never ever mix numbers with strategy.” And, according to Jarvis, the biggest lesson of all: “procedural quagmire – the art of knowing when to refer procedural issue to the corporate secretary, and then watching the debate turn into a series of votes on amendments to amendments, knowing full well that, in the end, you’re going to get a resolution that can be interpreted any way you like.”

People laughed, but they laughed knowingly. And even Carline jokes about nudging decisions past politicians who are not paying close attention. There are, he says, occasions “when a relatively small minority of the board has read a particular report with the attention necessary for an informed debate – and sometimes I’m writing [the report] so that even those will lose interest halfway through.”

(By way of full disclosure, I sat on the board myself in the 1990s when it was still the GVRD; I was directly elected in the last term before Bowen Island became a municipality. And there were times when a particular report would land with such a thud that you sensed its intent was more to overwhelm than inform. That said, it was my observation that this strategy was most popular among a group of older engineers and that Carline actually got rid of the worst offenders. Besides, as long as George Puil was in the room, showing up at the Kingsway offices at 5 a.m. and working through until dark, no one was getting away with much.)

It’s clear that Mason plans to change that culture. “There are a lot of incredibly smart people here and the reports are written to a very high level,” she says. “But I’ll be changing the report style. I’d like to see them more concise – to the point.”

She also promises to do what she can to show “leadership” in the region while still finding a balance. “You don’t want to step on toes by leading to the extent of suggesting that you are a higher level of government,” she says. Rather, she notes, the regional district system just recognizes “that we are stronger in numbers. It’s a very effective way to deliver services, from sewage treatment to regional parks.” On the latter, she is particularly proud of her Vancouver Island service, where the Regional District of Nanaimo created 12 regional parks in 18 years – in the process preserving huge swaths of both Mount Benson and Mount Arrowsmith, the two highest peaks in the district.

Nanaimo mayor Ruttan adds, however, that Mason’s quiet countenance and her willingness to share both credit and responsibility should not leave people with the impression that she is less than resolute. “She didn’t ever take a demonstrative position – she didn’t slam her fist on the table – but she was very assertive. If she got onto an issue, she didn’t let it go.”

That determination – and the high standards – are evident in Mason’s presence, in her record, even in her home life. Mason delayed her starting date at Metro Vancouver last summer so she could watch her youngest son, Michael, compete as a high jumper in his second Olympics. Having placed 18th in Beijing, he came eighth in London with a jump of 229 cm – a little over seven and a half feet.

But Mason, the proud mom, is quick to rein in anything that looks like boosterism, saying that, actually, she doesn’t like to boast too much about Michael’s Olympic exploits, lest it seem to overshadow the accomplishments of his older brother. No playing favourites. But if anyone is concerned that Eric Mason is somehow an underachiever, he seems not to have got the memo. He’s currently working on a master’s degree in computer engineering at UBC, one of the toughest and most respected such programs on the continent. Clearly, all the Masons set a high bar.

Or, as Nanaimo mayor Ruttan says, in his own fond farewell to Carol Mason: “Metro Vancouver got a good asset.”

A Whole Lotta Dough

How the regional

government you didn’t vote

for spends your tax money

“A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.” That line was originally spoken by Everett Dirksen, who served as a U.S. senator in the 1960s – when, it’s tempting to say, a billion dollars was still a lot of money.

Metro Vancouver’s media relations manager Bill Morrell revived the line when talking about the region’s capital plans for the coming years. While Metro’s annual budget, at $636 million for 2013, is smaller than the City of Vancouver’s ($1.13 billion operating budget in 2012), the huge scope of capital projects that have to serve every municipality in the region – from Lion’s Bay to Langley Township and from North Vancouver to White Rock – quickly run into “real money.”

Here are some of the projects approved in Metro Vancouver’s 10-year capital plan:

• Seymour/Capilano water-filtration plant and infrastructure: $820 million

• Coquitlam ultraviolet water-disinfection plant: $117 million

• Port Mann Fraser River water-pipe crossing: $243 million

• Second Narrows water-pipe crossing: $316 million

• Annacis Island Main No. 5 water-pipe crossing: $430 million

• Lions Gate waste-water treatment plant, secondary treatment upgrade: $400 million

• Annacis Island waste-water treatment plant, Stage 5 expansion: $410 million

• North Surrey Interceptor twinning: $167 million

• Northwest Langley waste-water treatment plant upgrade: $71 million

• Gilbert sewage-trunk extension: $103 million

• New waste-to-energy plant: $470 million

• Transfer Station/Eco-Centre upgrades: $125 million

• Upgrades to existing waste- to-energy plant: $40 million ■