Mayor ousts Vancouver’s top bureaucrat Penny Ballem

Penny Ballem at an event at the British High Commission

Bye, bye Ballem

City hall has dumped city manager Penny Ballem and is on the hunt for her replacement. In a release sent out Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Gregor Robertson announced that the city had terminated its contract with Ballem—at a cost of $556,000 in severance—and that council has decided that, “our toughest challenges will benefit from a new approach and a fresh perspective.” As the city kicks off its search, Sadhu Johnston, currently the deputy city manager, will temporarily assume Ballem’s role. 

The mayor’s brief statement touched on some of her accomplishments—“Dr. Ballem was instrumental in the remarkable turnaround of the finances of the Olympic Village and a successful winter Olympics”—before going on to tout her replacement’s successes on the Greenest City file.

Ballem, who took over as Vancouver’s top administrator right after Robertson’s election as mayor in 2008, had a reputation as a civil servant independent of her political masters even before she took the role at the city. Two years earlier she had quit her post as deputy minister of health with the Liberal government in 2006 after criticizing then premier Gordon Campbell’s approach to public health. More recently, she has provoked the ire of community groups for the way the city handles new development proposals and has drawn fire from the city’s planning community for taking power away from the planning department and greenlighting development “approvals which ignore long held planning values”

In one of her rare media appearances, Ballem spoke with BCBusiness when she first took the role back in 2009: “What I always tell the bureaucracy is that it’s our job to create the opportunity for elected officials to make the best public policy choices,” she said.  “It doesn’t matter what your politics are, the problems are all the same. The differences you see across the political spectrum are in how elected officials want to effect change.”

“You know, one of the things the public doesn’t understand—because they have this ugly notion of bureaucrats—is that government is filled with committed, bright, very experienced people. They’re doing a job that, until you’ve done it, you have no idea how hard and important it is.”