Ken Dobell: Provincial Referee

Often described as the second-most influential person in the province, Ken Dobell, the adviser to Premier Gordon Campbell, is surprisingly down to earth.

Often described as the second-most influential person in the province, Ken Dobell, the adviser to Premier Gordon Campbell, is surprisingly down to earth.

My first question is whether he’d mind telling me his age. “Not at all. I’m 66,” Dobell says, easing his bulky, six-foot-plus frame into a chair. “And creaky,” he adds with a laugh. Now retired as deputy minister to the premier, Dobell is on contract to the premier’s office as a private adviser. He’s also a director and chair of finance for the Olympics organizing committee, chair of the Vancouver Convention Centre Expansion Project and director of the 2010 Legacies Now Society. Past credits include CEO of the Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority, negotiator for B.C. on the softwood lumber agreement and city manager for Vancouver. Dobell explains that he could have had a much more comfortable life in the private sector – and made a lot more money – but the problems wouldn’t have been as interesting. He recalls setting up an emergency communications centre during his tenure at Vancouver city hall. “There were huge institutional issues involved,” he explains. “It brings the RCMP and the feds in, it brings a number of independent police departments in, it brings a number of fire departments in.” Those kinds of boundaries define the problems he’s been tackling throughout his entire career: different organizations “tend to think in their own terms,” Dobell says. It’s not surprising that a career devoted to bridging institutional divides might eventually elicit allegations of conflict of interest, as recently surfaced when B.C. NDP leader Carole James criticized Dobell for representing the city, the premier and the Olympics organizing committee all at the same time. Dobell counters that it’s inevitable that he’ll represent parties with conflicting interests, but that it’s not a problem as long as everybody understands his multiple roles at the outset. “Then if an issue arises, you deal with it. And we did that.” Despite retiring from full-time duty at the premier’s office, Dobell is far from winding down his career. Last year, he agreed to advise the City of Vancouver on developing a “cultural precinct,” which would involve moving the art gallery and redeveloping the site of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. And just recently, he took on a project aimed at addressing homelessness in Vancouver. “[Current Vancouver city manager] Judy Rogers called me and said, ‘You’re going to come and sit on my veranda and drink wine and talk about homelessness,’ ” Dobell recalls. “And we did.” The upshot was a bold plan to raise money from the private sector to fund housing and services for Vancouver’s homeless. Although he’s not quite ready to take up fishing full-time, Dobell does foresee a day when “I’ll be doing a whole lot less of this.” As he describes it, though, that day seems to perpetually recede just a little farther into the distance. “If you’ve lived long enough and worked through enough of these kinds of organizations, maybe it’s possible to help,” he says. “So you don’t want to not do that.”