Jerry Dobrovolny isn’t who you think he is

Metro Vancouver's new chief administrator is a human basket of contradictions—and maybe that's just what the region needs.

Credit: Courtesy of Jerry Dobrovolny

Metro Vancouver’s new chief administrator is a human basket of contradictions—and maybe that’s just what the region needs

How do you get a bead on Jerry Dobrovolny? As the new chief administrative officer of Metro Vancouver, Dobrovolny holds one of the most powerful and influential government positions in B.C.; he’s responsible for delivering a host of essential services to more than half the province’s population. Yet in almost every way, he seems as opaque as the regional government he has been tapped to manage. He’s not what you’d expect—and surprisingly, most people seem to find that reassuring.

Dobrovolny is a youthfully fit, 58-year-old lifelong civil servant who was recruited as Metro’s CAO last fall after 32 years at the region’s biggest municipality, Vancouver. In his last job, as city engineer and general manager of engineering services, he managed a team of more than 2,100 and an annual budget of some $800 million. 

So it would be tempting to think of him as a big-city kind of guy, not usually a selling point at Metro Vancouver. The federation of 23 member jurisdictions stretching from Langley to Lions Bay includes a majority of smaller municipalities, many of which bridle at the notion of the Goliaths from Vancouver and Surrey wielding too much power. But Dobrovolny can also make the case that he’s “a small-town boy.” Born in New Westminster, he still lives just a block away from the house in which he grew up.

That raises a second contradiction: Dobrovolny the bureaucrat has also been Dobrovolny the politician. From 1996 until 2005, he was a New Westminster city councillor and an alternative delegate to Metro’s predecessor institution, the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD). So he knows the process of government from both sides: policy-making as well as implementation.

Even within the bureaucratic role, there’s a further contradiction. In the words of real estate consultant Gordon Harris, who worked closely with Dobrovolny during construction of the Canada Line, “Jerry is an engineer with the heart of a planner.” Harris, also president and CEO of SFU Community Trust (which has planned and developed the community of UniverCity next to SFU), clearly intends this as a compliment. 

But not everyone would take it as such. There’s frequent tension in municipal government between engineers and planners. With apologies for the generalization, engineers tend to be job-specific problem solvers, proud of their expertise and often impatient with people who haven’t done the math. They’re inclined to speak in short, sharp sentences, full of certainty, and they can get testy when interrupted or overruled by people they regard as amateurs. Planners, for example.

It’s in the nature of planning that many things are theoretical and lots of things are unknowable, so planners’ language tends to be full of conditions, caveats and subjunctive clauses. And while engineers are often satisfied to figure out the parameters and tell you how something should be done, in the words of the long-serving former Vancouver city councillor and academic Gordon Price, “A planner wants to do the job.”

You’ll always see him coming

Dobrovolny is the crossover artist, having spent much of his career in jobs that combine engineering and planning functions. His first job out of university was on a long-range planning team the City of Vancouver created to study San Francisco’s successes—and failures—dealing with the so-called World Series earthquake in 1989. A couple of years later, he was appointed to an internal city “think tank” comprising of three engineers and three planners charged with looking at the future of Vancouver’s transportation network. The three-year project resulted in a much-ahead-of-its-time (and, ultimately, extremely successful) plan to promote walking, cycling and transit. 

Dobrovolny spent most of the next decade as an operations manager, but in 2005, he was appointed director of transportation, in which position he once again advanced Vancouver’s lead as a jurisdiction that is enhancing people’s options to get around without a car. He got the city engineer post in 2015.

All of which is to say that Dobrovolny arrived at Metro with a planner’s sensibility (or, at least, sensitivity) but also with serious credibility among the engineers—which can be a big issue. Metro, by Dobrovolny’s own description, is “an engineer’s dream.” The Greater Vancouver Water District treats and distributes a billion litres of water per day, and the Greater Vancouver Sewerage and Drainage District takes that water back (along with another 200 million litres of storm water) and treats it again before returning it to the rivers and ocean. Metro is also responsible for collecting, incinerating, recycling or burying the region’s solid waste. Among all its functions, its capital expenditures for 2020 alone are budgeted at more than $880 million. 

To all of which, Dobrovolny responds with an engineer’s exclamation—terse, precise, absent a verb, but imbued with enthusiasm: “The scale of the infrastructure!” And when it comes time to manage the big-dog engineers who run this vast, complex and effective system, they will have every reason to listen.

Among the apparent contradictions or surprises about Dobrovolny, one thing is for sure: you’ll always see him coming, and you’ll remember him once he’s passed through. In the words of the diminutive North Vancouver District councillor Lisa Muri, “How could you forget him? He’s, like, seven feet tall!”

This is forgivable overstatement. Dobrovolny is really 6’6″, but he certainly fills up a doorway. In 1983, he was the Canadian Football League’s No. 1 draft pick, an offensive tackle who had just led the UBC Thunderbirds to a national title. He played four years in the CFL (one year in Calgary, two in Montreal and one in Ottawa) before a torn hamstring sent him back to finish his engineering degree at UBC.

This, too, summons a compelling—if inaccurate—picture: it suggests a bluff bro who is practiced at claiming new territory by knocking people down. But that’s not how people describe him or his behavior—at the City of Vancouver or in his short time at Metro. Gordon Harris says Dobrovolny is “a quiet, gentle” bureaucrat “who knows how to bring people along with him.” Gordon Price remembers him as “a hunk,” disarmingly open and friendly. “He has a capacity to make you comfortable in an extraordinary presence,” Price says.

Another former Vancouver city councillor, Andrea Reimer, agrees, saying, “He’s physically imposing, but that’s not the thing he leans on.” Rather, Reimer describes Dobrovolny as a kind of whisperer who can calm a crowd or lull a restive politician with a low, gentle voice that she calls “soporific.” She adds, “When Jerry comes to talk to you, you have to really maintain focus, or you end up leaving the room with his focus.”

Dobrovolny might resist the implication that he ever overran a politician, even with a good argument. And Reimer clarifies that she admires Dobrovolny’s style. She speculates that somewhere along the way, he must have come to the realization that, “Hey, I have access to this voice.” It’s a communication style more suited to building alliances and generating consensus than battering an antagonist with brawn—or with a 400-page engineering brief.

Others have also noticed Dobrovolny’s strength as a communicator. Former Vancouver city manager Judy Rogers, for example, recruited him as the city’s voice during Vancouver’s fiercely divisive strike in 2007. She says, “We needed a spokesperson with confidence and the wherewithal to express himself under some pressure,” she says. “Jerry has a stature that demands some attention, but his voice is calming. And he’s confident enough that he doesn’t get off key message.”

Perhaps perversely, this earned him some longstanding enmity—or, at least, resentment. The strike was bitter, and some of that bitterness attached itself to Dobrovolny. It’s one of (surprisingly) few points of criticism that arise from three decades under five different city managers and six mayors, including some with dramatically different managerial styles and vastly varied political agendas. Yet throughout, he showed his strength as a team player. As Reimer notes, “He’s done politics. He’s done team sports. He understands team dynamics.” Indeed, in the early ’90s, he spent his evenings and holidays doing an MBA at SFU, specializing in labour relations and organizational change. “He’s very studied,” Reimer says.

So Dobrovolny brings an approach and a set of skills that may be valuable indeed at Metro, an organization that he describes as having “a healthy tension.” He says, “My No. 1 job is to have a collaborative relationship among the [members of the] board.”

A question of priorities

This is harder than it sounds. On one hand, Metro Vancouver is what Burnaby councillor and Metro Board chair Sav Dhaliwal calls “a federation of the willing.” There are 21 municipalities, one First Nation (Tsawwassen) and one Electoral Area (mostly governing the land around UBC), all working together to manage the kind of infrastructure and policies that no single member can manage alone: water, liquid waste, solid waste, parks, planning, housing, culture and, a recent new responsibility, regional economic prosperity. 

But while these are common concerns, no two jurisdictions’ interests are precisely the same. And unlike many municipal councils, the Metro board features no formal party affiliations, no stabilizing coalitions. Bigger municipalities have more members at the table to reflect their population (there are 41 directors in all), and those small blocs tend to vote together. But even they break apart sometimes. Every vote offers the possibility of a completely new distribution. It makes for a responsive and flexible style of governance, but a complicated one.

At the political level, Metro is also everyone’s second job. Board members are all appointed from among mayors or councillors who were directly elected to their own municipalities. So, as much as they might care about Metro’s big-ticket issues, their primary focus is necessarily elsewhere, leaving the CAO in a uniquely important position as a leader and manager. There’s a lot of responsibility—and a lot of scope for influence—depending on the nature of the person. 

For example, from 1996 to 2012, the CAO was Johnny Carline, a former Richmond city manager who was recruited partly because he was such an effective critic of what was then the GVRD. Carline had often complained that the regional government lived “an unexamined life,” spending hundreds of millions of dollars without direct electoral accountability. He was hired on a promise to shake things up, to raise the regional government’s profile and control its costs. 

And for 16 years, he was a force of nature. In an effort to break up Metro’s powerful silos—to pull the Greater Vancouver Water District, the Greater Vancouver Sewerage and Drainage District, and Solid Waste into a more cooperative and effective team—Carline reorganized everything into broader reporting structures: Operations and Maintenance, and Planning and Capital. And he pushed, pulled or cajoled the board to establish an ambitious set of sustainability targets, a man ahead of his time and an effective agenda-setter. As Coun. Muri says, “Johnny was very personable, very engaging,” and under his leadership, “there was no misunderstanding as to who was running Metro Vancouver.”

Carline’s successor was Carol Mason, a former CAO from the smaller but still complicated Nanaimo Regional District. Reserved and soft-spoken—one commenter called her “the anti-Johnny”—Mason was no less resolute. David Hocking had a unique view of both CAOs; between 2008 and 2016, he served under them as Metro’s division manager, corporate communications, but before and after that tenure, he ruled over them from a seat at the board table. He served as a Bowen Island councillor and Metro director from 2005 to 2008 and was elected again in 2018, giving him a close view of how they managed staff and their political masters. 

Hocking says he liked them both enormously. “Johnny was brilliant. He could give you an articulate answer on anything, and he had a brilliant vision.” And while quieter, “Carol was a good listener, a really good observer,” who still “had a lot to say at the right time.” Interestingly, she reorganized Metro back into service areas, not to restore the silos but to make the organization more transparent.

All of which might trigger the image of a pendulum swinging back and forth, a thought that seems to have crossed Dobrovolny’s mind as he was sitting through his final interview—on a short list of two. He says, “I asked [the hiring committee] what they were looking for—did they think they needed a change agent?—because if so, I’m not that guy.”

But according to Sav Dhaliwal, chair of the hiring committee and chair of the board, they were looking for Jerry Dobrovolny. The board had commissioned a North America–wide search, but Dhaliwal says they had always hoped for a candidate from Western Canada and were delighted to find someone so intimately familiar with Metro’s operations.

The committee was also encouraged by Dobrovolny’s response on three board priorities: housing, regional economic prosperity and climate change. Dobrovolny was quick to agree that housing is one of the region’s most urgent issues and that Metro is perfectly positioned to take action. Metro Vancouver Housing owns and manages 3,400 not-for-profit units that accommodate more than 9,000 people—only BC Housing is bigger—and Metro’s strategic links to municipalities and to higher levels of government give it scope to expand supply quickly and manage it efficiently.

As to regional economic development, Dobrovolny points out that both housing and climate action affect its potential. Having been deeply involved in the international competition to woo Amazon’s HQ2, he points out that affordable housing for employees is one of several crucial factors. And the success of Vancouver’s Greenest City Action Plan brought to light another relevant issue. “Green jobs attract the best and the brightest,” Dobrovolny says. “People want to live in a city with high livability and natural beauty.” Get the social and environmental pieces right, and “it sets up a virtuous circle.”

Both Dhaliwal and Dobrovolny are also passionate about their climate commitment, pointing to planning goals that are urgent and long-lasting (see below). In an organization that traces its founding to a 1948 flood that inundated the whole Fraser Valley—forcing the region to work together—they understand that Metro infrastructure can last a century, but only if it’s planned well and managed effectively. And Dobrovolny is optimistic about Metro’s capacity to achieve great gains. “If you set bold, ambitious long-term goals, the public gets ahead of us, and we reach those goals early,” he says.

It should be said, however, that all of these contentions and calculations were made before COVID-19 upended everyone’s plans. Dobrovolny began his new job, and the new year, responsible for 1,800 full-time employees, none of whom was permitted to work from home. In a single week in March, Metro’s managers didn’t just change the policy: they sent 750 staff home and tasked the IT department to get them all connected and functional. They also rewrote the schedule for the 1,000-plus remaining employees who are critical, every day, to assuring that Vancouverites have water for drinking, bathing and ablutions—and a safe place to flush that water when they’re done.

There are, for example, control rooms all over the region for water filtration, chlorination and sewage treatment. And those rooms were generally staffed by a rotating band of technicians, some of whom were temps or floaters who made it easy to keep the schedule flexible. Suddenly, it became a priority to make sure that everyone was on a specific team, not overlapping with others, so there was no risk that all of the control room staffers in the region might get sick at the same time.

There was also garbage to remove and “flushable” disinfectant wipes to dig out of the pumps and pipes. (It’s true that you can flush them, Dobrovolny says, but they don’t biodegrade. It’s a $250-million problem across the country; they belong in the garbage.)

Metro also had $1.7 billion in construction projects underway and $6 billion more in the program for the next five years. Dobrovolny says now that they were pleased to keep that work going and regard the upcoming projects—including things like a complete rebuild of the Iona sewage treatment plant—as potentially pivotal opportunities to reboot the regional economy. Questioned as to whether any level of government was going to have loose cash to cover such an ambitious agenda, Dobrovolny says, simply, “This work needs to be done.” Some, such as the Iona rebuild, is mandated by federal regulation. And there is no pleading in his voice, no insistence. It’s a flat, matter-of-fact, this-is-happening kind of statement: “… needs to be done.”

And that tone, that certainty—that conviction—might serve to illuminate one last contradiction in Dobrovolny’s resumé. Thinking of his football history, it’s important to understand that an offensive tackle is functionally a defensive position. He’s a blocker whose job is to protect the quarterback or the ball carrier. It’s a nice metaphor for a civil servant charged with clearing a path, running interference—taking hits and making political leaders look good.

So having forsaken his political career in favour of his bureaucratic calling, Jerry Dobrovolny might not be calling the plays. But you can imagine, in the coming years, that the smart Metro directors will be inclined to follow where he leads. 

Hot Ticket

Look for Jerry Dobrovolny to help advance Metro Vancouver’s climate action plan

Metro Vancouver, which expects to increase its population by a million people (i.e. nearly one third) between now and 2050, has vowed, in the same period, to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to zero. But if the math seems unlikely—and it does—Adriane Carr, Green Party councillor at the City of Vancouver and chair of Metro’s Climate Action Committee, says that on this file, Jerry Dobrovolny is the guy for the job.

“He’s got it,” Carr says. “He understands how important action on climate is.”

But Metro’s climate campaign didn’t begin with Dobrovolny. The regional government has had its ambitious Climate 2050 Strategic Framework in place since 2018. And in choosing its only Green Party member to chair its climate committee, the Metro board appears to be affirming its seriousness on this issue.

For her part, Carr says that jurisdictionally, Metro is perfectly placed and centrally responsible to achieve real gains in the fight to mitigate climate change—reducing GHG emissions and preparing the region’s infrastructure for the complications to come. When it comes to “the climate emergency,” she says, “the role of Metro is pivotal.”

Indeed, Metro’s formal role is threefold: delivering core services (many of which are threatened by climate change), planning for the future and acting as a regional forum. The latter may prove to be among the most important—and most difficult. As Carr points out, some of the most effective measures for reducing GHG emissions are both well known and politically toxic.

For example, in a region where 31 percent of all greenhouse gases are generated by automobiles, some form of congestion pricing is likely essential. “It’s one of the bold ideas we’re going to have to move on,” Carr says. And, fortunately for this purpose, Metro Vancouver has lots of bridges and river crossings where it’s easy to monitor (and charge for) automobile movement.

Of course, the provincial New Democratic Party got elected, in part, on a promise to remove tolls on the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges, a big backward step on congestion pricing that had proved itself effective on those crossings. But Carr says it’s all about convening a good regional conversation. She says the public will have to be assured, first, that the pricing will be fair to everyone, not applying only to select suburban communities, and that the money will be used to foster more reliable transit.

The arguments in favour of climate action are increasingly compelling, and increasingly urgent. Rising temperatures, longer dry spells, decreased snow pack, heavier seasonal rain and flooding, sea level rise—each of these has the capacity to tax regional infrastructure, from drinking water to sewage and drainage. Metro also has regional responsibility for air quality, which is both affected by weather changes and, luckily, improved by actions that reduce GHG emissions.

Carr says that puts Metro in a position of leadership, as a model of good behaviour and an educator. For example, it can work with other jurisdictions to help expand the ban on gas-fired leaf blowers, each of which generate more GHGs than a good-sized truck. “People are used to using certain equipment, and they can’t imagine doing anything else,” Carr says. If Metro can use and demonstrate low-emission alternatives, it makes it easier for others to adapt.

Metro also has regulatory authority, featuring both carrots and sticks. For example, it could ban off-road diesel engines, such as those used to generate power on construction sites, and, at the same time, offer fee rebates to help companies upgrade their equipment.

In this and other initiatives, CAO Dobrovolny’s experience at the City of Vancouver is likely to be relevant again and again. Carr points out that Vancouver was the first jurisdiction to ban leaf blowers in its parks. And while 71 percent of all trips in Metro Vancouver occur in vehicles, that figure is below 50 percent in the region’s largest city.

That doesn’t suggest the transition will be easy, but as Dobrovolny himself notes, the public is surprisingly willing to embrace ambitious, long-term goals. People just need fair warning and a rational explanation.

Consultations on Metro’s Climate 2050 are ongoing.