Vancouver searching for new city manager after announcing Penny Ballem out

The Canadian Press / Darryl Dyck
The Canadian Press / Darryl Dyck

VANCOUVER – Vancouver is launching a global search for a new city manager after announcing that veteran civil servant Penny Ballem is out of the job.

Mayor Gregor Robertson said Tuesday that council voted in an in-camera meeting to end Ballem’s contract, under which she will receive $556,000 in severance.

He tied the decision to his promise to “do things differently” after the 2014 election, when his government faced criticism for a perceived lack of transparency and consultation.

Robertson said the city had a challenging year, including a transit referendum and economic growth that has placed pressure on staff to keep up.

“We’re now at a point where it’s a good time to make change,” he said. “(It’s) an opportunity to really bring some new eyes, some fresh ideas to the table and new leadership for the city for the years going ahead.”

He said Ballem was aware that council was considering voting on the matter on Tuesday. She did not attend the mayor’s news conference.

Robertson said he could not say whether the vote was unanimous since it was an in-camera meeting.

George Affleck, a member of the opposition Non-Partisan Association, posted on Twitter that city hall was “rudderless” under the control of Robertson’s Vision Vancouver party.

“Vision and Mayor now controlling a city with four permanent (senior) management positions empty. That’s not good government,” he wrote.

Vancouver’s chief city planner Brian Jackson announced in July that he would retire by year’s end.

Ballem was hired in 2008 shortly after Vision Vancouver came to power. She helped oversee the 2010 Winter Olympics, the financial turnaround of the Olympic Village community and the recent regulation of illegal marijuana dispensaries.

Robertson said he didn’t ask her to resign before Tuesday’s vote.

“She was a force of nature and got an enormous amount of work done at the city,” he said.

Robertson praised her “incredible” body of work and didn’t point to any missteps or failures that might have sparked the change.

“She has given every fibre of her being to the city over the past seven years and been an exceptional leader. It will be challenging without her, big shoes to fill,” he said.

“I’m sure she will continue to serve the public in other ways.”

He said he is confident the city can attract a top-quality candidate during the international search.

Deputy city manager Sadhu Johnston will act as city manager during the search, which the mayor said will also include a compensation review to ensure the best value for taxpayers.

Ballem was the City of Vancouver’s top earner in 2014, with an annual salary of $334,617, according to a financial statement on the city’s website.

A copy of her contract, also posted on the city’s website in response to a freedom of information request, shows Ballem was to be paid $303,958 in 2009, with occasional modifications in line with city policy.

Ballem served as deputy health minister from 2001 to 2006 in Gordon Campbell’s provincial government. She quit without notice and received no severance, publicly criticizing “unsound” organizational changes made to the ministry.