Monday, February 11, 2013

Thoughts on Penny

Who really is running Vancouver city hall?

The twice-elected Mayor is Gregor Robertson, the tuba-playing, bike-riding, organic-farming former NDP MLA who finally sold his holdings in Happy Planet Juice Co. in late 2012. Skeptics wonder if one of his lieutenants, Coun. Geoff Meggs, is really shifting the gears on the 10-speed behind the scenes. 

Penny Ballem: unelected and uncompromising?
City manager Penny Ballem is the top-paid civic employee, at $334,002 for 2011. She was hired, without competition, to replace the fired Judy Rogers in December 2008. Rogers got a $572,000 golden parachute, because the Vision Vancouver administration felt she was an NPA-loyalist. 

It wasn’t the first time Ballem got a no-bid gig. She did 78 hours work for $30,000 from eHealth Ontario

Ballem’s claim to fame was as deputy minister of health for five years under then-Premier Gordon Campbell. Health is the biggest and most complex ministry in government. She quit in 2006, calling Campbell’s plans for the ministry “unsound.”

Not only did Ballem replace Rogers in the city manager’s office, but she also took her seat on the  board of directors for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics organizing committee, better known as VANOC.

Ballem was involved in city hall's $2.3 million purchase of used furniture and computers from VANOC. VANOC also got free rent in the city-owned 3585 Graveley Street “Campus 2010” after the Games. Ballem also signed-off on the transfer of VANOC files to the City Archives, mandating they be kept secret from the public until 15 years after the Games! The International Olympic Committee required the City Archives take it over, as per the host city agreement. But I couldn’t find anything from the IOC requiring the documents be kept secret until 2025. But that’s what Ballem agreed to do. So none of us who paid for the Olympics can see the financial and legal records or board correspondence, reports, agendas and minutes until after the Sochi 2014, PyeongChang 2018 and 2022 Winter Games have come and gone. 

In February 2011, Ballem excused Olympic Village developer Millennium from its mortgage, which once was worth $1 billion. She later admitted city taxpayers would lose $48 million on the Village, but downplayed the claims of those who said the loss was in the range of $200 million. 

Ballem has a reputation as an uncompromising micromanager and her influence has reached into every department at city hall. Those who have disagreed with her have retired, resigned or been fired. Ballem gagged city hall bureaucrats from talking to the media; they once were accessible and pleased to talk to reporters about the important work they do for citizens. Under her watch, it has become harder to receive records under Freedom of Information. 

Now comes the struggle over control of the city's community centres. Ballem is leading the charge to centralize control with the Park Board. The volunteer Vancouver Community Centre Associations are fighting back. Non-Partisan Association and Green Party politicians are opposed to the plan by the majority Vision Vancouver. 

Green Coun. Adriane Carr wanted to ask fellow councillors at the Feb. 12 city council meeting to order a staff report on the costs of centralizing the 23 community centres. As the Vancouver Courier’s Sandra Thomas reported, Ballem thwarted Carr’s motion. Now Carr has hired a lawyer.  

How can a public employee, no matter how senior, tell an elected official what can and cannot be debated in a democratic setting?

A source provided me a copy of the Feb. 5, 2013, 7:14 p.m. email by Ballem to Carr (copied to city clerk Janice MacKenzie and city lawyer Francie Connell), which said: 
"I apologize that I haven't had a chance to talk to you today about your motion - I just signed off the Council Agenda at about 6pm. Your motion presents a significant issue and given our last conversation about a motion which was a problem I thought I would send you a note. First, the GM of Park Board reports to the Park Board - if you wish to have a report to Council it should be directed to me to bring back.   
"The more important issue is that the Park Board instructed their GM to continue negotiations on a new contract with the CCAs. It would put both the Park Board and the City at risk if there was an airing of these issues in regard to impact  publicly. To reassure you there is work underway to ensure that the PB staff appropriately manage any risk in these negotiations. However for this reason the motion is out of order and I will not be allowing it to go out with the agenda. I have reviewed this with the City Solicitor and the Clerk. Please give me a call any time tonight if you get a break or first thing in the am. I am happy to discuss. Thanks so much pb"

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