Hiring "mercenaries" won't help mayor, says professor

Post by Daniel Fontaine in

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Is Vancouver's new Deputy City Manager a mercenary or simply flavour of the month?

SFU associate political science professor Kennedy Stewart (also former NDP candidate and COPE operative) came out with a stinging rebuke of Mayor Gregor Robertson's recent hire of Sadhu Aufochs Johnston as the new Deputy City Manager.

In a blog posting that can be found on the Vancouver Sun's website, Stewart analyzes the benefits of hiring senior staff from within, versus from the outside. He makes a number of excellent observations regarding the hiring of a 35 year old from Chicago, Illinois to become the city's second most powerful bureaucrat.

In his posting Stewart states:

Where past city managers like Ken Dobell and Judy Rogers spent years working their way up through the city’s civil servant ranks before landing top jobs, Robertson has replaced them with mercenary managers like Ballem and Johnston. Ballem has no municipal experience and has spent much of her career as a medical doctor and consultant. Johnston is also a newcomer to municipal administration recently moving from the non-governmental organization sector with more connection to the US than Vancouver.

Robertson now has disconnected the city’s head from its body. Not only has he disrupted the career path of many who have spent years working their way up the Vancouver ladder, he has surrounded himself with highly paid sycophants whose main aim will be to use their current positions to secure something better elsewhere. Next time around the mayor would do better to shop locally.

While the Mayor continues to gush about how lucky Vancouver is to have landed Johnston, the Chicago Reader has a slightly different take on the new hire. They state:

Mayor Daley has been saying for years that he wants to make Chicago the greenest city in the country, but his environmental record is decidedly mixed.

After the mayor, no one has been as deeply involved in the administration's successes and as evasive about its shortfalls as Sadhu Johnston, Daley's chief environmental officer, deputy chief of staff, and frequent cheerleader.

But Johnston won't be on hand to offer justifications or lead the applause for Mayor Daley much longer: he's leaving at the end of this month to become the deputy city manager of Vancouver.

Under Daley the city has embarked on aggressive tree planting, installed a green roof atop City Hall, and mapped out an ambitious plan to slash greenhouse gas emissions—but failed to ensure basic recycling services, force dirty power plants to clean up, or confront the city's traffic and transit problems.

Now that the dust is beginning to settle, the main concern I'm hearing from Vancouver city staff, including some members of the senior ranks, is that Johnston may not have the experience to deal with the "grunt" issues.

As opposed to simply dealing with "greening" the city, a deputy city manager is regularly called upon to make important, but mundane decisions on a range of meat and potato issues. None of which relate to reducing carbon emissions, meeting Kyoto targets or getting your picture on the front page of the newspaper.

Speaking of press coverage, I'm told Johnston loves media attention (as apparently does city manager Penny Ballem) and will likely be taking a much higher public profile than his predecessors. It will be interesting to see how much latitude the city's politicians provide to their two top bureaucrats when it comes to the media. Will councillors like Heather Deal, Tim Stevenson and George Chow, all of whom have fallen out of the media spotlight, be willing to share the headlines with their own staff?

It's clear that Ballem needed to hire someone from outside of city hall who has not been influenced or impacted by previous city managers. In other words, someone she can trust. By hiring Johnston, she not only pleased her "green oriented" political masters, Ballem has also found her first true loyalist. This could prove to be one of her smartest moves yet.

So depending on who you believe, Johnston is either a whiz-kid, a mercenary or flavour of the month. Only time will tell which theory will prevail.

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