Sadhu Johnston with Mayor Richard M. Daley (left). Photo by Lee Bey
From Hollyhock...to The Hall
Those who've studied the history of our beloved region know the slogan "54-40 or fight!" James Polk, Democratic candidate for the US presidency during the mid-19th Century promised to go to war if the border of the Oregon Territory (which the USA claimed) didn't cross the bottom of the Alaska panhandle, or the line of latitude across 54°40' north. Calmer heads prevailed, and the U.S. and British Canada settled on today's border at the 49th parallel at the Treaty of Oregon in 1846.
Polk might smile at the fact so many of his American kin are weaving themselves into the political power structure within our province today, riding on the green coattails of Gregor Robertson and his powerful (and power-hungry) Vision political machine.
Who is Gregor Robertson and who are the people who back his electoral adventure? There are only a few who really know. Robertson's connection to Vancouver is relatively new. He's only been a full-time resident of the city for the past five years. We know that he owns property on Cortes Island, and basks in an off-the-grid lifestyle that is part agrarian and part privilege. Don't buy that back-to-the-land stuff too much, Gregor's family and close friends are too loaded to really be roughing it.
Gregor's key backer is Joel Solomon, a native of Chattanooga, Tennessee, who according to campaign disclosures is in Gregor's $100,000+ Club in terms of financial support for the Mayor's political causes. Joel is a director of the Tides Foundation, and the founder of the Renewal Partners enterprises which bankroll greenish ventures, when not donating to political campaigns. Solomon, too, set up a residence on Cortes Island, and found a kindred spirit in Robertson. Through Gregor he also found a direct route into BC's political fray.
Joel Solomon's sister Linda followed her brother to Canada, fleeing the USA after 9/11. The editor of a left wing webzine called The Vancouver Observer, Linda has observed our city from the comfy confines of Cortes Island, where until recently she lived with her family.
Joel Solomon is by most standards a wealthy man, thanks to a family inheritance. However, the real money of Renewal comes from Carol Newell, the famous Rubbermaid corporation heiress who hails from upstate New York. Like Solomon, she is another inhabitant of – you guessed it – Cortes Island. Newell has many projects that she supports financially, and the Hollyhock venue is one close to her heart, and to her front door. This "spiritual retreat" is located on the southernmost tip of Cortes.
And if this all didn't seem all just a little too cosy for you, Vancouver's new Deputy City Manager, who rides into town on an unprecendented wave of publicity for an incoming public servant, it turns out was married at Hollyhock.
It must give city hall staff some comfort to know that the search for their new Deputy City Manager began and ended near the mouth of the Discovery Passage.
Sadhu: Views from Chicago
By all accounts, Mayor Richard M. Daley is a micromanager who would make Penny "P³" Ballem blush. Daley has been Chicago's mayor for 20 years (!), and wields all the levers of power in the Windy City. When speaking to one city hall watcher in Chicago, I asked how Sadhu Johnston would work with a controlling superior. "He'll be right at home," came the response.
The tight control of power at Chicago city hall is the only lens from which Sadhu Johnston can really be judged. On occasions where he self-promoted, he did so only with the permission of his boss. Unlike Vancouver, a city that has already established a strong record on environmental progress, Chicago was struggling to improve its environmental record when Sadhu Johnston arrived. He had previously made himself known in his native Cleveland, Ohio, as an environmental activist. Chicago's famous "green roof" at their city hall already existed when Johnston started working for Daley, but to that point the city's record on reducing carbon emissions was nothing to blow smoke about.
"There are two kinds of people who rise through the ranks at Chicago city hall," says one insider. "Those who come up through the ranks, and the technocrats. Johnston was the latter."
Sadhu inherited one big green political headache with the city's reviled Blue Bag Program. Many parts of the city were asked to leave all recyclables in a separate blue-coloured bag which garbage collectors would pick up, occasionally disposing items with other waste. Citizens balked, while contracted pick-up providers raked in the cash for a program that was seen as a universal failure.
As the city's Chief Environmental Officer Johnston was forced to defend a program the public hated, but the controversy continued to simmer until it was finally axed last year. The city now has a new "Blue Cart" program for collecting recyclables, which will not be in effect throughout the entire city until 2011. The fact that Chicago promoted itself as a "green" city without a working system for handling recyclables was an irony not lost on critics.
Another city hall operative describes Sadhu as "smart, and ambitious." "The problem is Johnston had to blow Daley's horn, so to speak, for the six years he served in the Mayor's office," adds the city hall worker who would not be named. "He had no choice. Daley does not like to be criticized. Few mayors do."
One of Chicago's environmental sore points was the continued operation of two coal-burning power generation plants in the city's mainly Hispanic neighbourhoods. In spite of the fact the city had control over them, Chicago city hall refused to shut them down in pursuit of cleaner alternatives.
One area where Daley, and Sadhu, made little ground was on a "Zero Waste Plan" that produced zero results. Costly consultants were brought in, and PowerPoints produced, but no trash was ever diverted from landfills because of it.
I asked a simple question of this political insider, who had battled Daley but respected the work of his Deputy Chief of Staff Johnston, what was a major accomplishment of Sadhu for Chicago? There was a long pause on the phone, then the response. "Nothing that I can think of."
One person who would speak on the record was Chicago Alderman Joe Moore, whose 49th ward includes the Rogers Park neighbourhood Johnston and his family lived in. Moore was much more generous about Sadhu than the others, but I was warned that he wouldn't be too candid on the record. Moore was most pleased with Johnston's work on Chicago's Climage Action Plan, which has shades of the Gregor Robertson "Greenest City" concept.
"Sadhu has done some innovative work for our city," comments Moore. "He should be commended for it."
Alderman Moore uses the word "leadership" to describe Sadhu Johnston's impact on environmental policy-making for the city. "He's provided us with some bold goals," says Moore. "We're now doing extensive energy retrofitting of buildings within the city. We're buying more green power with a goal of making it up to 20% of the city's energy source within the years to come."
What does Moore think of critics who say Sadhu didn't do enough? "We all know that the environmentalists want more. But you need to strike a balance with business, and approach these problems pragmatically."
I asked Moore what Vancouver should expect from Sadhu Johnston. "On balance I think your city is lucky to have him. He's a very smart guy."
Sewers Vs. Sustainability
Is another "hand-picked" political appointment in Vancouver's civil service going to pay off, or result in more long term pain than gain? It's too early for a verdict on Sadhu Johnston, but there's a clear shift in how our city selects its leadership. The Hollyhock connection might be a shocker for some, but it'll be shrugged off by supporters of the Vision style of doing business.
What is clear though is that the city has turned a page. There will be no stability in the upper ranks of management if every city council wishes to put its stamp on the civil service. Vision may be happy with their new approach, but the government that succeeds them will likely force big changes, too. And as we've seen this year, with all that turnover there is a big cost to taxpayers.
Add the fact that top managers, knowing that they might be fired after an election, will demand additional compensation in lieu of the risk. Taxpayers will be picking up that tab, too.
"The Deputy City Manager's job will be 90 percent sewers, and 10 percent sustainability," says one Vancouver city hall insider. "It might be only a matter of time before he gets bored with his job." The question of "fit" is raised continually by those who understand how the Hall works. It's said that James Ridge, who was only 18 months into his job as Deputy before leaving to UBC, was only just getting familiar with his role at Vancouver city hall.
Now Sadhu Johnston, a man who has garnered more publicity for himself in the past month than half of city council combined in the past year, will have that inevitable (and costly) learning curve ahead.
Maybe if we all break out our yoga mats, sit cross-legged and hum The Star-Spangled Banner to ourselves, then Vision Vancouver's grand plan for city hall will all begin to make sense.
More reading courtesy of Huffington Post: Sadhu Johnston, Chicago's Top Green Official, Quietly Bolts To Vancouver