You first heard in early 2009 here at CityCaucus.com that city manager Penny Ballem was headed upstairs to the sixth floor, and Mayor Gregor Robertson and his Vision council planned to expand their political operations throughout the whole third floor. In today's Vancouver Sun newspaper, reporter Jeff Lee has confirmed the City's plans to move Ballem to her new home upstairs, while Gregor Robertson moves into Ballem's old office. The spacious (newly oiled) teak-paneled office with its own private bathroom occupied by 20 different Vancouver mayors since 1936 is considered "not private enough" for Gregor Robertson.
Ballem acknowledged that her office will move from the third floor to the sixth this fall, allowing Mayor Gregor Robertson to expand his offices into her existing space. The city will also create a dining room and meeting area in part of the mayor’s old offices for the elected councillors who, Ballem says, now have no suitable place to eat. She said Robertson’s space is too cramped and he has no private office.
City councillors have individual offices on the east end of third floor just behind council chambers. Of all the issues that we've heard in the halls of power over the years, can anyone remember city councillors complaining that they didn't have a comfy place to eat? Apparently providing their meals for free isn't enough – councillors require a new dining room with a killer view too!
While Dr. Ballem has tried to keep this story under wraps and tries hard to downplay the expense – suggesting that renos will be "a drop in the bucket" at $260,000 when the City just paid $850,000 for new carpets and a loo upgrade on the third floor alone! Of course, there was also the bizarre case of Robertson tossing out $35,000 worth of new furniture from his office because it smelled funny to him. Nothing will be "gold-plated" promises Ballem.
Lee's story is about how seven of eleven floors of Vancouver city hall are now empty, and through deals struck over the years – including under Judy Rogers' watch – staff have begun to occupy leased and owned City buildings spread out across town. It has the effect of creating silos between departments and destroys staff productivity. Engineering's new digs at the corner of Cambie and Broadway come with the biggest price tag – $41 million over the next 10 years. The city spent another $7 million to outfit and move the department.
That $7 million expense happened last year in advance of the Olympics. The city manager is positioning the renos as no big deal – "When they come in, they will find it is pretty practical and there is nothing fluffy going in here. It is pretty basic." But in fact their approval of the third floor renos hardly instills confidence.
What we should be watching closely is Robertson and Magee's designs on re-creating city hall in their own image. Vancouver's highly successful non-partisan public service is being turned upside down and into a pure political machine. Vision Vancouver mouthpiece Kevin Quinlan alluded to his party's plan to ramp up political operations and expanding political staff on his blog as far back as 2007.
Quinlan – who worked as a Vision hack prior to becoming Mayor Robertson's executive assistant – stated that it was time for Vancouver to throw out the old way of doing business, and becoming more like Seattle and Toronto. In those cities the political staff have significant heft, and cost.
So what was originally a 5-second cut and paste post as I was flying out the door to demonstrate the lack of policy resources in the Mayor's office turned into a population ratio attack, I'll respond by posting this from the equivalently-sized-but-strong-Mayor-system- Seattle Mayor's office. A lot of them fall under Vancouver's Corporate Management Team, but 3 policy advisers, a speechwriter, and my favorite - "executive Protection" - shows a different priority on city resources.
I'd argue that this stems from Vancouver's still-imbedded-but-painfully-outdated notion of civic government as non-partisan and being solely concerned with efficiency and delivering services. Why does the Mayor need staff when the bureaucracy makes all the policy ecisions, right?
After his typo-laden argument Quinlan goes on to list nearly 30 political staff that surround the Mayor of Toronto as a great model. But one might ask, if it's such a laudable idea why is Vancouver consistently rated as one of the most successful cities on the planet in terms of its governance?
Ah, but in the quest for systemic social change one needn't confuse the issue with troublesome questions. Meanwhile, we can take comfort that the Mayor will soon have more room to spread his wings (in the recently renovated city manager's office), and councillors will be able to watch the sun set over Gregor's Garden while they nosh on roasted chicken breast and steamed baby potatoes.
Given Coun. Tim Stevenson's motion asking staff to report back on building a brand new city hall last fall, this may just be a prelude to a more expensive plan to abandon the iconic building at 12th and Cambie altogether.
- post by Mike
UPDATE: To deflect blame from her own office and the Vision council, city manager Ballem releases in-camera notes to Jeff Lee from the decision to authorize spending made in October 2008 in the middle of the last election campaign. What's not clear from these notes is who voted for the move. Of course, several Vision councillors would have been part of this meeting. While the lease was approved before Ballem arrived, the significant costs to move and furnish Engineering's digs could have been canceled by her.
This morning on CKNW radio Penny Ballem is vigorously defending Robertson's decision to move into a more "private" office. When asked why 20 previous mayors made out fine with the spacious teak-paneled office, Ballem's response was, "Well, good for them."
Oddly, Lee's great story did not make the Sun's front page.