During election time a partisan public service will watch Vision's back
As we quickly barrel toward the November civic election in Vancouver, the various political parties are busily preparing their election machinery for the road ahead. The NPA has announced it will be holding its nominations in June to elect a full slate of candidates. Over at Vision, they’ve declared the Mayor won’t have to face any challengers while his caucus colleagues are selling memberships in earnest in order to hold onto their jobs. And yet again the hapless COPE party won’t nominate a mayoral candidate, but it will choose a few sacrificial lambs to run for council, school and park board.
With a fixed election date, everyone pretty much knows what to expect in the months to come. Or do they?
To this point, the “non-partisan” public service at Vancouver City Hall has understood and respected the need to stay out of the politicking during the silly season. Similar to their provincial and federal counterparts, the civil servants traditionally kept their heads down when the politicians began the campaigning. However, in Vancouver’s newly politicized civil service, I don’t believe the 2011 election will be business as usual.
In fact, I think we're about to see Vancouver's first taxpayer funded civic election campaign.
It’s almost universally accepted by now that Vancouver has developed one of the most partisan senior management teams anywhere in Canada. Led by City Manager Penny Ballem, key people within the senior ranks are regularly reminded who their political masters are at City Hall. Vision’s scorched earth approach to human resources has resulted in many senior managers feeling that they owe their jobs directly to Mayor Gregor Robertson and his Chief of Staff Mike Magee.
It’s an unprecedented level of party loyalty that is sure to have an impact on the upcoming election.
I fully anticipate that rather than fading into the woodwork during the civic election, Penny Ballem will be steering the activities surrounding city business as it affects Vision's election chances, right up to E-Day. Short of "hands on" work as a scrutineer or working in Vision's phone banks, this City Manager will be intricately linked to the Vision war room. All the while, she’ll continue her practice of communicating “offline” with the Mayor’s political staff to ensure they are no permanent records of the dialogue.
Ballem is no political neophyte. She knows if there is a regime change, her days as a generously compensated City Manager are numbered. That’s why it’s not a stretch to suggest that she and her management team will throw everything but the kitchen sink at the NPA to ensure Vision has the best chance of getting re-elected.
Furthermore, our sources within City Hall are telling us that Ballem is already mapping out which “good news” announcements they can release in time for this fall. Lots of bulletins regarding social housing sites, food carts, cutting red tape, pedestrian task forces are all being worked on as we speak.
In my opinion, Ballem has been Vancouver's most politically partisan City Manager in living memory. Perhaps it was the manner in which she was hired back in 2008 – she was "hand-picked" by Gregor and Magee – but Ballem has a loyalty to Robertson and the Vision party that few civil servants would allow themselves to display.
We’ll have to contrast what we're seeing at Vancouver City Hall with how the provincial and federal public service typically conducts itself within the context of an election. Orders of government have clear guidelines which state public servants must keep “good news” announcements to a minimum, and are restricted from openly favouring the political leaders they serve. Obviously there are times when these rules are pushed to the edge, but for the most part they are adhered to.
There are no rules in Vancouver, however, governing how or when civil servants must step back and let their political masters take over the show.
As we near the November election, Vision Vancouver not only have the advantage of incumbency and hundreds of thousands of dollars in developer dosh, they now have senior public servants who have their back.
But the real question remains how will mid-level and front line staff react if Ballem’s clearly supports the governing party? Given the poor level of morale at City Hall these days, it wouldn’t surprise me if many staff quietly worked to thwart the City Manager's efforts to get Robertson & co. re-elected.
Will there be timely leaks from staff about a scandal or two that’s been kept in the closet? Will even more brown envelopes make their way into the hands of pesky bloggers over at CityCaucus.com? Only time will tell.
The once-mighty NPA is truly facing a David vs Goliath scenario this fall. Not only are they fighting what the Vancouver Courier’s Allen Garr describes as the most well-funded civic political party Vancouver's history, but they are also battling against top management looking to secure their jobs.
Penny Ballem won't be the only one who will be watching the results of the election very closely. Rest assured people like Deputy City Manager Sadhu Johnson and CFO Patrice Impey understand that if Vision loses, they better get on the phone to their favourite headhunter.
One of the costly by-products of Vision’s politicization of the civil service is we are now going to see wholesale changes at the top every time a government falls. There simply won’t be any way to avoid it as a future NPA government will be highly skeptical of the advice it receives from a public service whose allegiance lies elsewhere. Gone are the days when one City Manager would remain through several administrations, as Judy Rogers did with Mayors Philip Owen, Larry Campbell and Sam Sullivan.
As it stands now, the Vision Goliath looks poised to get enough people elected to win the day. But a week alone is an eternity in politics. Who knows what little David has up his sleeve?
- Post by Daniel