New Vancouver city manager promises change in leadership style

Sadhu Johnston says he will empower staff, work closer with the public

When Mayor Gregor Robertson decided last fall to part ways with then-city manager Penny Ballem, he made it clear to reporters that he wanted “a fresh approach” to how the city was run.

That fresh approach was announced Thursday and his name is Sadhu Johnston, who has been in an acting role as city manager since Ballem’s departure Sept. 15, 2015. Johnston, 41, worked under Ballem as deputy city manager after he was hired in 2009.

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“I have a ton of respect for her and I really learned a lot from Penny and enjoyed working with her, and I think the city is a better place from her leadership,” Johnston told the Courier by telephone Thursday. “But there are things that I will do differently in the way that I work, and in my leadership style.”

That style will be a key factor in how well Johnston performs as head of the city and it will be one the mayor will observe closely. Johnston replaces a city manager described by Robertson as “a force of nature” and seen by some at city hall as a micro-manager.

But Robertson has also said Ballem set an intense pace and got an enormous amount of work done on key files, including fighting homelessness, preparing for the 2010 Winter Games and reorganizing city departments.

Johnston promised his leadership style will be collaborative and focused on “empowering” city staff, which the mayor told him was central to the job. He stressed several times in his interview with the Courier how important it was for a leader to “set the tone” of an organization so it achieves great things.

“Many of these folks are experts in their areas – engineers and architects and planners,” Johnston said of the city’s senior staff. “And there’s definitely been a sense that they haven’t been empowered to do the work to their fullest and best abilities. I said very clearly [to staff] that I’m not going to edit all your memos. Each and every one of us has to step up and do the best work that we can because I’m not going to redo everybody’s work.”

When Ballem was cut loose, the mayor declined to point specifically to her pitfalls but said new leadership was necessary to address concerns around a more collaborative approach as a city. The mayor promised in the 2014 civic election campaign to “do things differently,” referring to complaints from the public about lack of consultation at city hall and the pace of change in neighbourhoods.

Johnston brought up those points in the interview, saying he wanted a more transparent city hall, a more accessible city website and to make more city staff available to reporters, who for years have relied on comments from department heads and not the authors of reports before council.

As an example of that openness, he pointed out his employment contract is now posted on the city’s Freedom of Information web page for the public to view. Johnston will be paid an annual sum of $316,000, according to his open-ended contract.

As for creating better relationships with communities, Johnston said: “I get that some people just don’t want change and don’t want development, and we’re not going to convince them, but I do think there’s more we can do to really have a collaborative approach in the way that we work with the community.”

Brent Toderian, the city's former head planner, worked with Johnston for three years before his contract was not renewed in 2012. Toderian has always maintained he was let go because of "a difference in approach" between him and Ballem.

He described Johnston as a "positive voice" at city hall and an astute reader of culture and morale. Toderian said Johnston knew the importance of allowing staff to set and achieve new goals.

"That's what city hall needs to desperately rebuild now," he said. "I think it's very good news and it was the exact right move [to hire Johnston]. Sadhu's got the personality and approach that can help people do their best work and bring the best out of people. The previous culture was the opposite of that."

City council chose Johnston for the job after considering several candidates, including others from within city hall. In-camera meeting rules prohibit councillors from revealing names of other candidates or discussing details of the selection process.

But NPA Coun. George Affleck said he's heard from senior staff that they've noticed a boost in morale under Johnston's tenure as the acting city manager.

"He's absolutely turning things around as far as attitude of the staff," Affleck said. "His style of management is very different from Penny's. He empowers the senior managers. You can see that in the council chambers where all sorts of staff are speaking and presenting their reports. Before that, it was just department heads."

Affleck said he hoped Johnston's style will attract the best and brightest to work at city hall, after losing staff over the years who he said disagreed with Ballem's management methods.

The optics, however, of appointing a person hired by Vision Vancouver in 2009 and who worked under Ballem, who was hired by Vision in 2008, may not play out well with the same public fed up with the lack of consultation at city hall.

"We'll have to see how that goes," Affleck said.

Johnston is best known at city hall for steering the city's environmental plan to have Vancouver become the world's "greenest" city in the world by 2020. He has also been front and centre in the city's campaign to oppose Kinder Morgan's pipeline proposal, which calls for more oil tanker traffic in Vancouver waters.

He now takes over a workforce of more than 7,000 employees and will oversee an operating budget of more than $1 billion. He also faces a public fed up with the number of homeless people on the street and a shortage of affordable housing.

Johnston said he wants to "refresh" the city's housing and homelessness strategy, although he said the city has made gains in the creation of rental housing and continues to work on creative ways to get more housing built in Vancouver.

"If teachers, artists and first responders can’t afford to live in the community, and can’t afford to raise a family in the community, we really lose a lot of the magic of Vancouver," he said, emphasizing the importance of strengthening relationships with the provincial and federal governments to obtain funding for housing and infrastructure.

As acting city manager, he has taken a trip to Victoria with some of his corporate management team to lobby for more funding and is in regular contact with the new federal government; he described that relationship as "night and day" when compared to the city's lack of contact with the previous Harper government.

One of Johnston's biggest challenges this year will be to hire a new director of planning. Council gets the final decision but the fact he reached out to several ex-city planners, including Toderian, Larry Beasley, Ray Spaxman and others in January is a good sign the right person will get the job, Toderian said. The city will also hire a manager of development services, who will split the role with the director of planning.

"Vancouver benefits from generations of smart city makers," Toderian said. "And you can either make those people your enemies, or you can make them your advisors. He's asked us our advice and we've shared it with him."

Johnston accepted the deputy city manager’s job in 2009 after working six years as deputy chief of staff to then-Chicago mayor Richard Daley and serving as chief environmental officer for Daley’s office.

Johnston, who rides his bike to work from his home in Strathcona, has a bachelor of arts degree in environmental studies and political science from Oberlin College in Ohio and Vassar College in New York. He is a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen and eligible to vote in this year's U.S. presidential election.

mhowell@vancourier.com

@howellings

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