On the record with acting city manager Sadhu Johnston

Johnston talks pipelines, bike share systems and Donald Trump

Four months after city council decided to part ways with city manager Penny Ballem, the person acting in the role as the city’s top bureaucrat is not giving any hints whether he’s interested in the job.

In fact, Sadhu Johnston, who was deputy manager to Ballem, won’t even say if he applied for the position.

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“That is something I’m going to defer, in terms of the conversation here,” Johnston said in an interview this week on a wide range of topics, including the Oakridge development, the Kinder Morgan pipeline proposal and whether Vancouver will ever get a bike share program.

An international search continues for a city manager and Johnston said he expects a person will be chosen in the first quarter of the year. Until then, he’s in charge and sat down with the Courier in his office to provide an update on some of the major issues facing the city.

The developer of the proposed Oakridge development announced this week that the project will be scaled back by up to 25 per cent. So does that mean all the city’s work on this file, including a public hearing, will have to be redone?

We still have to determine that. It definitely means, to some degree, going back to the drawing board and re-engaging the public. We heard a lot from the public in the first round of public hearings. As we get a sense of the scope of the changes, we’ll craft our thoughts on it and see what a public engagement process might look like. I don’t think it’s a full re-start but I definitely think there will be a lot of new stuff that we’re going to need to go back to the drawing board on.

Including a public hearing?

I imagine we’ll have to redo that process, yes.

Let’s talk about the Kinder Morgan pipeline proposal. In a release issued from the City of Vancouver this week, the point was made that the City is the only intervenor that will present its oral summary argument in person in Calgary next month at the National Energy Board hearings. Why does the city need to go, knowing the process doesn’t allow for cross-examination?

Everything has been in writing and you don’t know how much actually gets read. There’s thousands of pages being handed back and forth, and with only a few members on the National Energy Board, you don’t know if they’re actually reading these reports. Maybe the staff are. This is a chance for us to really make our case and to bring forward the observations that we’ve made, the research and the feedback from the public. We feel like it is an important opportunity to do it in person and we wanted to do it in Calgary. I would imagine you’re going to hear more of the opposition to the project here in the Lower Mainland and there, in Calgary, you’re going to hear more of a support perspective. So we wanted to make sure that the audience there, the media there and the NEB are hearing Lower Mainland concerns about the project.

We’ve heard for several years now that Vancouver is getting a bike share system. In fact, one was supposed to be in place last year. Is Vancouver ever going to get a bike share program?

It’s definitely going to happen, we’re very committed to doing it. It’s been a council objective for a long time. We did a procurement process, selected vendors that eventually went bankrupt and then the other one changed ownership. So it certainly hasn’t been an easy process. Many other cities that we’ve talked to have gone through multiple rounds of procurement.  The fact that we didn’t get it, in a way, is a bit of an opportunity because this new “smart bike” technology is coming out, which is pretty unique and perhaps provides an opportunity to leapfrog some of the other large systems in North America.

So do you have a company in mind?

We’re evaluating proposals right now and are in discussions with the top two vendors. We are hoping for a 2016 rollout.

Let’s talk about affordability. With property assessments seeing increases of up to 25 per cent in Vancouver, people are more than fed up with how much it costs to live in this city. People are pointing fingers at the city, saying the city could do more to make Vancouver more affordable. What do you tell them?

It’s broadly understood that this is a threat to the very fabric of this community, and we really need to solve it. It’s a major, major issue. We hear from businesses that it’s hard to recruit here, we hear from people that it’s hard to stay here. Our mayor and council are really attuned to that. As staff we’re getting very clear direction from council that we have to focus on this. There are things that we can do and that we have been doing, using our policies, for instance, to get more rental housing. And we’ve seen the largest increase in rental housing in the last 20 or 30 years. But this is not all in our control. A lot of this is global dynamics. We need the federal government and the provincial government and municipalities in the Lower Mainland to be working together.

There was a lot of controversy late last year when U.S. president hopeful Donald Trump called to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. That led to a call here in Vancouver, which was supported by the mayor, to remove the Trump name from the tower under construction downtown. Can the city really do anything about that?

No, not really. In terms of freedom of expression, it’s not really the city’s jurisdiction to indicate that they can’t put that name on the building. There may be enough political and public pressure to change that but at this point there’s not really a regulatory path that we would be pursuing that would enable us to do that.

Former head city planner Brent Toderian gave you kudos on Twitter this week for setting up a meeting to discuss issues and challenges with Vancouver planning. Who was there, what did you talk about and why did you organize the meeting?

The chief director of planning position is vacant. So as we get into a recruitment process and framing up what that jobs look like, I wanted to bring together some of the leading voices that formerly worked in the city government to share their thoughts on what has been going on in the community around planning and development. Larry Beasley to Ray Spaxman to Ralph Segal and Scot Hein — and a number of people with a long history with planning in this community — were there. I just wanted to hear directly from them and get their observations about this opportunity to bring in a new planning director. It was a really lively discussion around the qualities of a planner and style of planning and ideas for engagement [with the public].

Many Vancouverites may not know that you’re a dual citizen and moved here from Chicago to take the deputy city manager’s job. I assume you’ve been following the political scene in America and will be voting in this year’s election. So how do you vote when you’re living in Vancouver?

There’s an absentee ballot process and so you vote in the community where you were living. So I’ll be voting as a former Chicago resident. That city is really in turmoil right now. The divisiveness in the politics there is one of the reasons I was really enthusiastic about moving to Canada. It’s a very challenging time for the country. The gun issue that Obama has really been hitting on recently, I think, really exemplifies the challenges that are going to come up during this election period.

Could you please explain to Canadians the popularity of Donald Trump?

I cannot. Not because I don’t want to, but I just can’t.

Note: This interview was edited and condensed.



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