Vancouver mayor reacts to departure of housing CEO for job with modular housing company

Kennedy Stewart wants new rules to avoid private sector companies from poaching senior staff at city hall

Mayor Kennedy Stewart says he will soon seek city council’s approval to bring in new rules at city hall to ensure developers and other city contractors are prohibited from hiring senior city staff for a “cooling-off” period of 12 months.

Stewart recommitted Tuesday to what was a campaign promise in fielding questions from reporters on news that Luke Harrison, the CEO of the Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency, has taken a job with Horizon North, the company that won the contract to build 600 temporary modular homes in the city.

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“I do intend to bring forward a motion to council shortly that will outline how we can give the public more confidence when these personnel shifts happen, and part of it would be the cooling off period [of 12 months],” Stewart said. “I can’t do anything now about this move, but future moves should fall under these new pieces of legislation.”

The mayor cautioned, however, that he didn’t believe Harrison was in a conflict-of-interest in leaving the city at the end of this month to become Horizon North’s vice-president of development. Stewart’s assessment was based on the city manager’s office assuring him the contract for the 600 modular homes is now with the provincial government’s housing arm, B.C. Housing.

In October 2017, the then-city council approved a staff recommendation to authorize the Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency to negotiate a contract with Horizon North for the design, supply, delivery and construction of up to 600 units of temporary modular housing on sites in Vancouver.

Harrison was the CEO of the housing agency at the time when Horizon North, Britco and a partnership between Ladacor Ltd. and Atira Women’s Resource Society bid for the contracts. A staff report said the bids were evaluated by “representatives from VAHA and managed by Supply Chain Management to ascertain if the bids offered good overall value to the city.”

“The successful proponent [Horizon North] submitted the only proposal that met VAHA’s requirements for delivery of 600 homes in the requested timescale,” said the staff report that went before council Oct. 4, 2017.

The city said in an emailed statement Tuesday that Harrison was not involved in the selection of Horizon North and that the contract was then assigned to B.C. Housing because the funding for the 600 units of temporary modular housing was coming from the provincial government.

“The city does not currently have an active contract with Horizon North,” the statement said.

In his campaign to become mayor, Stewart said senior civil servants have valuable knowledge and relationships that can “potentially create unfair and profitable advantage for their new private sector employers, simply because of the position they currently occupy with the city.”

Stewart’s motion to council, which he said will come “very soon,” will see corporations that violate a 12-month cooling off period be suspended from selling goods or services to the City of Vancouver. Also, the city would suspend — for up to 12 months — the processing of development or other permits for firms flouting the cooling-off period.

Harrison, who has been at the helm of the Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency for two years, said he doesn’t plan to do any business with the city “in the foreseeable future.” He pointed out the contract Horizon North was awarded through the city and assigned to the province went through a procurement process.

“It’s not like things can be directly negotiated in those processes — it’s an open procurement, an open bid and it’s done through both of our procurement departments,” said Harrison, who accepted the job with Horizon North about a month ago.

Harrison said the election of a new mayor and council, and Stewart’s plan to implement new conflict-of-interest rules, played no part in his decision to accept a job with Horizon North. Besides, he said, the new council has signaled it wants to continue striving to seek solutions to the affordable housing and homelessness crises.

Asked whether he thought Stewart’s proposed conflict-of-interest legislation is fair, Harrison said: “It’s obviously important that those things are transparent to anyone coming in to a position at the City of Vancouver to know about before they accept the role. But if that is there, and people choose to work with that knowledge, then I think it is a fair thing to do.”

Harrison said his role with Horizon North will be to get modular housing built in other cities in Canada. He also mentioned the West Coast of the United States as a region with severe homelessness.

“Obviously, we’ve been doing a lot of modular construction and development in Vancouver over the last year, and I would say I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid and become quite a believer in what the technology can do,” he said.

Rod Graham, president and chief executive officer of Horizon North, said he wasn’t aware of Stewart’s desire to implement legislation to avoid the private sector hiring city employees for 12 months after they leave a position.

“If those are the rules in place, then I would abide by them as an ethical and above-board business person,” said Graham, who described Harrison as “a talented guy who could go work anywhere, frankly, and I certainly respect his altruistic streak in that he wants to make a difference in society.”

Ryan Bigelow of the city’s business planning and projects group will serve as interim CEO of VAHA after Harrison departs Nov. 30.

mhowell@vancourier.com

@Howellings

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