FOI release triggers more questions about firing of former City Manager (Sept 15, 2015)

Penny Ballem at Regular Council Meeting, September 15, 2015

Penny Ballem at Regular Council Meeting, September 15, 2015, minutes before she learned she was fired. Seated at left is Sadhu Johnston, who still fills the role as Acting City Manager five months later.

Nearly five months have passed since the dramatic and sudden firing of Vancouver’s most powerful bureaucrat on September 15, 2015, and her replacement still has not been hired. But the release of information today by the City’s FOI office (click for PDF document, or see text at bottom of this article) leads us to many questions.

Today, the City of Vancouver’s FOI department finally released the minutes of the in-camera meeting pertaining to the dismissal of former City Manager Penny Ballem. This was in response to a Freedom of Information request, which the City initially rejected. The release was secured only after the intervention of the provincial government’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC).

What was the real reason for her “termination”? (We still don’t know.) Which individuals were party to the secret decision?  (We know it was not City Council.) When and where was the real decision made? (It was not at the in camera meeting.) Who is really calling the shots now? (Sadhu Johnston currently serves only as Acting City Manager?) In effect, who are the real masters of our municipal government?

Beyond this, what are the consequences–and what is the public recourse–when elected municipal officials violate legislation? (That appears to have occurred with this termination.) What are the deeper implications of all of this regarding public trust and integrity of our municipal government? (See further below regarding the possible illegality of municipal government decisions being made by caucus outside of City Council.)

Dr. Penny Ballem was Vancouver’s City Manager from 2009 until her appointment was abruptly “terminated” on September 15, 2015, during an in camera meeting (closed to the public).

City Council must state in advance the reasons to go in-camera. It appears to have violated the governing legislation (the Vancouver Charter, Section 165.2(1)(c)), as “labour relations or other employee relations” were not used as a reason to go in-camera. For further details, please see our previous post: City Manager fired – Penny Ballem let go: Cloud of mystery about reasons, and possible violation of legislation with sudden termination (Sept 15, 2015).

City Councillors who are not part of the Vision Vancouver majority did not know this was coming. See “Penny Ballem out as Vancouver’s city manager” (Jeff Lee, Vancouver Sun 15-Sep-2015). Excerpt: But the decision appeared to have been made by the mayor himself, or in concert with his Vision Vancouver council members. Opposition councillors were not consulted, and were in a state of shock. “We are sitting in shock, sitting in shock,” said Coun. Elizabeth Ball, the caucus chair for the Non-Partisan Association. … City council had concluded the public portion of their meetings at noon Tuesday. They then went into a regular closed-door or in camera meeting for confidential matters. During that meeting councillors were told Ballem was gone, effective immediately…. “There was no other discussion from the mayor other than what she had accomplished and that she was moving on, immediately.”

Reflecting upon Ballems legacy, Vancouver Courier columnist Allen Garr wrote: What was once a fairly flat administrative structure became extremely hierarchical.  … The information flow that existed between senior managers and inquiring journalists for the past several decades, came to a dead halt…. Expect that the city also bought a confidentiality agreement with that settlement. So nobody will say anything.

Ballem was awarded a severance pay of $556,000. She was hired on January 19, 2009, soon after Robertson’s first time election as mayor, and the sacking of the previous City Manager, Judy Rogers, as documented on here. (This abrupt firing behaviour can be expensive for taxpayers: Rogers’ severance cost $571,788.)

Regarding the illegality of municipal government business being conducted outside of Council meetings, see our post “Significant: Councillors who meet privately likely breaking the rules, says lawyer” (23-Sept-2015) and the Jeff Lee, Vancouver Sun, article referenced: “Councillors who meet privately likely breaking the rules, says lawyer: Discussing issues and making decisions ahead of council sessions is not allowed.”

In conclusion, in crucial decisions like this one, it appears that our City Council is not functioning as required, as all 11 elected officials are not involved in the real decisions. Most people can grasp the idea that it’s not the best idea to have the rabbits guarding the rabbit patch. So who is supposed to be watching over the rabbits guarding the carrot patch of public interest?


The excerpt from the September 15, 2015 in-camera meeting is reproduced below; the original PDF file is available here.


7. Verbal Briefing: HR Update

WHEREAS it is considered appropriate by the City to proceed with the termination of the City Manager’s employment with the City and to provide for an orderly transition of duties and responsibilities to a new City Manager.

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED pursuant to the Vancouver Charter and Board of Administration By-law Number 4017:

  1. THAT Dr. Penny Ballem’s appointment as City Manager be terminated on a without cause basis and all authority commensurate with that appointment be rescinded, effective immediately.
  2. THAT the City fulfill the terms of its employment contract with Dr. Ballem dated January 19, 2009 regarding the payment of severance absent just cause for termination.
  3. THAT Sadhu Johnston be appointed to act in the role of City Manager pending the recruitment and confirmation of an individual to serve as City Manager on an ongoing basis.
  4. THAT Staff be directed to initiate an international search to identify candidates with the requisite capability and qualifications to be considered for ongoing appointment as City Manager.
  5. THAT Staff undertake a compensation review for this position, to ensure best value for taxpayers.
  6. THAT the decision on this motion be made public by the Mayor immediately following the conclusion of this In Camera meeting.


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