Yesterday Vancouver’s City Manager, Sadhu Johnston resigned from the City. This is a very big thing.
The job of the City Manager is all encompassing. The position manages the city budget, manages city personnel, and reviews staff reports going to Council. The manager sets the tone in terms of city policy, direction, and interpretation. It is in many ways a thankless job with endless meetings, tight schedules, and long hours.
When the Vision party under Gregor Robertson came to power ten years ago they fired Judy Rogers who was the City Manager at the time. Prior to Ms. Rogers City Managers came up through the city. Fritz Bowers was an alderman and an engineer. Ken Dobell was an engineer in the engineering department. Ms. Rogers had been the head of the Equal Employment Opportunities Office. All of these previous city managers innately understood the departments, their functions, and even knew most of the staff by name. That changed with the Vision appointment of their own city manager, Dr. Penny Ballem, who implemented an agenda of work that was determined by Council, instead of by the direction of previous Council policy.
There is nothing wrong with that, and indeed that is how cities in the United States function. What had made Vancouver different was the fact that there was continuity of policy and direction through the City Manager for every change of Council. It was that clarity of purposeful direction that I believe made Vancouver’s City Hall such an innovative place to work from the 1980’s on.
Each City Manager has a deputy city manager, and that is the position that Sadhu Johnston was hired for in 2009. When Dr. Ballem was let go in 2015, Mr. Johnston got the job as City Manager after a global search.
I had actually met Mr. Johnston several times in Chicago when he was Mayor Daley’s Environmental Officer. I visited to find out more about the innovative work he did as Commissioner of Chicago’s Department of the Environment. His work was all encompassing and went through every facet of Chicago’s civic operations. He was very well set up to be Vancouver’s City Manager with his strong analytical skills, his ability to be a good listener, and his ability to quickly encapsulate approaches to complex issues.
As Linda Wood and David McKie write in the National Observer, Mr. Johnston “was a powerful influence in implementing Vancouver’s global climate action leadership, and made a mark nationally in Canada’s urban climate action awakening.”
Sadhu Johnston’s time as City Manager coincided with bringing sustainable policies and initiatives that will serve Vancouver for decades. He was also a City Manager that was approachable, worked well with staff, and was well respected. He also bicycled everywhere and relished time with his young family.
In his memo to City Hall employees he noted that after nine years with the City, he is putting his family first. As he wrote in the memo, ” My daughters are growing up fast and they have generously supported my work with the City, but now it’s time to prioritize them.”
Mr. Johnston is a man of many talents, and has co-authored a book , The Guide to Greening Cities.
He would be well placed to lead global initiatives on climate change, to write, or to teach.
Sadhu Johnston sums up some of the achievements under his watch in his memo to staff:
We accomplished so much more together: the implementation of the Greenest City Action Plan with carbon emission reductions, major waste diversion programs, separated bike lanes, electric vehicle and car sharing proliferation across the city; and capital projects like the Burrard Bridge, Killarney Seniors Centre, new childcare projects being built on our parking garages downtown and the replacement of the Evelyn Saller Centre and Roddan Lodge in the DTES. And while taking all of this action, we’ve managed to be the only Canadian city to have a triple A credit rating from multiple credit rating agencies.
I leave feeling deeply proud of what we’ve accomplished together at the City.”
Cornelia Oberlander with Sadhu Johnston