On March 15 2021 at 12:15 p.m. a note went out that the Director of Planning Gil Kelley was leaving the City of Vancouver after four years.  As Dan Fumano of the Vancouver Sun writes Mr. Kelley’s parting words were kind and diplomatic:  “There are a lot of development pressures, and I think it’s important for a midterm council and for a new incoming city manager — which presumably be happening pretty soon — to be able to have the person they want at the helm.”

I had previously written about Mr. Kelley when he spoke publicly after accepting the job.

At that time Mr. Kelley alluded that both Portland Oregon and Vancouver have passionate focus upon “urban planning substituting for major league sports”, in that the public wants to watch, participate, and if the team is losing, make sure that the Planning Department knows.

But you cannot separate Mr. Kelley’s departure from that of the well-regarded City Manager, Sadhu Johnston. Both of these public servants were hired under the previous Vision banner of government and worked with majority councils that had a very clear mandate on sustainability and their version of “green” work. I have already written about the huge chasm Vancouver government has fallen into now that we now have “political” city managers.

Vancouver previously experienced great success with their unusual city manager model, where the position provided a constant hand on the wheel at city hall, despite political changes. This has meant that long term policy previously approved by other councils could be interpreted, amended, directed and implemented by new incoming Council, with a direct understanding of the context and background. That made Vancouver different from most cities.

Former city managers like Fritz Bowers (who was previously a popular City Councillor) and Ken Dobell (through Engineering), and Judy  Rogers  (through the Equal Employment Opportunities Office) already had a grasp of Vancouver’s municipal workings. City managers hired from within the organization innately understood the  work of departments, their functions, and even knew most of the staff by name.  They worked quietly and efficiently.

That changed with the Vision majority of council who abruptly fired City Manager Judy Rogers and brought in their pick for city manager, Penny Ballem. Ms Ballem was later let go by the Vision dominated Council in 2015.

The upshot? The City of Vancouver now functions like any other American city. The City Manager is tied to the political well-being and whims of the mayor and party in power, and may now change each election. And that puts the Director of Planning in the position of answering to a moving agenda of work priorities of shifting sands and moving targets directly from Council.

You can take a look at the Engineering Department at the City of Vancouver to see how advancing and hiring from within has served them well. Even twenty-five years ago that department had many professional women and a diversity of people working in the department. They managed and promoted within their department. City Engineers include Dave Rudberg, Tom Timm, Peter Judd, Jerry Dobrovolny and  Lon LaClaire all who worked their way up the system, and have always been well regarded for their work, policy and management. Mr. Dobrovolny is now the chief administrative officer for Metro Vancouver.

The Engineering Department is also where several assistant city managers came from, including Dave Rudberg, Brent MacGregor and Jody Andrews. The last three hires for the Director of Planning position have been from outside the city, the proverbial white horse from elsewhere. None of them have had much longevity. There has been much stress for planning staff with leadership, some of that documented by Allan Garr.

Previously the City of Vancouver Planning Department has had long term planners at the helm, with architect planner Ray Spaxman from 1973 to 1988.Mr. Spaxman championed livability in the city and insisted on a high level of urban design and community engagement. Mr. Spaxman left in 1988 on his own terms when a development oriented council was re-elected under Mayor Gordon Campbell.

There were also the  “Co-Directors” of Planning, Larry Beasley and Ann McAfee who served for 14 years until their retirements. Both Mr. Beasley and Ms. McAfee had worked their way through the department.  They too were highly regarded, worked well with staff, and produced very good work.

Mr. Beasley championed the Vancouver tower model of a mid-sized podium and tower with public detail and interest on the street. Ms. McAfee’s writings on housing families at higher densities is still the foundation for most work in the field.  Ms. McAfee was also responsible for the CityPlan which was produced in the 1990’s  and did large-scale  public participation and city-wide engagement well before  universal access to the internet.

Not one of these planners called themselves a “Head” or “Chief” planner, but encouraged specialization and diversity within their staff, having those specialists lead when appropriate. They managed from within.

What are the lessons in the frequent planning departures and how does this relate to City Council?

At one of the famous Engineering Department events celebrating the retiring of one City Engineer and the promoting of the new City Engineer, a video was played of the  “old” engineer Dave Rudberg and  the “new” engineer Tom Timm riding on the Downtown Historic Railway streetcar (which was later kiboshed by the Vision City Council). Mr. Rudberg tells Mr. Timm to lean a little to the left at one curve of the track, but not too far left. At another curve of the track  in the opposite direction, Mr. Rudberg suggests Mr. Timm lean a little to the right, but not too far right. Mr. Rudberg reinforced that it was very important for Mr. Timm as the new engineer to try to keep his balance in the centre of the moving train.

That’s a great analogy and very good advice.

Because with this Council you are never quite sure who is driving the train, or where it is going.

Ann McAfee                                                 Larry Beasley                                        Ray Spaxman

Gil Kelley Courier image




  1. Is it really that surprising that Vision Vancouver managed to politicize and screw things up? That’s one of the big reasons why they were wiped out electorally.

  2. Sandy, thanks for this thoughtful piece. I agree that whoever takes over the Planning Department needs to really understand the DNA of Vancouver. We’ve tried the approach of parachuting in someone from away…

    So what would be your advice to this Council? Hire internally for the new GM of Planning? Or at least hire someone from within the Vancouver region, who both gets this place and is willing to speak truth to power?

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