Vancouver’s city manager, the highest-paid civic employee in the region and the person who has overseen the city’s response to a pandemic, housing shortages, homeless camps and a drug-overdose crisis, announced Tuesday he is leaving his job as of January.
Sadhu Johnston said he feels he has to leave a post that has been all-consuming for the last four years because he is missing too much time with his family, who live on Cortes Island, three ferry rides from downtown Vancouver.
“It’s 24/7 every day of the year, and that’s felt like a worthwhile sacrifice, but now I have one kid almost out the door, I can’t continue,” Mr. Johnston said.
He was hired as the deputy city manager in 2009 when he was only 35. He came from the administration of former Chicago mayor Richard Daley, where he was the chief sustainability officer and deputy chief of staff. He was named to his current position in March, 2016, after the Vision council, which had hired former deputy health minister Penny Ballem shortly after sweeping to power in 2008, terminated her job in 2015. Mr. Johnston’s wife and two children moved to Cortes around that time.
Mr. Johnston was seen as a welcome change from the forceful Ms. Ballem, with a more collaborative style.
He says that the accomplishment he is most proud of is changing the culture at city hall to create “a really strong and healthy work environment.”
He also listed his work on the housing front, which included rapid permits for modular housing, an empty-homes tax and new rental policies, the negotiation of the city purchase of Arbutus Greenway from Canadian Pacific Railway and the city’s efforts at reconciliation with Indigenous groups as major efforts in his time.
Mr. Johnston’s departure comes two years after the election of a fractious new council with four parties, no majority and several newcomers, where debates are often muddled and meetings last for days.
First-time councillors have frequently proposed motions they’ve crafted themselves as they try their hand at solving city problems, and Mr. Johnston has occasionally had to warn them that they are on the verge of making illegal decisions.
Multiple sources close to city-hall administration who are not authorized to speak publicly say that he was also frustrated with the slow pace of progress on critical housing issues and had been pushing for a change in recent months that the majority of councillors did not support.
Mr. Johnston declined to talk about any reasons for leaving beyond the personal.
Mayor Kennedy Stewart also said that Mr. Johnston was only leaving for family reasons, as far as he knew.
“I took him at his word," Mr. Stewart said. "Eleven years in a high-pressure job where you’re constantly a target is a lot.”
Now it’s unclear what’s next. Mr. Stewart noted that it is council, not the mayor, who decides when and who to hire as the next city manager, a job that currently pays $360,000 a year.
That person will be facing a city under severe economic stress, an ongoing housing crisis that no one can agree on solutions for, and many homeless people living in parks, the streets and in vehicles, which is producing a backlash among some resident groups.
That’s something the mayor tried to tackle the past week, with a motion that suggested the city should buy older buildings, establish a temporary “emergency relief encampment” on vacant land and temporarily convert empty city buildings into housing space.
In moves characteristic of this council, it was approved but with two additions. One was an amendment from COPE Councillor Jean Swanson to look at setting up an RV park for people living in those vehicles. The other, which the mayor voted against unsuccessfully, was to pursue “de-encampment” for the more than 300 people now living at Strathcona Park near Chinatown – a piece of land that is governed by the park board, not the city.
A new city manager will have that to try to carry out ideas like those, along with much more.
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