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Vancouver city staffer’s move to developer prompts calls for cooling-off period

The departure of one of Vancouver’s most senior managers for a job with a prominent developer has some calling for new rules that would require a cooling-off period before city staff or politicians can work for private companies that have extensive business at the city.

An internal e-mail from city manager Sadhu Johnston this week announced, to the surprise of almost everyone at city hall, that Vancouver’s head of real estate services, Bill Aujla, is leaving imminently to become the vice-president of real estate at Aquilini Development. The e-mail praised Mr. Aujla’s accomplishments, including overseeing the completion of the Olympic Village.

Mr. Aujla was responsible for, among other things, deciding on how much developers should pay in community-amenity contributions (CACs) to the city for large rezoning projects – a role that put him at odds with some developers. A few of them cancelled projects in the past year because of demands he had made for millions of dollars in CACs they believed made their developments financially unworkable.

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Aquilini has had many projects in the city, although none recently, with the exception of its purchase of city holdings at the Olympic Village. The company will also be one of a select group of developers working with First Nations on significant chunks of prime land in the city.

Candidates in the coming fall municipal election, as well as people already sitting on council, say Mr. Aujla’s move highlights a problem with current rules.

Independent mayoral candidate Kennedy Stewart, currently an NDP MP, said the city needs to put new policy in place to ensure senior staff and politicians, who have had access to confidential information, can’t go and immediately work for a developer or another company that does extensive business with the city.

“It protects employees. It insulates them from accusations of wrongdoing. And it protects the public, so that no one can take confidential information and go into private practice.”

Mr. Stewart said he would also like to see a lobbyist registry and improved conflict-of-interest and disclosure rules for politicians as ways of ensuring public confidence in city processes.

Green Party Councillor Adriane Carr also said “there should be a restriction” on senior staff moving immediately to private companies that do business with the city.

However, councillors from the Non-Partisan Association argued it’s an unfair restriction to limit someone’s job prospects.

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“You get expertise and you shouldn’t be punished for taking that expertise with you on your career path,” George Affleck said.

Councillor Melissa De Genova said there are a lot of potential complications with a “cooling-off” policy.

“Does that mean any city lawyer couldn’t then go to work for a private law firm? I have to wonder if we would be able to attract the quality staff we need for senior positions” if the city had such a restrictive policy, she said.

And Mr. Aujla himself says that, while there should definitely be processes in place to ensure there is no perception of conflict or wrongdoing, a cooling-off policy would make it hard to attract future staff.

Mr. Aujla said he notified the city manager as soon as he started serious conversations with Aquilini representatives about a possible job. He and Mr. Johnston did a search to see whether Mr. Aujla had been responsible for determining any fees or contributions from the Aquilini company (he hadn’t) or whether there were any other conflicts.

“We did that just because the perception was such a worry,” Mr. Aujla said.

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He exempted himself, as well, from a meeting where a project involving the Aquilinis was being discussed.

And he and Aquilini representatives had extensive conversations to clarify that Mr. Aujla would be responsible for “compartmentalizing” any city information he had that wasn’t public yet and shouldn’t be passed on to the company.

Vancouver’s current code of conduct prohibits any employees from relaying confidential information “for the purpose of securing a private benefit for themselves or for any other person.” However, it doesn’t have anything like a non-compete clause that prevents city staff or politicians from accepting jobs with private companies.

Vancouver’s three most recent chief planners – Larry Beasley, Brent Toderian and Brian Jackson − have all declined to do work for any company doing business with Vancouver for several years after they left their jobs.

Mr. Toderian recently did some consulting for Westbank, while Mr. Jackson is working with Amazon on its Canada Post office site.

Former Vancouver police chief Jim Chu now works for Aquilini. Former deputy city manager Brent MacGregor has done consulting work for PavCo since he left his job in 2007.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly said Mike Magee is doing consulting work for developer Westbank. As well, the story said former deputy city manager Brent MacGregor went on to do consulting work for Concord. In fact, he later consulted for PavCo.
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