The hot-seat job of chief planner for Vancouver is open again after a city announcement on Monday that San Francisco transplant Gil Kelley is leaving less than five years after his arrival.
The news comes after months of debate and controversy inside and outside city hall about the slow pace of progress in his department on city-planning initiatives, and stalled negotiations with developers over rezonings and the contributions they should pay in exchange.
A brief message went out to staff around noon on Monday that Mr. Kelley is leaving his role as the City of Vancouver’s general manager of planning, urban design and sustainability to pursue other endeavours.
The message said that deputy Theresa O’Donnell, recruited from Dallas two years ago, has been appointed as the interim director of planning effective immediately.
City manager Sadhu Johnston left only two months ago. He had been with the city for 12 years, after being recruited from Chicago.
The departure of Mr. Kelley is being welcomed by people in the housing-development community who say they found that, although he was pleasant to deal with personally, his department was marked by inertia and overly lengthy processes for getting anything approved.
“When Gil arrived, a number of major challenges had to be addressed,” development consultant Michael Geller said. “Planning was somewhat in disarray. It needed to be improved and that didn’t happen.”
Mayor Kennedy Stewart took the unusual step last month of asking the planning department to produce a list of all the housing proposals involving rental apartments on which it has received inquiries, because of concerns that so many were held up with no explanation.
A former city councillor said Mr. Kelley’s abrupt departure is a bad signal that a dysfunctional city council is not accepting its own responsibility for some of the inefficiency and bureaucracy plaguing its operations.
“We now have two senior managers missing,” said George Affleck, who has been affiliated with the political party that functions as the opposition to the mayor and a group of left-wing councillors. “They’re clearly frustrated by this council and mayor.”
He recalled that one of Mr. Kelley’s first acts was to show councillors a chart that demonstrated how many different policies in different areas overlap in planning, creating a complex system that moves slowly.
One current councillor was more cautious in his responses.
“I appreciate what Gil brought to the job and am super-grateful Theresa has stepped up,” Green Party Councillor Pete Fry said.
Vancouver planning directors have had outsize prominence compared with those in other cities because the pace of development and the constant escalation of housing costs have been much more pronounced here than in many other places.
As a result, they are subject to more intense scrutiny from city councils, builders, advocacy groups and the general public.
Along with the department’s problems, Mr. Kelley, who was 63 when he was hired in October, 2016, was criticized for spending several months in 2020 working from his vacation home in Oregon.
Mr. Kelley’s salary in 2019 was about $290,000.
The city’s communications department said it did not have information available on whether Mr. Kelley is eligible for or will receive severance, the kind of payout that has sometimes been substantial for senior bureaucrats in the past. Former city manager Penny Ballem got $556,000 in severance after her job was terminated in 2015.
However, the city’s wording in its message suggests that Mr. Kelley is leaving voluntarily, unlike Ms. Ballem.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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