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The Seat of Influence in City Hall
By the time Penny Ballem walked through the front doors and took her seat at 12th and Cambie last December, she had earned a reputation as a cool-headed, determined, and principled public servant. Gregor Robertson hand-picked her, trumping her depth of knowledge in public health administration and her support of harm reduction as an asset to the City’s homelessness initiatives.
She’s been described as energetic, personable, forceful, straightforward, driven and relentless—a “bureaucratic star.” Some consider her controlling and accuse her of micromanaging. None would dispute she’s hard working.
A Vancouver city columnist thanked Robertson for putting Ballem back at the centre of public life. “It’s where she should be.”
Trained as a clinical hematologist, Ballem practiced at St. Paul’s Hospital, teaches medicine in her field at UBC, and also served as vice-president at the Children’s and Women’s Health Centre of B.C. Ballem made headlines as the deputy minister of health when she abruptly resigning in 2006, labeling Gordon Campbell’s agenda for the ministry “unsound.” She gave no notice and sought no severance.
Ballem’s partner, Marion Lay, was an Olympian medalist and an instrumental backer of Vancouver’s bid for the Games.
VO: Some say the City Manager is the most powerful position in Vancouver politics. You must have broken through several glass ceilings along the way to the job. What quality has most helped you succeed?
Penny Ballem: A sense of humour has been the most important thing for my survival. I grew up in a big family and I was the middle child of five kids and you had to learn to get over yourself. You have to be able to laugh at yourself if you want to be a leader, but especially if you’re a woman. To be able to laugh at things people have said, that they would only say to a woman. If you don’t have a sense of humor, it’s pretty devastating.
VO: What advice would you give to women on how to be better leaders?
BALLEM: Build relationships with people who may not agree with you.
VO: What’s your priority right now?
BALLEM: There are four key agendas that the council has: homelessness, affordable housing, public safety and the economy.
Then you have the Olympics. All the goals are linked. The Olympics is a huge platform and if we do it well, it will allow us to advance all of these agendas.
It’s kind of like Scrabble. You get a quadruple word score and you win the game. How can we help homelessness, deal with a hit on the economy, take into account public safety and be green while we’re at it? That’s what it’s all about. I’m all about moving the agenda on the steepest possible curve but doing that so it’s sustainable.
VO: David Eby of the Civil Liberties Association has taken issue with the City’s Olympic by-laws and is concerned about the erosion of our Charter rights.
BALLEM: We absolutely need David Eby. It’s the polarities that allow us to be more thoughtful. He raises issues that need to be thought through. Being the host city of the Olympics, we walk a line. We absolutely believe in free speech and we know everyone doesn’t agree with the Olympics.
We also have legal obligations as a host city for the Olympics, particularly to sponsors. People don’t understand, but the Olympic sponsors are paying for the vast majority of the operating budget, which is over a billion dollars. The vast majority of that money is private money as well. We have responsibilities on that side to protect their commercial interests and to support the value they’ve paid for.
Our commitment to the Olympics is very strong as a city. We’re going to walk that line and not everybody is going to be completely happy. My hope is that David understands that we’re being very thoughtful and not using this as an opportunity to stomp on people’s rights to free speech. If we have people out there in our community that think the balance isn’t right, we want to hear that. We won’t always agree with them, but we’re very open to hearing about that.
VO: What’s been the most difficult challenge you’ve confronted in your position so far?
BALLEM: You take a report that goes to council and it’s posted on a website before council has even had a chance to discuss it and debate it. The public has access basically at the same time as council. It means your work has to be thoughtful. You can’t afford to be sloppy. You’ve got the scrutiny of the public right now.
VO: Are you the most powerful person in Vancouver?
BALLEM: I wish.