Jacques Dubé worked as HRM’s Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) for just 11 months when he decided to can the city’s Chief Planner, Bob Bjerke.
Bjerke had been heading up the city’s planning and development department for about three and a half years. His dismissal came abruptly, with no explanation to either him, or to the residents of Halifax.
In fact, only three weeks before he was let go, Bjerke met with Dubé to check in and see how he was doing with his new boss. Bjerke had been getting feelers from elsewhere, and wanted to make sure he was on solid ground in Halifax. Dubé told him he was. But then, somewhere over the course of the following three weeks, Dubé decided to fire Bjerke.
Of course, high-level managers making six figures do sometimes get fired. Bjerke himself has been fired before, from his position of Director of Planning and Sustainability with the city of Regina. That was right before he got hired as director of housing in Edmonton, and then later recruited to Halifax to become this city’s first Chief Planner.
There’s a difference in how Bjerke was fired in Regina and how he was fired in Halifax. In Regina, city bosses immediately offered up an explanation for letting Bjerke go, citing a desire for “a change in leadership, a change in direction.” It’s not much of an explanation, but one thing it has going for it: transparency. The message signalled to the city there was a change afoot.
Here in Halifax, we’ve been accorded no such consideration.
CAO Jacques Dubé and city council have not given even the most basic public justification for the sudden firing of Bjerke, citing privacy issues. So we are left asking: Why did Bob Bjerke get fired and what does it mean for Halifax?
Bjerke’s plan to modernize Halifax planning
By all accounts Bjerke was respected and liked. To everyone I’ve spoken to, developers included, the firing was a complete surprise. To this day, many planning staff simply have no idea why he would have been fired.
Some people I spoke with had criticism of Bjerke. He could have communicated more (with developers, of course). The changes he was making didn’t happen quickly enough, or they happened too quickly.
Bjerke could not, we know for certain, have been perfect. We also know that his job was not an easy one: to transform the way planning and development has been happening in this city for the past few decades.
In his three and a half years on the job, Bjerke made an impact. He created a five-year strategic plan to “modernize” the planning department, and was halfway through implementing it. He revived the process to create a Regional Centre Plan, now council-approved and waiting to be translated into an actual municipal by-law. He pointed out the glaring need for a transportation plan, and then brought in former director of transportation planning for Toronto, Rod McPhail, to head up the internal staff team that would get it done. (Almost, I should say. Originally planned for February 2017, the Integrated Mobility Plan is now expected to come to council’s committee of the whole on December 5, and will ending up costing $200,000 more than originally budgeted, though Bjerke says that extra cost was not unexpected for a project of that magnitude.)
Bjerke was also the leadership behind the impending (fingers crossed) arrival of HRM’s Green Network Plan, which promises to define and protect the city’s parks, natural reserves, and green spaces.
Since Bjerke arrived in 2014, city hall has been investing heavily in long range planning and operational reforms, but those efforts are still very much balls in the air, and Bjerke’s sudden dismissal is reason to worry that some of them might get dropped.
The modernization of the planning department is probably the least understood (publicly) part of Bjerke’s job, though it’s a major part of what he was brought in to do.
“At the point in time that I left,” Bjerke told me when we met in early November, “we were about halfway through, maybe a little more, a five year plan to completely change the application process. We were staffing up. We re-did over 30 of the job descriptions within the department.”
Bjerke’s department looks after everything from development applications big and small, to by-law enforcement, to animal licenses. “We were really moving through a process, which is what I was brought in to do, to look at all of that and figure out how to make it run better,” said Bjerke. “The regulatory documents, the processes… basically what had been there pre-amalgamation had still been there. So we really had to modernize what we had.”
And then along came Jacques Dubé
Bjerke says that process slowed down when new CAO Jacques Dubé was hired in September 2016.
“That work had been going forward and was picking up momentum, and I think most of that came to a halt about a little over a year ago,” said Bjerke. “Things became much more challenging to get done inside the city administration with the arrival of one person,” he continued. “By and large, things carried on, we still managed to get projects done. It’s just that the support, direction… We lost some pretty key energy.”
Dubé’s new direction was “very inconsistent, and very control-based,” said Bjerke. “It actually slowed down the planning processes by two to three months for applications.”
In December, a few months into his new job, Dubé sent around a memo requiring reports coming from committees and community councils go through the CAO’s office, meaning one more bureaucratic stop for even hyper-local planning considerations.
Dubé also required that the legal and financial departments review all reports before they go to Regional Council, though that rule has since been relaxed.
A few months later, Dubé announced that he was getting rid of the Deputy CAO position, which had been filled for the previous year in an ‘acting’ capacity by Jane Fraser, now HRM’s director of corporate and customer service.
The criticism levelled at Bjerke publicly has been from mostly unnamed developers complaining about the timelines for processing development applications at city hall. But one developer I spoke with said that Halifax actually compares very favourably to other cities in this regard. Regardless, it turns out the CAO’s office had actually been contributing to those processing delays since Dubé came on board. As Tristan Cleveland wrote in Metro, “Halifax has over 150 staff reports pending, a quarter of which are overdue, and things are getting slower. On Oct. 17, council had one of the shortest meetings in memory for lack of reports.”
Perhaps Dubé is feeling the pinch in terms of workload these days, as HRM has recently announced an internal search for a “senior advisor to the CAO”.
Bjerke sees the delay in the progress he was making as inevitable:
Everyone in there is going to do their best to continue doing their job. It’s just with the gap that gets created — it’s disruptive. There was a real program that was moving forward that’s going to get put to the side. You can’t help but have that, because that’s going to be affiliated with the work that I was doing to sort of modernize the department, to get faster applications, more clarity, more public involvement. All those sorts of things as far as anyone can tell, and certainly in terms of the feedback I’ve had, were what council wanted to see, and what ultimately the community wants.
It’s possible that Dubé is not intentionally planning to derail the progress Halifax has made in long-range planning and procedural reform to date. But the signs aren’t good.
First of all, it’s been three months since Bjerke was fired and there’s still no replacement for him — the city has yet to even put out a call for recruiting firms to work on finding a new Chief Planner (though I’m told staff are currently preparing a request for proposals).
When he fired Bjerke, Dubé removed the main senior management support that had been powering everything from the Centre Plan to the Argyle Street streetscaping project. If Dubé, as he stated in his email announcement to Halifax staff in August, was planning for the vision “embraced by the Mayor, Council and myself,” to “continue to be embraced,” then why on earth hasn’t the city at least started to find a replacement for Bjerke, three months later?
Secondly, there’s the latest development debate at council, in which an unsolicited CAO report asked council to reconsider a previous planning decision, against the previous recommendations of the city’s own planning department.
The debate was not about a new development proposal, but rather one that has already moved through the process and been approved to go to public hearing: the Willow Tree tower proposed for Robie and Quinpool.
Some background: Two weeks ago marks the third time council has considered the height of the proposed tower at the Willow Tree intersection. Staff have been recommending a maximum height of 20 storeys since it was first proposed, because that’s the direction of the yet-to-be-codified Centre Plan. In September 2016, council overrode that recommendation (with councillors Watts, Nicholl, and Mason opposed) and allowed for a 29-storey tower to proceed. Six months later, after a motion from local community council, a newly elected city council reconsidered, and decided the tower proposal could proceed to public hearing but would need to max out at 20 storeys.
Fast forward to this month. The agenda for council’s November 14th meeting featured an information item originating from the CAO’s office, communicating a sort of counter-proposal from George Armoyan, the developer for the Willow Tree site. The report details how the current Centre Plan-inspired height limit of 20 storeys would not work financially for Armoyan, but he had a counter offer: he would be willing to reduce the original 29-storey height down to 25 storeys, provided he is also allowed to shrink the required minimum size of their units by 25 per cent.
Typically, an information report is generally just that, for information purposes. Unlike other staff reports, information reports generally don’t include a section for recommendations to council, and information reports often don’t even make it onto the active council meeting agenda.
Dubé’s information report on the Willow Tree, however, contained the distinct language of recommendations: Councillors could either do nothing, and their previous decision would stand, or, if they were “persuaded by the building economics position put forth by the applicant [Armoyan]… then they should direct staff to prepare amendments to the proposed MPS.” (It’s interesting that Dubé wrote that the position put forward in his report was “put forth by the applicant” — who’s working for who here?)
Councillor Shawn Cleary took up the CAO’s call and moved to rescind council’s previous decision, ignore the direction set in the Centre Plan, and add five storeys to the Willow Tree tower height. (Item 13.1 in meeting video.) Ultimately, his motion failed to get the two-thirds majority needed to overturn a previous decision.
Council does not appear to be changing course on planning direction, even if senior management is.
This all raises the question: How could senior management bring on a change in direction without any direction from council?
“Interesting, ironic, and challenging”
Bjerke cited his alignment with city council as a point of pride. “I think that’s what’s interesting, ironic, and challenging,” said Bjerke. “This doesn’t seem to be a case where council is on one side and planning direction that I was giving is different. They seemed to be incredibly well-aligned. There’s always going to be differences of opinion and opinions of different councillors, but it’s pretty hard to point to something where what council wanted was different.”
It’s possible Dubé doesn’t know he’s changing the city’s course. He was a hands-on city manager in Moncton — for example, personally taking over the management of the city’s mega-concerts right before they tanked — so perhaps he is just being hands-on with the planning department, with the intention of continuing to embrace the direction we’ve been going, but just not doing it well.
But it’s hard to imagine that Dubé really believes that firing the Chief Planner —at the eleventh hour for so many major planning projects — was the thing that would help further the goals the department had been painstakingly reporting on and consulting over for the past three and a half years.
“Lots of heavy lifting to come”
The concern, according to Bjerke and confirmed by other development industry types I spoke with, is that the work that has gone into something like the Centre Plan (or the Green Network Plan or the Integrated Mobility Plan) actually goes “stale” if not implemented in good time.
And regarding the Centre Plan in particular, Bjerke said “there’s a lot of heavy lifting” to come, what with the next step of writing a completely new municipal bylaw that will capture the ideas in the approved plan.
“It can’t just be on the side of somebody’s desk,” said Bjerke of the Centre Plan. “That’s what’s been challenging with HRM in the past, and one of the changes we made in the department was to create dedicated teams to look after these big projects, to make sure they were resourced adequately. You need to get through the process in the right window because the technical information, the public consultation, all of that stuff gets stale if you don’t finish it.”
Then there’s the potential for a chilling effect on existing (and future) staff due to such a high profile, yet unexplained dismissal. “You can expect people who are wanting to change, take risks, do something new or different are going to want to keep their heads down,” said Bjerke. “That’s just a rational approach and that’s the way organizations work.”
“Every one of those projects were at pretty critical stages,” said Bjerke, “and need, honestly, council’s support, and as these things have moved forward they’ve had it. And for the people working on them, it’s important to know that their backs are covered, that they’ve got the trust in what they are doing. It’s not easy work.”
Out with the old and in with the… old?
So what’s at stake with the Centre Plan? In Bjerke’s opinion, and those of unnamed others I spoke to, a great deal. It’s not even so much about the details of the plan but rather about simply having the plan — a consistent, modern plan — to put an end to the ad hoc style of development that many developers and city planners are accustomed to.
“Halifax has a real history,” said Bjerke, “especially on the peninsula, of dealing with things as one-offs. They are all ad hoc. You can look at possible development on a site and come to something that maybe makes some sense, that you can do something with, but that is different than understanding what’s going to be in the broader interest.” He continued:
So what’s actually going to fit with a framework, what’s going to be where your transit goes? It’s a sort of strategic shift from that smaller “we’ll do things one-off because we are hoping for development” mindset, to setting the bar where you are going to get good development that really does contribute to the broader success in the longer term. Which is what the Centre Plan, regional plan, and all those sorts of bigger documents are about.
It’s better for development, and economic development, to have the bar set higher. When you know that a high quality development is required, then you also know that the development that goes in next to yours is going to be of higher quality. If it’s ad hoc, you don’t really know what’s coming next.
It’s important not to just deal with individual projects, because you can firefight on individual projects and get down into the details, and all that means is you will always have to do that. When you can fix the system overall that’s where you can make the progress. And as I say, we were about halfway through doing that.
The way city hall has acted under Dubé over the three months since Bjerke was fired seems to indicate that continuing the process Bjerke started is not in the cards.
It could be that the culture of how buildings get pitched, negotiated, and approved in this city is just too engrained, and the resistance to change too strong, to accept Bjerke’s reforms. Or it could be that those reforms simply lost the support of the city’s top administrator, just 11 months into his job.
It certainly seems like the inertia of the old ways has won out, but anything’s possible, especially with elected councillors that appear to support reform, even if they did not support the reformer.