City councillors imagine Vancouver without a new fire chief

Vancouver city council went at it Wednesday in what had all the trappings of a good ole budget debate that normally occurs in December. File photo by Dan Toulgoet

Imagine Vancouver without a new fire chief.

Crazy talk, you might say.

Well, a decision to hold off for one, maybe two years on hiring a new person to replace Fire Chief Darrell Reid, who leaves next week to take a management job in Alberta, almost happened Wednesday.

Why is a reporter writing about what almost happened?

Fair question.

Answer: Because that reporter can’t recall a time in his almost two decades of covering city hall when four councillors didn’t want to immediately replace what is arguably one of the most important positions in the city.

But yes, you might say in defence of the councillors’ push, we’re in strange and fiscally challenging times, with the city at one point losing up to $5 million per week in revenues and is now looking at an estimated $124 million total loss this year.

That loss, which could climb in the months ahead, is related to pandemic-influenced cuts, temporarily halting parking enforcement, a reduction in development fees and the shutdown of community centres, theatres and programs.

With that financial picture in mind, NPA Coun. Lisa Dominato proposed Wednesday a hiring freeze at the city for the remainder of this year and into next, and possibly beyond; her amendment to a motion read “until such time as the city’s revenues have returned to 2019 pre-COVID levels.”

Her NPA colleagues – Sarah Kirby-Yung, Melissa De Genova and Colleen Hardwick – all supported the move, even after city manager Sadhu Johnston outlined the consequences for the organization.

“We’re trying to really limit our hiring at this point, however there are some critical positions that we do need to hire,” he said. “So it’s my sense that this amendment [from Dominato], if moved forward, would cripple us at this point.”

Those critical positions include finding someone to replace Reid and someone to replace Malcolm Bromley, who recently retired as general manager of the park board. A “chief diversity officer” to lead the new equity and diversity office is also being sought, as are positions related to Indigenous issues, engineering and anti-racism.

Johnston’s concern was shared by Mayor Kennedy Stewart and other councillors, who all piled on in their criticism of the NPA’s push to place a moratorium on new hires and – of equal importance – not to fill vacancies left open from retirements, promotions, illness and those who quit.

Stewart: “To have a whole bunch of senior manager vacancies in the middle of a pandemic, and having an order not to fill them, would be a huge mistake. That means no hiring new firefighters, no hiring new police. Those are all the debates we have through the budget [sessions in December]. So I‘m kind of disappointed that there’s so much support for this.”

COPE Coun. Jean Swanson said council has spent months setting priorities related to affordable housing, the economy, social issues, equity and climate change. To advance those priorities, people need to be hired, she said.

“I just think it would be gross to say we can’t hire the people that are needed to do this work,” she said.

Green Party Coun. Pete Fry questioned Dominato wanting to freeze hiring until city revenues return to 2019 pre-COVID levels.

“That could be years from now, that could be months from now,” he said. “It’s far too risky. We need to stay nimble, we need to be able to pivot, we need to be able to respond to the needs of our city in a timely and appropriate manner.”

From under the pile of criticism, Dominato emerged to propose an amendment to her original amendment, pointing directly to Johnston’s concerns about hiring people for “critical positions.”

“I heard that,” she said, “and I think that’s reasonable.”

Dominato, however, never identified the “critical positions,” although it could be assumed she was referring to the vacant jobs of fire chief and park board general manager. In the end, that amendment was defeated, too.

The debate featured all the trappings of the budget back-and-forth that normally goes down in December. But the positioning here by the NPA came as council got an update from the city’s finance crew on what the rest of the year and 2021 may look like for city finances.

As the $124 million loss in revenue makes mind-bogglingly clear, it’s not promising.

The debate occurred on the same day the federal government announced it expected a $343 billion deficit this year, which Hardwick mentioned in her argument for supporting her colleague’s move for a hiring freeze at the city.

“The federal deficit is going to have a massive effect, and all of this is going to land on the city and our residents, which I’m always reminded are the people who elect us and pay our salaries,” she said. “No one wants a hiring freeze, no one wants to cut back, but at some point – when the rubber hits the road — we’re going to be forced into positions to be doing these things.”

For now, the search begins for a new fire chief.

mhowell@vancourier.com

@Howellings