One Tough Broad

2008-12-12 Update: Judy Rogers quit her post this morning. Penny Ballem is the new city manager.


In the ecclesiastical chamber that passes for Vancouver city council’s boardroom, it’s tempting to think that the person who presides from the raised platform at the far end must be the most important. That’s the mayor, after all, your eye is inexorably drawn to in this sombre room with its red carpets, rich panelling, and pewlike wooden benches where the public comes to pray for relief from taxes, rezoning, and development.

By contrast, the small table against the north wall, behind one of the two curved rows of council members that frame the mayor, is almost invisible. And the woman who sits at that table—looking both matronly, with her pearls and business suit and sternly watchful expression, and girlish, with her rosy cheeks and cap of silver-blond hair that glints in the room’s dim light—hardly ever says anything. She almost always has a pile of folders in front of her that she steadily works her way through at every meeting—reading, signing, pencilling notes. On the rare occasions when she does stand to speak, it’s usually in the blandest language this side of the European Parliament’s constitutional-affairs committee. She doesn’t seem scary at all.

“ I wouldn’t go down an alley with her.” Former mayor, now senator, Larry Campbell, a onetime coroner who’s been down every bad alley in the Downtown Eastside, is talking about city manager Judy Rogers. “I think she could rip your heart out.” Campbell’s predecessor, Philip Owen, describes Rogers as fearless, willing to push people—including mayors, councillors, and police chiefs—to the wall if she thinks they’re doing the wrong thing. And current mayor Sam Sullivan sees her as the Supreme Court of city hall; if a mayor can’t convince her that something is worth doing, he doesn’t have much hope of accomplishing anything.

So as the city prepares to elect yet another new mayor (the third in a row), it’s no surprise that there are many conversations on both sides of the political fence along the lines of, What are we going to do about Judy? Because it’s clear that getting to the throne at City Hall this November will be only half the battle. Then there’s dealing with the power beyond the throne.

Campbell ultimately decided to treat Rogers, routinely named one of Canada’s 100 most powerful women, as an asset. That’s in spite of stories, told by others, that early in his term she called the frequently volcanic mayor into her office to tell him he had crossed the line. (He says not.) That they scrapped over her insistent lobbying for a 311 phone hotline for the city, which he said was a $20-million luxury toy the city couldn’t afford. That she made it very clear that she thought holding the Olympic referendum was a huge mistake. And that some of his own council members lobbied to get rid of her, seeing her as someone who was working against them.

He didn’t just retain her. He gave her a salary increase that means she now makes more than double what the mayor does.

“ She knew how to make things happen,” Campbell explains. She finds the money in the budget you didn’t know was there and clears the way for action by finding the city policy that supports it. Then “she marshals the people and the resources to do what you needed to be done.”

But not everyone sees it that way. Over her nine years, there has been a strong undercurrent of unease in each of the three council regimes about how much power Rogers holds, power that seems to have expanded as she’s filled the vacuums created by rookie and dysfunctional city councils. People in both political camps murmur about the bureaucratic culture Rogers presides over at City Hall that seems to see politicians as the “temporary help” whose flighty ideas need to be headed off at the pass or allowed to drift off into never-never land. About the million-dollar budget the city manager’s office controls; about her expenses, which no one signs off on but her; about the special “strategic initiatives” fund she controls. And about the way she sets ultimatums on what she believes people should or should not do. During the Sullivan term, there has even been very discreet behind-the-scenes talk of a performance review.

Rogers was born into one of those families where children get lessons on corporate strategy with their morning oatmeal. Her father, Bill Graham, worked underground in Kimberley’s lead and zinc mine, as his Scottish-born father had before him. Her mother, Mary, left a teaching career to provide a good home for her three children. Rogers was a jock in high school. She skied like a fiend at the local hill, lifeguarded at one of the two pools, and played on pretty much every team around. But she also stood out as someone who got things done and knew, even in high school, how the system worked.

“ She was involved in school politics, involved in everything,” remembers Percy Mackie, who graduated with her in ’67 from Selkirk Secondary, where Judy Graham was the studious pupil, the gung ho athlete, and the school mover and shaker. “She was very outgoing. But she was also no-nonsense. She would tell it like it is.” That’s why Mackie was surprised when this all-around accomplished girl, who often described herself as strong-willed, headed off to Vancouver and UBC to earn a degree in, of all things, community recreation. She could have done anything.

But Rogers, in an hourlong interview rare in her hyper-scheduled and mediaphobic life, says that she had a fairly conventional idea of what she wanted to do with her life back in 1967: “My vision had been that I’d work with people and I’d do that through recreation and play.”

For a while, it seemed as though Rogers, who was busy with an early marriage and then, after a divorce, raising two small children on her own, might become simply one of those super-competent women who run day-cares with the efficiency of a Fortune 500 company. In her beginning work years at the YWCA, she took on only the jobs that would allow her to spend the time she thought she needed at home. But in spite of that, she tackled some tough assignments, like working with single mothers and their children in the Downtown Eastside. In 1987, she got a contract to pinch-hit as the general manager of what was then the Vancouver Indian Centre on East Hastings, a job that led local Natives to nickname her “the blue-eyed chief.” A year later, she was moved to the city and quickly attracted notice.

“ Judy was this bouncy, young, blue-eyed kid” who was willing to take on any load of work, says Ken Dobell, the city manager at that time. They gave her as much as she’d take. Dobell helped bend her schedule to make it possible for her to get a master’s in public administration at the University of Victoria while she was juggling everything else. By 1994, she was assistant city manager; by 1996, deputy.

She also showed skill in dealing with people and process that Dobell says he—“a nasty engineer”—never had. He would come up with brilliant technical solutions that would occasionally turn into political bombs. Rogers was the one who could bring everyone along. One example: the casino debates of the mid 1990s. Glen Clark’s NDP government was opening the doors to gambling expansion and there was even talk of a major casino on the Burrard Inlet waterfront. The city’s Non-Partisan Association council was panting to go to battle with the enemy. But Rogers insisted that the city should hold a series of public meetings to see what the folks had to say. (She’d later do the same to get public conversation about, and eventual support for, the Four Pillars drug policy.) When Catherine Clement, a communications staffer who had just come to the city after working in the Ontario provincial government, came up with what she thought was a great campaign poster—a scary-looking slot machine with dollar signs ringing in beside homes and the slogan “Gambling in Your Neighbourhood”—Rogers told her it was a no-go.

“ In Ontario, as a bureaucrat, you mirrored the sentiment of your politicians,” remembers Clement. “If they wanted to play rough, that’s what you did. But Judy said, ‘We don’t want to be political as a bureaucracy. Council may feel that way, but we have to survive every government and be able to talk to everyone.’ ” At the end of that, with massive public support, the council set out a new policy strictly controlling gambling expansion. The waterfront casino idea died.

When it came time to pick a new city manager in 1998, when Dobell left to head up the new TransLink, Rogers wasn’t the obvious choice. The job had traditionally gone to men from the roads-and-sewers fiefdom at the city. Dave Rudberg, the head of engineering, was the natural candidate to many. But she’d built a cadre of supporters inside City Hall who helped her in her tenacious battle for the job.

SINCE SHE TOOK OVER on New Year’s Day, 1999, Rogers has put her stamp on the way the city does things. She’s got a Joan of Arc zeal for fighting for what she believes is good for Vancouver. That led VANOC chair Jack Poole to comment admiringly (according to urban legend) after early meetings with her at the VANOC board: “That is one tough broad.” Poole says he doesn’t remember saying those exact words, but allows that they capture his sentiments. “She holds her own in what is in many ways still a man’s world. She’s one of the men.”

Well, she is and she isn’t. She does much of her work in what some would see as a classic woman’s style: she believes in partnerships and collaboration. “The city can’t make any change by itself,” she says. That’s why she put together the Vancouver Agreement, the three-government effort to salvage the Downtown Eastside. And when that stopped working, she called on people like Dobell and former attorney general Geoff Plant. To get things done, she believes, you need links to “people who are strategically placed to make things happen.”

Her approach also shows in the way she manages. Her colleagues, many of whom are her friends, say she picks people she trusts, forms strong relationships with them, and lets them go their own way, checking in every so often in one of her regular 360-degree reviews of the city-hall empire. She operates the same way with the many outside organizations linked to the city.

Jane Bird, CEO of Canada Line Rapid Transit, says she and Rogers meet once a month just to yak about how things are going. (Rogers goes to board meetings as a city representative.) If Rogers hears a whisper of trouble in the interim, “She’ll phone and say, ‘I hear it’s going sideways. Call me if there’s a problem.’ ” That’s a style that can look collaborative and refreshingly low-ego, but some find it mysterious and even manipulative, because the power she wields is not on public display.

It is visible, however, if you know how to look. Through her flushed face or clipped non-answers, she’s frequently made it clear that she didn’t think much of certain things the mayor or councillors tried to do: Sullivan’s promise to Sunny Hill hospital of $20 million, for example, or councillor Heather Deal’s suggestion that the city strengthen its sustainability office. Rogers even got into a standoff at one in-camera meeting, refusing to leave, saying that she had a legal duty to be present—even if they planned to discuss her salary. (Rogers is the only direct employee of council.)

“ I think when you have values and principles, you have an obligation to articulate them,” says Rogers, giving a glimpse of the fire that people say shows up behind closed doors. “I don’t have any trouble in any part of my life knowing what’s right and what’s wrong. I don’t have trouble saying, ‘Actually, here’s where the line is. There’s a right way and a wrong way and you’re doing it the wrong way.’ ”

Whatever any one council wants to do, Rogers considers it her job to ensure it’s done with respect for policy and the division of labour that’s supposed to exist between politicians and staff. She made it clear to the Sullivan team that it was her staff’s job to develop policy, that the mayor cannot set directions by himself.

With the election looming, Rogers has a good idea of what this crop of aspiring politicians is thinking about her and what they need in a city manager to fulfill their political dreams. Some might think she’s ready to retire. She’s close to 60 and has grandchildren she enjoys spending time with; her partner, former TransLink human-relations director Grant Close, retired recently, and many of her generation of colleagues have signed off. She’s just finished a top-to-bottom renovation of the heritage home she owns three blocks from City Hall, and its wide porch seems ideal for drinking white wine as the sun sets.

But Rogers, the kind of elder stateswoman who still has the energy (if not the ankles) for double-black-diamond runs and heliskiing, makes it clear she’s not going anywhere. “I have no plans to not do this job,” Rogers says in her the-line-is-here voice.

“ I love my job.”