News / Halifax

Tristan Cleveland: Why Halifax's CAO, not chief planner, deserves to be fired

Metro's columnist is baffled by the abrupt canning of Bob Bjerke. He doesn't appear to be alone.

Halifax CAO Jacques Dube.

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Halifax CAO Jacques Dube.

If Halifax’s CAO Jacques Dubé thinks he can just fire our chief planner, it’s time we fire Jacques Dubé.

By all accounts, when the CAO — the head of our bureaucracy — canned Chief Planner Bob Bjerke last week, it was with no prior warning to most city staff.

It seemed no councillors knew either.

Bjerke hadn’t made any major screw up. It just came out of nowhere.

If you ask me, the wrong person got fired.

Bjerke is widely respected as competent and forward-thinking by the planning community in Halifax, including those who work for him.

Multiple sources characterized Dubé, in contrast, as in over his head. He has little to show for his first year in office, except for multiple unnecessary scandals. He sent our chief financial advisor a bizarre fantasy of her violently choking him, and emailed a graphic note to all city staff about flogging a dead horse.

The first of those two messages, to CFO Amanda Whitewood, was found to constitute harassment. Council chose not to fire him, but it was close.

So why was Bjerke let go?

Bob Bjerke.

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Bob Bjerke.

Ostensibly, it was because development applications are being processed too slowly. That makes no sense. Losing Bjerke will only create chaos and slow things down further. Moreover, the reforms he has made to speed up planning have been needed for decades. The city just fired a guy for a problem he has done more than anyone to fix.

And Bjerke was providing leadership Halifax badly needs. Let me illustrate with one example.

When a study said commuter rail would not be financially feasible, many thought it was dead. Bjerke, however, had enough vision to say the numbers would add up if we concentrate future development around the train stations.

So, instead of dropping the idea, Halifax launched the Integrated Mobility Plan, to make decisions about both transportation and development at once, like a modern city should. And that plan may soon bring Halifax its first bus lanes and a minimum grid of proper bike lanes as well.

This guy was instrumental in bringing this city into the 21st Century.

The official reason for firing Bjerke makes no sense, so the public deserves a clear, transparent explanation for why it really happened.

A likely explanation is that Bjerke was willing to stand up to developers. I have heard for months Dubé has been trying to slow down the Centre Plan because developers complain it will be too restrictive on growth.

Whatever the real motivation, it’s clearly reckless to suddenly fire a member of senior management with little or no consultation with the mayor or council, amidst critical reforms.

Firing Bjerke without cause could cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in severance and has badly damaged staff morale. And for what?

As best I can tell, either Dubé made this rash decision because he is ideologically opposed to firm rules on growth, or he is just reckless.

In both cases, it demonstrates he is not the person who should be running our bureaucracy.

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