“So, who are you, and what do you want to learn from me?” Vancouver's City Manager Sadhu Johnston goes off script when meeting with Action Canada Fellows.

“So, who are you, and what do you want to learn from me?”

That’s how Sadhu Johnston, City Manager of Vancouver, kick-started our session. We had 90 minutes of his time on a Thursday afternoon, and he was keen to make the most of it. 

Our cohort paused. We were well-versed in the typical run of a conference presenter (and we heard from some great ones): They show up, everyone introduces themselves, they spend an hour running through a slide show, you ask questions at the end. 

But Johnson went off-script: Over the course of his career, he’s worked for Mayor Daley in Chicago and is now in his 10th year at the City of Vancouver. He knows how to handle any kind of question and keep an audience focused on what cities have been doing to improve people’s lives, even amidst budget cuts, political scandals and health crises. 

We went around the circle, a rapid-fire round of straight questions:

“How are you managing prosperity and affordability?”

“Should Vancouver and the surrounding municipalities amalgamate?”

“How has your stance on pipelines affected your relationship with the federal government?”

“Why is there an opioid crisis? What can be done?”

16 Fellows, 16 questions. 

After each question, Johnston jotted down a few notes, smiled and turned to the next person. When we were done, he started talking. Over the next 80 minutes, he answered every one of our questions and then easily a dozen more, on topics ranging from healthcare to climate change to the foreign buyers tax. Since we follow the Chatham House Rule, the candidness of his answers can’t be shared here. But that’s ok, we heard them and took good notes.

He spoke about the relationship with the provincial government, and how it can be stressful as a civil servant when political tempers at any level flare. He even explained the challenge around preparing Vancouver for the next major Pacific earthquake.

During our time together, Johnston taught us a few things: 

  1. Asking people what they want to know saves you a lot of prep time;
  2. Trusting your audience to guide the discussion means they stay engaged; and
  3. A heckuva lot about the City of Vancouver. 

But maybe most importantly, he shone a spotlight on what happens in our own communities, albeit usually at much smaller scales. Municipal government often takes a backseat to the perceived glamour and intrigue of provincial, federal and international politics. That’s a lesson I won’t forget.

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