A member of the Vancouver board of variance has alleged that he was summoned to city manager Penny Ballem’s office and advised to resign. In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight, Ray Tomlin claimed that he had an hourlong meeting with Ballem on September 15—four days after he wrote a 10-page memorandum to her alleging that the board was breaching the Vancouver Charter and other provincial legislation by holding meetings in private.
Earlier this year the Vision Vancouver–controlled council appointed Tomlin and four others—Tony Tang, Arminder Randhawa, Namtez Sohal, and Martha Welsh—to serve on the board of variance. It’s an influential quasijudicial body that hears appeals concerning planning-department decisions about development permits and bylaws governing signage, zoning, and trees. Tang is a former Vision Vancouver board member, and Randhawa is married to Vision Vancouver park commissioner Aaron Jasper.
Tomlin said he told Ballem that Section 573 of the Vancouver Charter states that the board must conduct hearings of its appeals in public. He added that Ballem said she had read his memorandum, and as far as she was concerned, it was irrelevant. According to Tomlin, Ballem said that the chair of the board has the authority to make any decisions that he wishes to make, and that in her opinion, Tomlin “usurped the authority of the board”.
“She wasn’t going to be answering the questions because my questions weren’t deserving of an answer,” Tomlin alleged.
Then, he claimed, she told him he would be fired with cause if he didn’t resign.
Ballem and Tang, the board’s chair, did not return calls from the Straight by deadline. Ballem sent an e-mail saying this was a matter for council to address. Shortly before the Straight went to press, Tomlin revealed that he hadn’t been fired, but that he expected to receive a letter at his home telling him that his services were no longer required.
Tomlin, a mental-health worker, is a former arts and entertainment writer who later worked as a researcher at Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. The Coalition of Progressive Electors–controlled council appointed him to the board of variance earlier this decade, and he was among the five members who were fired by the last Non-Partisan Association–controlled council. Tomlin and Tang are the only two members with previous experience on the board.
The memorandum to Ballem was also sent to the four other members of the board and to the board’s legal counsel, Ray Young, as well as to city councillors Geoff Meggs and Ellen Woodsworth, and to Brenda Prosken, deputy general manager of community services. Tomlin claimed in the memorandum that the chair recently allowed a board member to “make a gratuitous allegation against both a fellow Board member and an appellant’s representative” as the board was voting on an appeal.
“Such conduct of the Board member, and the failure of the Chair to rule the member’s question out of order, in a timely manner, served to contaminate the process and bring disrepute on the Board at large,” Tomlin alleged in the memorandum.
He later told the Straight that the member, Randhawa, suggested that Tomlin was a friend of the appellant’s representative, Jim Lehto, and that Tang did not order her to withdraw the remark. Tomlin also revealed that other board members passed a motion requiring him to resign.
On some occasions, the board deals with appeals from major developers and issues decisions that have multimillion-dollar consequences. Tomlin pointed out to the Straight that the Cambie Street corridor is being redeveloped. He said the same could occur in the large area bounded by Main Street, Clark Drive, Terminal Avenue, and Prior and Venables streets. Meanwhile, there is also a major redevelopment about to occur on the north side of False Creek and in the Downtown South neighbourhood. He estimated that in the next 10 to 15 years, there will be tens of billions of dollars worth of real-estate development in Vancouver. Board of variance decisions are not subject to judicial review.
“The pace of development in our city will be many times as great as anything that we’ve seen in the last 10 years,” Tomlin said. “And one reasonably has to ask oneself”¦is this issue on the table about a personality conflict between Mr. Tomlin and members of the board, or are there bigger issues at play?”