EXCLUSIVE: “ON THE RECORD” WITH FORMER VANCOUVER CITY ELECTRICIAN ARK TSISSEREV–THE INTERVIEW
After my two months of reporting on this scandal that has enveloped Vancouver City Hall, Dr. Ballem was finally forced to release, last Friday, all city documents related to the firing of City electrician Ark Tsisserev. This was a result, in some part, of determined and purposeful action by Clr. Suzanne Anton, after participating in the exceptional Global TV piece of a few weeks ago, in which I was also interviewed, and Mayor Gregor Robertson looked utterly confused and sheepish.
When I first read the documents Dr. Ballem released last Friday (and then again yesterday) I was dumbstruck by the glaring discrepancies between what I have been consistently hearing from brave city staff, who have leaked me several documents over two months to confirm their stories, that caused Dr. Ballem and her hatchet-king, General Manager Dave McLellan, many headaches. What struck me more than anything else was the incredible (apparent) revision, which took place regarding many aspects of the Tsisserev scandal–as much of Dr. Ballem’s report is inconsistent with what we have been told here and heard from recognized life safety and electrical contractors and the Electrical Contractors’ Association, Executive Director (whose concerns about life safety issues throughout the city remain ignored by the Mayor)–all of whom have NO political agendas–none.
Specifically, that his firing was “without cause”.
If it was “without cause” as stated in Dr. Ballem’s documents, then why the necessity to frog-march a man, a year and half from retirement; a storied, exemplary 17 year employee, down a set of stairs to the parking lot and order him to leave, all within 20 minutes of dismissing him? (we’ll address this timeline below as well)
Think about this: Why would you toss a man out the door, like a common thug, who has given you unblemished service for almost two decades?
Here, is General Manager David McLellan’s take, after all. In an email to all staff, dated January 22nd., 2010, one day after Mr. Tsisserev was unceremoniously booted from his office, Mr. McLellan writes:
“On a related note, yesterday was Ark Tsisserev’s last day with the City. Ark had a long and distinguished career with the City as our City Electrician and Manager of the Electrical Inspection Branch. Ark was known world wide for his knowledge and contributions to the development of Electrical Safety Codes. I hope you wish Ark well for the future.” (Dave McLellan, General Manager, January 22, 2010)
It didn’t add up then–at all. Not one bit. It still doesn’t.
If Mr. Tsisserev was really fired for budgetary reasons, why then would you can him without cause, pay him a full year from an electrical budget bursting at the seams–a year and a half prior to retirement?
Instead, they used YOUR tax dollars to eject this man from his job, for, STILL, woefully explained reasons.
“Without cause”??? I’m not so sure about that…
Then, I was struck by the “confidentiality” issue of Mr. Tsisserev’s out contract: Other than not being able to make “disparaging” comments about the City of Vancouver or any of it’s employees (and the usual no lawsuit, no complaints. etc), he might actually be free to speak and finally offer us some answers, strictly factual accounts, of what really happened. After all, who better than the man himself to tell us if Dr. Ballem’s and the Mayor’s renditions of the firing (in contravention of the Vancouver Charter) were correct, and if for the last two months I’ve been simply blowing smoke, as many Vision Vancouver sycophants in the mainstream media and the blogosphere have suggested.
So I called one of my city contacts and asked if I could speak with Mr. Tsisserev (who is a friend of his) “off the record.” Shortly after my call, I received a phone call from Arkady Tsisserev himself. This was three days ago. Courteous, polite, matter-of-fact–the ultimate straight-shooter, Mr. Tsisserev was all the things I was told he was.
After several conversations, and after listening to some absolutely stunning revelations, I decided to ask…
“Ark, would you sit down with me for an interview? I think the public has a right to know what really happened.”
(His answer(s) are printed here verbatim as is the rest of the interview which you will find below.)
“Alex, absolutely, sure, I will provide only the strict facts on what I can answer. I appreciate your position, so I hope you can appreciate mine. I will answer only questions related to what I know to be fact and nothing else. You cannot ask me for opinions based on suppositions and I will not speak to you disparagingly regarding anyone or anything at City Hall today–as per the agreement I signed with the City (of Vancouver).”
Hence, this morning Ark Tsisserev, the man at the center of the scandal that has gripped City Hall through the Olympics–to this very day, and has sent Penny Ballem and Gregor Robertson running for cover, sat down to an exclusive interview with me. Present was also Frank Kurz of the Fire Technicians Network, whose principled comments since Mr. Tsisserev was fired, have formed the basis of many media reports.
Again, this interview is verbatim.
AGT: Ark, I just wanted to start out by saying that I appreciate that you cannot provide “colour” to any of the statements you will make today, and that you are speaking to me this morning of your own free will and accord–I have neither paid you for this interview or made you speak under duress or any kind of pressure at all. And you are speaking to me “on the record.” Correct?
AT: Yes Alex, you are correct, and I am here to answer in a strictly factual manner. Please do not ask for suppositions, you will not hear them.
AGT: Let’s start at the beginning of this whole matter, shall we? Let me take you back to the fall of 2009 when you had some reservations about the EST 3 fire alarm panels used at the Olympic Village. You were concerned about life safety issues as these panels, under certain circumstances, may have a tendency to malfunction–is this correct?
AT: I had an obligation after I heard from the city electrician of Burnaby that there might be a major problem. I was the city electrician of Vancouver–as regulator, I had an obligation to make sure I raised the issue with the manufacturer and ULC (Underwriters Laboratory of Canada.) Yes, there were malfunctions but they were investigated by ULC and I signed off on this, I believe in December. The problems with the panels were reported to me and I reported them to the people responsible. ULC’s letter forms part of the package the City released last Friday. As a result of their letter I signed off, but first responders must maintain two feet distance for the panel, to make sure.
AGT: But they were problematic.
AT: According to those conducting the original tests, yes, and I felt that this was a potentially major life safety issue. That’s what I wrote. We were expecting the Games but even beyond this, I had an obligation to keep people safe. First responders are aware that they should not come closer than two feet from the panels with their two-way radios.
AGT: Fair enough, let’s now talk about how you were fired. Who fired you, specifically, and how did this transpire on the day of January 21st.,2010?
AT: On the morning of January 21st, I was called by (General Manager) Dave McLellan’s secretary and asked to go to his office at 2pm, which I did. Within the first few minutes, he told me that I was dismissed due to budget and restructuring. I told him that only council could fire me for “fitness and merit” issues. He did not respond and asked for my passkey and Blackberry, which I gave him. Then I was escorted from his office to my office and told to collect my personal belongings.
(NOTE TO READER: Although Mr. Tsisserev would not confirm her identity, I have learned that the only other person in Dave McLellan’s office was Dana Sirsiris from Human Resources, and she was the one to escort Ark Tsisserev to his office and then to his car)
AGT: What happened after you were escorted to your office?
AT: I was told to collect my things, but I had been there for almost 20 years, that’s a lot of belongings to collect. So I had to arrange to come back, but was only allowed to after hours.
AT: I was not allowed to speak to anyone who was there. In fact my assistant, a great guy named John McMahon poked his head in my office door when I was in there with Dana before she escorted me to my car. He asked if everything was okay and I told him I was fired. After he left, Dana told me I should not have told him that and I felt reprimanded. She was not happy with me at that point and I do not know why.
AGT: How long did the whole firing process take from the meeting in Mr. McLellan’s office to your departure from City Hall premises?
AT: No more than a half hour. Maybe around twenty minutes.
AGT: Alright, in her recent memo to staff, dated March 25th, 2010, City Manager, Dr. Ballem states that you were provided an opportunity to address your staff. Is this true?
AT: No, it is not. That never happened, ever.
AGT: Okay, so you are denying that you were ever invited to address or given access to address your staff, as stated by Penny Ballem.
AT: Yes, I am denying that. It is a statement of fact that I never received such an offer by them when they fired me. I was fired and escorted off the property all within a half hour… maximum.
AGT: Alright, let me take you back again to the fall of 2009. I have in my possession copies of emails you wrote to your superior and now successor, Will Johnston, wherein you were seeking accreditation for your electrical inspectors to access the Olympic venues. The Olympics were a month and a half away and you needed to get the Olympic sites inspected and thus approved. There are many, including Dr. Ballem and others, who claim that all Olympic venues were inspected by city inspectors. Can you shed some light on this? Is this true?
AT: No, no sites were inspected, not to my knowledge. I wrote several more emails to Will in January as well. Until the day I was fired, no accreditations were granted and I heard from some former staff members after I was fired that only my (former) plan checker was allowed to access the Olympic sites. No city electrical inspector was granted accreditation other than the plan checker to the best of my knowledge and this was only AFTER the Olympics began.
(Frank Kurz: In fact, all of the sites that needed inspection would have had to have been signed off on only a contractor’s declaration–and that would have involved Will Johnston.)
AGT: That’s a pretty stunning revelation. Do you mean to say that the only individual from the electrical branch of the city allowed on Olympic sites was a plan checker?
AT: I cannot and will not comment on if it is stunning. I am simply making a statement of fact that until the 21st of January, no electrical inspectors were accredited and then only the plan checker got access after the Olympics started according to former staff and friends who are still employed with the city.
AGT: Okay, I’ll withdraw the question that way if it made you uncomfortable, I’m sorry about that.
AT: No problem. No problem. No, that’s okay. Thank you.
AGT: So none of the Olympic venues were inspected by the electrical branch of the city? Even though, Dr. Ballem claims they were all signed off.
AT: Yes, but by contractor’s declaration, not direct inspection.
AGT: Alright, what can you tell me about Vanier Park? I am also in possession of information from a city staffer that there was a potential life safety issue there during the Games. Is this true?
AT: I received a phone call from an electrical engineer, who was very concerned about this through the Games that there were specific safety issues of a high voltage installation–someone who I trust very much and worked well with. I cannot talk about the details other than to say that I called the Inspections branch of the city informing them of my concerns and APEG BC (Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists) to ensure that they sent someone out there to look at it, but I learned afterwards that no accreditation was granted for city guys to inspect the site.
AGT: What was your reaction?
AT: Obviously, I was shocked, but I do not know if it was resolved or not.
AGT: Alright, you’ve just identified several, at least, potential points of life safety issues, particularly with respect to the absence of accreditation for your inspectors until at least January 21st and probably beyond….how on earth can you have then signed a letter on February 12th, not even a month later, a letter which the City, specifically Dr. Ballem, cites as proof of your lack of knowledge of any potential life safety issues? How can both be true?
AT: You mean the letter that appeared out of nowhere?
AGT: What do you mean by that?
AT: I was negotiating a settlement through my lawyer while I was shocked and deeply hurt by the treatment I received…I am still hurt because I loved serving the people and working with the people I worked with. But it was actually the city that sent the February 12th letter over. My lawyer Russ Chamberlain did not draft it at all. I didn’t write it either. It came over from the city just as I signed it and it was made very clear to me that if I did not have any “current” first hand knowledge, like on that day, of specific life safety issues, if I did not sign I wouldn’t get a settlement. It was an essential part of the deal for the city. They insisted I sign as a key part of (the) deal.
AGT: So, in order for you to achieve an exit with settlement, the city demanded you sign that letter…
AT: Correct. I objected a lot originally to Russ but it was no use. Look, Alex, I was not employed by that time, so they could make me sign this and be technically correct, even though I did not feel good about this kind of move. I was listening to all my friends at the city, telling me there were issues and I was very aware of those conversations because so much of the information was the same as what I knew before I was fired–nothing had changed. But to fulfill my Code of Ethics as a Professional Engineer, I called the Inspections Branch of the city because I was concerned about people’s safety whether it was the Olympic Games or not. That’s not relevant. I have an obligation as an engineer to keep people safe no matter what even if it means a problem to me.
AGT: Okay, let’s switch gears here for a minute. I want to draw your attention to the now infamous picture that appeared on my website of the burning portable. Much has been made of this, not only by other politically-motivated bloggers, but by Dr. Ballem herself, clearly trying to down play the severity of this shot. Can you provide me with your professional statement on this picture from what you see of it and what you know?
AT: Sure, this is from the site of the Canada Pavilion. It looks like an overload, possibly a circuit…or loose connection resulting in an arc, but a potential problem for sure.
(Frank Kurz: Alex, as you know, that picture was taken by a member of the Vancouver Police Department and provided to me…it is indeed a picture of a portable on the Canada Pavilion site and it was a fire that could have been a big problem but someone was smart enough to shut down the breaker–for anyone like Penny Ballem to down play this picture is not to understand the potential problems when dealing with power–anything can happen, at any time.)
AT: Anytime you are dealing with electricity and power you have to be extra cautious because it doesn’t take much for a small mistake to cost someone their life.
AGT: Alright, one more question specifically about the Olympics: It was reported by me that the fire alarm panels at several Olympic venues were not up to code or at least not in optimal conditions, thus ensuring maximum safety for the public during the Games. At the Panasonic tent, for example, they did not have a fire alarm panel at all. This was confirmed late last week in a superb Vancouver Courier article, wherein Will Johnston, your successor, mentioned other anomalies as well. What can you tell me specifically, about the fire alarm panels or fire alarms at various venues during the Games?
AT: Sure, for the purpose of the Olympics, while I was still employed by the city, we had a system designer come to us with plans for a venue, several of them came, that did not conform to a system that is required to be connected to a fire alarm panel where the fire alarm panel is required to be connected to a central monitoring station, so that in case of fire the fire department will be notified immediately. Before I knew it, Will Johnston, my boss (Interviewer’s Note: and the man who not only succeeded Ark Tsisserev and remains in that job today) signed off on these things. I could not contradict his authority. I made an immediate recommendation that these not be accepted as they did not meet code, but he (Johnston) had already committed us. So, to avoid as many dangers as possible I outlined a safety plan that included back-ups and conditions as equal to as if the Vancouver Fire Department could be notified–I had no other choice. It was the only option.
AGT: And this is Will Johnston, the man who replaced you, correct?
AGT: He is a structural engineer, is that right?
AT: Yes, he is.
AGT: And he now holds the position of City ELECTRICIAN, correct?
AGT: And he is not an ELECTRICAL engineer as well is he?
AT: No, he is not.
AGT: And you are an accredited Electrical Engineer who was City Electrician, correct?
AT: That is also correct. I have a Masters in Electrical Engineering.
AGT: Alright, I’ll spare you the obvious question, so that I don’t make you uncomfortable.
AT: (Laughter) Hey, I appreciate this very much. Thank you. I don’t know what your question is so I will wait for the next one.
AGT: Okay, let’s go back to another of Dr. Ballem’s statements in her recent memo to city council wherein she tried to explain your departure from the city, you have read it correct? The document…you’ve read it?
AT: Yes, I have, very carefully.
AGT: And, in this document, Dr. Ballem claims that along with your position, two other positions were eliminated as well, due to budgetary constraints. What can you tell us about that specific statement by Dr. Ballem?
AT: I can tell you that she wrote that three positions are gone: Mine, as City Electrician, the City Environmental Protection Manager and Chief Licence Inspector.
AGT: Alright, are they all gone, Sir, that’s what I’m trying to get at?
AT: No. I was the only one fired. The Manager of Enviro Protection has been vacant for over a year, the Chief Licence Inspector is still there, I think she leaves in June, and me. I was the only one fired like I was. I was the only one gone.
AGT: Right then, so let’s go back to your firing to put things into context on the narrow issue alone, of how you were fired.
AGT: What is the specific section of the Vancouver Charter you were fired under?
AT: I don’t know. Dave McLellan never told me when he fired me.
AGT: You don’t know, how is that possible that you don’t know? You cannot remember? He must have told you something.
AT: According to Section 162 of the Vancouver Charter, the City Electrician position can only be filled or vacated on the strictest of conditions–”fitness or merit”, that’s it. To alter the Charter you have to get approval from Victoria.
AGT: Were you ever given any indication by Dr. Ballem, Will Johnston, Dave McLellan or anyone at the city that your fitness as City Electrician was in question?
AT: No! Never!! In fact, my colleagues provided the city many times with many compliments and no complaints. Not one.
AGT: And the reasons you were given for your dismissal by Dave McLellan were based solely on restructuring and budget constraints?
AT: Yes, that is correct.
AGT: How is that possible when I revealed on my website some weeks ago that your department is not only a money maker, but a branch that leads the city in revenues? You collected a net revenue of just outside $2,000,000 dollars last year. There are other branches that don’t do anywhere as well and are having their (union and non-union) employees protected. How can this be possible? Why were you really fired?
AT: No comment. I’m sorry I will not answer that. Please do not press me.
AGT: Okay, I’ll withdraw that again and maybe we’ll just call it here.
AT: Sure, no problem, thank you.
AGT: Alright then, I think we’ve gone far enough. Let me first say that it’s a privilege to have someone here who clearly cares so much about the city and its people. You’re a real gentleman and I appreciate your time. And I’m sorry if some of my questions were tough to handle, my apologies, no offense intended. And I certainly wish you continued success in the future.
AT: Thank you so much. I appreciate the way you treated me today, Alex. No problem at all. Thank you again.
Now, rather than to have to painstakingly add to your reading, I’m simply going to say this: Tomorrow, I’ll dissect for you what this all means how it is apparent to this writer that Dave McLellan and Penny Ballem have every intention of gutting the electrical department of the City of Vancouver, and losing the $2,000,000 – $4,000,000 in revenues, per year–and Ark Tsisserev was in the way of that and possibly a pile of photo ops for the Mayor. As well, apart from it’s an astoundingly stupid initiative to be dragging a profitable branch of the city through…this is all under the nose of Mayor Robertson and his Vision Vancouver cohorts.
Stay tuned. More tomorrow.