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New West finance director taking on a senior role at Metro Vancouver

New Westminster staffing changes and challenges: City is on the hunt for a new finance director with departure of Harji Varn

The City of New Westminster will soon be on the hunt for a new chief financial officer.

Harji Varn, who has been the city’s finance director since September 2021, is leaving her role in the city to take on a new role at Metro Vancouver.

“Harji is also moving up to a more senior position; she’s moving into a larger budget – they’ve got a capital budget that’s significantly larger than New Westminster’s is,” Mayor Patrick Johnstone told the Record. “So it’s definitely an advancement for her in her career. We’re really proud of her doing that.”

Johnstone said he’s heard from community members who’ve indicated how much they appreciated the work Varn did in finance and how she was able to communicate the complexity of municipal finance to the public.

“She did a great job with that,” he said.

Varn joined the City of New Westminster in September 2020, after then-finance-director Colleen Ponzini (who had assumed the role in April 2019) left in March 2020 after being named the City of White Rock’s finance director. Lorraine Lyle, the city’s manager of financial services, served as acting director of finance and guided the city’s finances through the early months of the pandemic, until Varn took on the chief financial officer (CFO) role.

Prior to working for the City of New Westminster, Varn worked with the City of Vancouver for 12 years. Her background also includes eight years was with Bentall real estate.

In the past year, Varn said she was approached to be the regional chair for Metro Vancouver’s regional finance advisory committee. She has worked with many CFOs, including Metro Van’s CFO, on topics such as municipal finance deform and asset management to long-range planning impacts/financial needs.

Earlier this year, Metro Vancouver announced the Dean Rear, chief financial officer and general manager of financial services, would be retiring, and Varn threw her name in the hat. Her last day with the City of New Westminster is on June 2.

“The City of New Westminster was a fantastic opportunity for someone like me, where I was given chance as a women of colour at such a senior role,” she said in a statement to the Record.

“The 12-plus years with City of Vancouver prepared me well for this role with New Westminster, where I was able to apply my experience on how to serve and provide strategic business advisory and treasury support to the organization. As a custodian of tax payer dollars, it was my honour and privilege to not only drive best value for money-type decisions, but to build the knowledge and report out on the great work the city is doing via a quarterly reporting and annual budget workshop platforms.

During her time with the City of New Westminster, Varn said she had the opportunity to work closely with the senior management team and chief administrative officer Lisa Spitale.

“Lisa is a leader on succession planning and growing her staff from within, and had recently given me an opportunity to act as Deputy CAO,” Varn said. “We worked well together, and I will miss her and many at the organization and wish the city so much ongoing success.”

Varn’s first day on the job in New Westminster was on Sept. 14 – the night after the massive Westminster Pier Park fire broke out on the waterfront.

“I dove in and it was so smoky. I made myself a little video: ‘Here I am on my first day. It’s 12 o’clock and I’m going back home,’” she told the Record after joining the city. “It was really rough conditions to be in the office.”

Since that memorable first day on the job, Varn has led the City of New Westminster through its 2022 and 2023 budget processes. Council recently approved the 2023 budget.

Johnstone said he’s disappointed that the city is losing Varn, but said the timing is good from the budget perspective.

“To Harji’s credit, she has put a lot of really excellent processes in place, and we’re in a much better place than they were when she started in this job,” he said. “So it is a good time. We’re through our budget. We will have processes in place for us to do the work that we have to do to get us through to next budget process.”

At Monday’s meeting, council was scheduled to appoint an acting director of finance, but that wasn’t done because of an abrupt ending to the council meeting.

Sitting beside Varn at Monday’s meeting was Jacqueline Dairon, manager of financial services for the New Westminster Police Department.

“She (Dairon) has been working in our finance department, she is working with the police department in finance,” Johnstone told the Record. “So she’s going to cover off. We’re already beginning the search for a new CFO.”

Because it’s been about six months since councils were elected in the 2022 civic elections in B.C., Johnstone said there is often “a lot of shifting around of people around the region” and he’s not concerned about the city’s ability to fill the CFO position.

Staffing challenges

In May 2022, council received a report and memos from staff detailing the staffing challenges being faced in several departments.

“COVID has created many impacts in the community and within the organization,” chief administrative officer Lisa Spitale said in a 2022 report to council. “Several city departments are facing higher than anticipated staff vacancies due to retirements, departures and a corresponding challenge with staff recruitment.”

Staffing continues to be a challenge for the City of New Westminster, Johnstone said.

“Yeah, I am concerned about it. There’s a lot of competition right now for staff around the region,” he said. “And the great resignation is causing a causing a labour crunch.”

According to Johnstone, the labour crunch is particularly acute in management levels in local governments.

“For a long time, there was a period of time when cities did not hire to keep up with the changing demographics in the cities. And so we have a lot of senior staff who are retiring, a lot of junior staff who are coming in, but there is a bit of a gap in senior management,” he said. “It’s created a really competitive market across the region.”