Sunday, November 24, 2013

You Can Either Be a Good Example, or a Horrible Warning

Over the last few weeks, I think that the topic most frequently raised with me is the situation that Toronto City Council now finds itself in, thanks to the behaviour of its mayor, Rob Ford.  I was appalled last week when I watched the news coverage of Monday's council meeting, as councillors took what action they could to limit the mayor's influence and control over council meetings and agendas.  The sight of the mayor (and his brother), walking around council chambers, yelling at other members of council and the public gallery, was shocking and disgraceful.  The result, of course, is that Ford now is mayor in name only, while control of meetings and agendas now rests with the deputy mayor.  I'm sure that it must be a relief to both councillors and city hall staff that they can now refocus on city business, rather than responding to media questions about the mayor's faux pas of the day.

The question that seems to come most often is "why can't they just remove him from being mayor?"  The answer to that is, of course, because council did not elect him, so they can't remove him from office.  Lack of control in one's personal life, and the subsequent refusal to take time to regain that control, no matter what the issue, is not grounds under provincial legislation to remove a mayor (or any other elected official) from office.  And that's how it should be.  Just as in Saskatchewan, removal requires more than just not being popular with your colleagues, and has to come from outside of council, either through being convicted of a criminal offence, or through a judge determining that conflict of interest occurs - which, interestingly enough, happened to Mr. Ford not that long ago, although a subsequent appeal determined that the size of his offence was out of proportion to the penalty of removing him from office.

From all accounts, Rob Ford was an extremely popular councillor for ten years, largely because he was very responsive to  his constituents.  He also wasn't afraid to stand alone in votes against the rest of council.  When he was elected mayor three years ago, it was largely through a single promise - to cut the waste at City Hall.  Unfortunately, like many campaigns based on a single slogan, things turned out to be more complex than he thought, and his success in that direction since being elected has been mixed at best.  He also seemed to have difficulty realizing that the job of mayor is different that being councillor - you have to be someone who can bring a team together, by articulating a vision that the majority of councillors can support.  And while he was able to bring enough councillors on side for some issues, that support was not solid enough to withstand the scandals of the last six months.

In May, shortly after the stories broke about the crack cocaine video, we were at FCM in Vancouver.  Several members of Toronto city council were there (not the mayor, who has never attended one of those meetings, apparently not interested in exchanging information with his counterparts across Canada), and when I spoke with them, they were universally just relieved to be away from the circus that Toronto City Hall had become.

I find it sad to watch Rob Ford.  His excuses - "I've been under a lot of stress"; "Everybody does it" - are those of an adolescent, not a man in his forties.  He seems to feel that a position of continual denial, followed by apologies when the truth comes out, is sufficient.  Sadly, he doesn't seem to realize that his job is to lead city council, not stand apart from them.  And when people refuse to follow you, you can no longer be considered the leader.  I think that he would have a great deal more credibility, and public sympathy, if he just admitted that he needs to take some time off to deal with whatever personal problems have led him to this point.

He also needs to realize that being mayor is not a nine-to-five job - it's what you are, twenty-four hours a day.  Even in a small city like Prince Albert, the expectation is that you are available to the people you represent, no matter where you are or what you're doing.  I can expect to be asked questions whenever I'm buying groceries or at the mall, and phone calls come every day of the week.  I don't complain, because that comes with the job.

People expect their elected officials to behave with integrity - that means that they expect you to tell the truth, and that your actions should match your words.  When this is lost - and it doesn't take much - it's going to be a lot harder to regain that trust.  Hopefully Rob Ford spends the next months, not in waging war against everyone on council, as he threatened at the council meeting, but in dealing with his personal issues, and working to rebuild his trust with the people of Toronto.

I'm not worried about something similar happening in Prince Albert - we seem to have a better understanding of appropriate behaviour, and of how to handle our differences while remaining civil.  It's just another reason why I'm happy with our decision to move from Toronto to Prince Albert, more than thirty years ago.

"When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself a public property." - Thomas Jefferson

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Strategic Planning - A Key Step in Budgeting

Over the last month, between council meetings, council has been meeting with each individual department for strategic planning sessions.  We've had three of these meetings so far, and have met with the staff of Corporate Services, Community Services, Financial Services and the Fire Department.  Still to come is our largest department, Public Works.

At these meetings we're looking closely in two areas - each department's base budget, and its organizational structure.  We're looking for efficiencies - efficiencies in spending, processes and personnel.  As I've mentioned before, the status quo in how we do things can no longer be an assumption, and there are no sacred cows.

These sessions will provide direction to the budgeting process, allowing us to start at the real beginning of the process, rather than just tweaking proposed new expenditures to fit some predetermined target for increasing taxes, while assuming that we're going to keep on doing what we're doing whether there are better ways of doing things or not.  It may have been easier and faster, but that's not why we were elected.

This is the first time in several years that we've looked at things so closely, and it's been an eye-opener for all of us on council.  I've also noticed that the approach by staff is starting to change as well - they are seeing the positive implications of working more openly with council, and of the opportunities that will benefit everyone - staff and city residents - by improving the way we do things, and by improving our focus on what really is in everyone's best interests - a city where priorities are set, and work and spending follows those priorities.

Meetings have been focused, with everyone feeling free to ask questions and offer possible options.  Through the process, I think that everyone on council, both the long-term veterans and the relative newcomers, have become more comfortable with the realization that while nobody has all the answers, by asking questions and thinking of alternatives, we're going to come up with a budget that will be better understood by everyone involved, because we'll have a better understanding of how it was developed, and our reasons for whatever the final decisions turn out to be.

We'll also be better equipped to answer the inevitable questions that will come from the public on our decisions.  And as one of our goals is to be more open and accountable to the people who have put us in charge, we'll be better at reaching that goal as well.

"A goal without a plan is just a wish." - Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Moving Ahead

I was very happy with the announcement that, starting in the new year, Jim Toye will be our new city manager.  I've known Jim for several years, having met him through various municipal government circles, and I believe that he has the right mix of strengths and experience to lead city administration in working well with council.

His resume is impressive, but even more impressive are the positive comments about him that we've heard from both his employers and co-workers.  He's known for being a hard worker, a good team builder, and able to work with a wide variety of people, bringing their skills and abilities together so that the sum of the whole is greater than the individual parts.

That attitude is exactly what we were hoping for when we started looking for a new city manager.  We wanted someone who would be able to take direction from council, then motivate the rest of the city staff to carry out this direction, in ways that leave everyone involved feeling appreciated, and part of the solution.  Of course, one guy can't be a miracle maker, but having someone with the goal of building a strong team, and who understands that council sets the direction to be carried out by staff, is a good place to start.

A new city manager is also an effective way of signalling to both staff and Prince Albert residents, that the status quo is no longer in place.  This council has said repeatedly that we want to be seen to be open to new ideas, and willing to try to do things differently, rather than being stuck in the same old patterns, and I believe that Jim will help us as we continue to move in that direction.  I think that he understands that all members of council have good ideas to bring to the table, and that we can be most effective if all viewpoints are considered respectfully before decisions are made.

At the level of city manager, the most important responsibility is being able to motivate staff to work to the best of their abilities, not to micromanage every detail of every project - that's what the individual experts should be allowed to do.  From what I know of Jim,  his people skills are his greatest strength, and I'm looking forward to the new energy and ideas that he'll bring to the city in the new year.

"When I meet successful people, I ask what they attribute their success to.  It's usually the same: persistence, hard work, and hiring good people."  Kiana Tom