Staff shuffle continues at Nanaimo City Hall; expert calls departures 'odd and unusual'

By Dominic Abassi
January 22, 2018 - 4:19pm Updated: January 23, 2018 - 7:24am

The finance and corporate services department are the latest to see significant changes at Nanaimo City Hall.File photo/NanaimoNewsNOW

NANAIMO — The City of Nanaimo embarked on yet another shuffling of staff within the municipality, more than three months after Council and the public were told the ongoing reorganization's final phase had played out.

Last Monday, Finance staff were informed of a "transformation journey" in the Corporate Services department.

"The next wave of change will be announced at the appropriate time," an internal email obtained by NanaimoNewsNOW said.

City Hall has been in a seemingly constant state of flux over the last two years.

There were no less than three substantial organizational restructurings and more than 30 management level staff have left the City for a variety of reasons since the beginning of 2015. The City previously told NanaimoNewsNOW there were roughly 60 managers in total at any given time.

On Oct. 2 of last year, city manager Tracy Samra told Council and the public "We're happy with this final phase of reorganization and are going to start focusing on our next steps as a city."

Following that meeting, two high-level managers were fired, one of them re-hired and staff informed of the latest changes to finance and corporate services.

Municipal governance expert George Cuff said, in general, constant change within a municipality impacts the whole system. Cuff has been involved in local government since the 1970's, working as a consultant on more than 500 reviews of municipalities across Canada over the last 30 years.

"It strikes me you've got a confused organization led by people who haven't quite figured out their own agenda...It impacts the morale, your ability to find quality people thereafter. It gives the impression of being an undecided, confused organization that hasn't quite figured out what it wants or needs to do."

Cuff said often in an environment where workloads are being repeatedly shuffled, there's potential for not getting value out of staff.

"As a result you have the potential of an organization that's spending an awful lot of time spinning its wheels because you're lacking a coherent and concerted direction."

Two of the most notable changes at the City happened within the senior management team. Samra created two new positions, chief operations officer and chief sustainability officer and handpicked people for the roles. Both Brad McRae and Kim Fowler were described as pivotal assets to assist in the implementation of the core services review.

However, Fowler left her position after less than six months and McRae was fired earlier this month upon Samra's recommendation for dismissal with cause.

"I just find it odd and unusual. Typically if a new city manager comes in and is given licence to bring in their own senior mangers...Those people would end up guiding the organization for the next three-to-five years. This quick a turnaround is both, in my view and experience, unusual as well as probably largely unnecessary,” Cuff said.

Samra declined a recorded interview for this story, saying in an email senior management agreed to a "phased approach so that decisions could be revisited as different aspects of the (core review) were implemented," accounting for the prolonged nature of the restructuring.

With regards to the senior positions created and then discarded, Samra said Fowler's work was completed in April 2017 and "in consultation with senior management we determined that a director of public works and engineering is a better fit than a generalist position such as chief operating officer."

However, public works was removed from McRae's portfolio in September, more than two months before Samra recommended his termination.

In fact, the strategy for handling the public works department changed several times since the previous director left in the summer of 2016. Originally, the position was not filled. It was placed under McRae's watch when he was hired in September 2016. After being taken out of McRae's job description a year later, the City put out an open call for applications to fill the post. Eventually, the City's longtime water resources manager was tapped to take it on in mid-December.

Samra claimed the organizational changes resulted in a savings of $725,000 in 2017, however it's unclear where those changes were reflected for taxpayers.

The property tax increase in 2017 went up 0.8 per cent at the last minute due to $800,000 in cost overruns for snow and ice removal. When council recently added $60,000 to the 2018 budget to address downtown safety concerns, the proposed tax increase rose 0.1 per cent.


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On Twitter: @domabassi

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