And so, another city manager has come and gone. In Prince Albert, we change managers about as often as we change hockey coaches.
And that is why some of the things that our mayor was promising, as the door was closing, will likely not happen, despite sounding like good ideas.
In my time living in the city of Prince Albert, we’ve had a number of city commissioners and then, under new terminology, city managers. The first one I remember is Bob Linner, back in the 1980s. A bright man with an amazing memory for detail, he served long enough to be remembered with a street name here before moving on to a career with the city of Regina, then retiring.
Len Cantin was city commissioner in the late 1980s and into the 1990s. He came up through the ranks of Prince Albert’s City Hall managers to the top spot. His exit was not so happy; an anti-union attitude and antagonistic approach at times created enemies who ultimately found a way to force his exit.
Terry Topping came from the City Clerk’s office to serve in the office next to the mayor. A precise and principled man, the role of city commissioner always seemed like a jacket that didn’t fit quite comfortably on him. Nevertheless, he fulfilled his duties and moved on.
Arnie McKay moved from the city engineer’s office to the city manager’s office about the time the new century was rolling in, and stayed in that role until 2004 when there was a reasonably amicable parting and the search began for a new manager.
Roman Martiuk was the head-hunter’s find from Ontario, moving here with impressive credentials and many new ideas in 2005. He returned to Ontario for bigger and better things, and Robert Cotterill -- another Ontarian -- came to take his place. Earlier this month, Cotterill was relieved of his duties by city council.
That’s a half dozen men who’ve moved in and out of the commissioner/manager role in about 30 years, and when you consider the lengthy terms of some, that leaves rather short terms for the remainder. In some ways, that’s not surprising. It is a tough job: for one thing, you have nine bosses on council to keep happy.
It’s also a job that attracts a lot of attention, both inside and outside City Hall. You are the ultimate manager for the vast majority of city staff, outside of the police force and a few out-of-scope positions and people are often critical of their boss. From the public, you will be criticized for your salary, for your car allowance, for your holiday allowance and for every decision made that someone didn’t agree with -- and for every decision made, there will be someone who didn’t agree. People ascribe more power to those in high-profile positions than is really held, and then get upset that the expected power is not used as they believe it should have been.
I don’t know the reasons behind the latest departure from the city’s top office, nor should those reasons be public, but I hope there were some good ones. To pay out about $170,000 in severance over some petty misunderstanding would be a terrible waste of our tax dollars.
It would also be a disservice to the taxpayers to leave the city without someone at the helm for months, while a search is conducted, unless there is a very, very good reason to do so.
The city manager position is the equivalent of the deputy minister role in senior government. The elected officials will change, and change direction, but the top manager usually will provide the needed stability. We have a council that is still finding its way, having been a group for only about a year, with many newcomers, and with a mayor who while a council veteran is new to the role of mayor. There is usually a balance achieved between council -- especially the mayor -- and the manager that allows for the work of government to get done. Now, we don’t have that steadying hand on the wheel of our ship, so we are prone to drifting at sea.
In announcing the departure of our latest manager, Mayor Greg Dionne said council will not be hiring an executive search firm, commonly known as head hunters, and will not put a severance payment clause into the contract of the new hire. That sounds good: Why pay money for someone to look for an employee? Why pay someone to leave?
I disagree with him. Consider who will run the search in the absence of an outside firm? The head of the city’s human resources department really shouldn’t be expected to choose his own boss. City council members are more-or-less volunteers and lack the necessary knowledge of recruitment. Not having someone a bit apart from City Hall charged with the search for a new city manager will not be good.
And as for a severance payout, well, look at the list above. Who, as a suitably qualified candidate, would be willing to move to Prince Albert, take on all the stresses of the job, and know that he (because it’s an almost certainty it will be another “he”) could be canned on the whim of council, without protecting himself? Plus, if there is no severance clause in the contract and the next manager is let go in a few years’ time, there will be a lawsuit, guaranteed. And that means severance plus legal costs.
The door has swung, open and shut, yet again at City Hall. Here’s hoping our council makes wise decisions as they consider their options for another person to fill the city manager’s spot.
Barb Gustafson is a lifelong resident of Prince Albert, and a former managing editor and publisher of the Prince Albert Daily Herald.