26 months of dynamic civic leadership have come to a close; the bar was raised – now staff have to learn how to get over it.

News 100 redBy Pepper Parr

May 19, 2014


Thursday evening Burlington celebrated its BEST – 29 people were nominated for the seven categories the city has within which it recognizes and awards citizens who have contributed to the community.

The day before, in a reception at the Performing Arts Centre, city hall staff met to bid former city manager Jeff Fielding adieu.  It was an event tinged with sadness, disappointment and some of that gallows humour that makes its way into events where there is not a lot of joy in the room.

The city was watching a truly dynamic city manager leave after a hectic, topsy turvey 26 month run when literally everything was looked at differently.

City solicitor Nancy Shea Nicol summed it up rather well when she said much of her work with Jeff was first asking if what he had done was legal and then changing documents to make sure it was legal.  Jeff Fielding was the kind of guy who immediately went to the edge of an issue and THEN pushed.

City administration leadership team: city manager Jeff Fielding on the left with general manager comunity and corporate services, centre and general manager, development and infrastructure Scott Stewart on the righ

City administration leadership team: city manager Jeff Fielding on the left with general manager community and corporate services, centre and general manager, development and infrastructure Scott Stewart on the right.  The two general managers didn’t always pull with the same level of effort.

General manager Kim Phillips, who had a choppy working relationship with Fielding, said staff wanted to have a caricature  made up to present to Jeff but there wasn’t time to get it done.  “Had we managed to put it together it would have been of Jeff on a bicycle heading towards a golf course with his golf clubs over his shoulders peddling by city owned buildings with for sale signs on them.

Jeff Fielding was close to radical in his approach to many of the tasks he took on.  He understood fully the need for the municipal sector to change its business model; he knew that what we are currently doing is not sustainable.

Taking the job opportunity as city manager in Calgary gives Jeff Fielding the opportunity to work with a mayor who also knows the current municipal business model will not work – it isn’t working now.  Fielding was very comfortable in Burlington; taking the job of city manager for Burlington was to be his last move before retirement.  The fertile soil for change that he thought he saw turned out to be thin with nowhere near the nutrients to bring about real growth.

As one watched his behaviour at Standing Committee meetings and became aware of just how big his changes were – it was breath taking.  On an occasion when a discussion was taking place in Fielding’s office – almost every square inch was covered with pieces of papers with ideas, comments and questions.  There was this itch to write down as much as I could read and to whip out the camera and start clicking away.  There wasn’t an issue that Fielding would not at least look at.

Mayor Rick Goldring explaining to Kilbride area residents what was being done and the time frames the repair crews were working to in their community.

Former city manager Jeff Fielding, on the left, was always on hand with Mayor Rick Goldring. Here Goldring explains to Kilbride area residents what was being done and the time frames the repair crews were working to in their community.

He didn’t see any reason for the city to be in the golf club business – we think he was right on that one.  He had a team of smart people begin a study of the city’s space needs – asked first what do we have and then asked staff to set out what was needed now and into the future – and then began looking for ways to leverage the city hall property.

Fielding was convinced that city owned parking lots had much more value in them than was being realized and he was constantly looking for ways to get at that value and make it work for the city.

He understood fully, more than most of the city’s population, the importance of culture to the city and the need to hype the Performing Arts Centre and work with the Art Centre to get more value – and traffic – to those locations.

City council wasn’t able to find the money to hire a full time Cultural Development manager in the 2014 budget.  During the final delegation from the Arts Collective,  Fielding turned and told the speaker that he would look for a way to find the money to hire that person. “I can’t promise I will find the dollars – but I will try” which is more than any of the current council members said.


Jeff Fielding, on the left, didn’t take prisoners. He let lawyer Glenn Grenier,second from the left, who described himself as an expert on the legislation that governs air parks in Canada, know that Burlington wasn’t buying his story. City solicitor Nancy Shea Nicol and Blake Hurley look on.

After the meeting Fielding had some stiff words for Grenier while city solicitor Nancy Shea Nicol and staff lawyer Blake Hurley looked on.

Fielding was direct, blunt and didn’t have much time for the “slackers”.  On the other hand he recognized real talent which he nurtured and developed.  There are a couple of dozen people on the city payroll who are bigger and better people today than they were the day Fielding arrived.  For them his decision to leave now was extremely disappointing.

He turned the way the city does its budget upside down and took staff into a  Results Based Accountability (RBA) approach where the departmental silos would be merged in a way that would be exceptionally difficult for some staff.

When asked what would happen to the RBA work that had been done Fielding told this reporter that all the basic budget work is completed and he felt staff could complete the shift.  That is a stretch by any definition.

Fielding has made arrangements for people in London where he introduced the RBA approach to work with Burlington’s financial team and that help will certainly be useful.  What Fielding has done is take a team of people in probably the best run department in the city and convince them to go way out on a limb with him and do something significantly different.  This kind of thing does not happen in the municipal world.

The financial people were excited, motivated; pumped if you will, and at a critical time their coach and mentor walks off the field.  As much as we admire Fielding  –that decision is difficult to fathom and disappointing as well .  The city needed another year to get RBA in place and functioning – it was within Fielding’s power to do that.  He chose not to.

Fielding did say that he would have liked to have had one more year in Burlington – the city would certainly have liked to have had him for that additional twelve months.  One wonders if the Mayor told Fielding that he was not prepared to accept the resignation at this time and sent him back to his desk.  Too much to ask for I guess

Rick Goldring told staff at the reception that the day he  advised his fellow council members that Fielding was leaving he saw an event on YouTube where the Mayor of Calgary was introducing Jeff as their new city manager.  “I felt”, said the Mayor, “like the guy who breaks up with a girl one night and the next day sees her in the arms of some other guy”.

It was both a shock and a profound disappointment to everyone.  One wonders why we did not see this coming.

Fielding raised the bar said the Mayor in his remarks and Fielding certainly did that.  The problem was that he didn’t stick around long enough to get his team to the point where they could get over that bar day in and day out.  Budget time in 2015 is going to have more than the usual bumps in the road.

City manager Jeff Fielding: About to put his stamp on the way the city has to be run.

Former city manager Jeff Fielding was strong enough to wear his emotions on his sleeve.  Made a difference while he was here.

Fielding who is an exceptionally emotional man – came close to losing it when he spoke to the team that he led and explained that there are occasions when opportunities come along and you take them.  He added that his decision to move from London to Burlington was a family decision.  His wife works with the regional government and the two boys are attending Burlington schools.  Fielding took out a golf club membership – this was home.

The decision to move to Calgary was not, Fielding explained, a family decision.  He was going to Calgary on his own and would commute to be with his family.

Patrick Moyle

Pat Moyle, interim city manager, probably until NEXT June, brings years of experience in municipal government having served as Regional CAO and with the Association of Municipalities in Ontario. A steady hand during a period of change.

Scott Stewart was the “ying” to Fielding’s “yang”.  Fielding looked at things from the 30,000 foot level and could see beyond the horizon and relied on Stewart to execute on the decisions that were made.  The two were a remarkable team – the only good luck in all this for Burlington is that Fielding didn’t take Scott Stewart with him.

There are always complex reasons for changes made in one’s life.  Fielding was pretty sure that the move to Burlington would be the capstone of his career – but then the phone call from Calgary came and Fielding was unable to say no to an opportunity to return to the city where he once worked in the planning department.  There appears to be some unfinished business in Calgary that has cost Burlington the most dynamic and effective administrative leader we have seen for a long time.

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1 comment to 26 months of dynamic civic leadership have come to a close; the bar was raised – now staff have to learn how to get over it.

  • Sometimes a professional has to say “no” to even once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, but Fielding, apparently, could not do that. He was morally obligated to remain on the job in Burlington for another year to fully complete what he had started. That’s the way I see it–it was the “right” thing to do.