Changing the culture at city hall; bringing in the department leadership needed - and getting a Code of Conduct in place for the politicians.

SwP thumbnail graphicBy Pepper Parr

July 26, 2015


It is difficult to find a developer in the Burlington area who will say great things about the city. It is easy to find developers, particularly the smaller ones, who do not have a complaint they are quite ready to share with you.

The “counter” – that’s the place developers first go to when they want to talk to people in the planning department, is often the focus of the complaints.
Developers will complain that they can never get a straight answer from the planning department and that just when they think they have everything the city needs in the way of reports – they find that yet another report is needed.

The planning department doesn’t see it quite that way – but they didn’t want to talk for attribution.

Stewart Scott blue sweater - more face

Scott Stewart loves that sweater – has he had it since 1967?

Scott Stewart, the General Manager for Infrastructure and Development is serving as the Interim Director of Planning – and he is a lot different from the recently retired Director of that department.

Stewart wants to see a culture change within the department and has moved some people around and adds “there are some noses out-of-place” in the department but there will be a change”.

The bringing in of a new director for planning is a Stewart hire to make and he is pretty clear in his mind what the city needs.

James Ridge, city manager, has some planning experience in his background – he and Stewart should be on the same page on this one.

Burlington’s city council members don’t, at times, fully appreciate the command structure at city hall. Council hires the city manager and he runs the city for them. Council creates policy and issues Staff Directions – the city manager follows those directions.

The city manager is there to advise and guide council – but the marching orders come from Council. Decisions get made by city council based on policy and specific votes made by the seven council members.

They don’t do the actual hiring – a source has suggested to the Gazette that the Mayor wanted to be in on the actual interviewing of the short list for the director of planning – that shouldn’t happen.

The story is told, from a sterling source, of the Council member who said he thought Council should be involved in the hiring of everyone down to the Director level. The person who told the story said to the council member: ‘You clearly have no concept of what staff accountability is all about.’ With this Council it is referred to as “getting into the weeds”.

Most municipal governments have well qualified, committed professional staff. They do have a pension that is not available to most people and it might seem as if they get a lot of time off. When senior staff are taking part at public meetings in the evening – are they required to be at their desks first thing the next day? Many people in Burlington think they should.

When the budget is going through its final phases – the team that creates that document, based on instructions from city council, work well into the night frequently to complete the budget.

Whoever the city hires as its next Director of Planning, hopefully will be with the city for several terms of office. The elected officials come and go – in Burlington they don’t seem to go very often which is unhealthy but until the voters in town decide they want different leadership we’ve got what we elected.

There is a bit of a leadership crisis at city hall; there are culture changes that need to be made in several of the departments.


Scott Stewart on the left,and former city manager Jeff Fielding, put a number of major changes in place – but then Fielding saw a greener pasture and headed west for Calgary.

Burlington has had three city managers in five years plus an interim filling the chair until a new city manager was hired.

Every management leader needs time to create the kind of work force and working environment that results in the kind of service delivery the public wants. Some good people have left the city for other jurisdictions because the lack of solid consistent leadership that would allow them to grow as civil servants wasn’t in place.

Burlington now has a city manager who has yet to make his mark. James Ridge isn’t a Jeff Fielding, his predecessor. He is more cautious and quite a bit quieter and appears to be a stickler for the rules. A deal maker he isn’t.

We need another year of observing Ridge to get a clearer sense as to what kind of a staff he wants to have in place to deliver the program he understands the city council wants.

We have watched Ridge admonish this Council ever so slightly when they appeared to be resisting the making of a decision. Ridge will, in his quiet way, hold their feet to the flames.

Ridge is not a big believer in the concept of Master Plans – Burlington has been in love with the things for years.

Ridge thinks they create silos and he seems to want a more homogenous approach to the way staff think through their problems. It is going to take him some time to determine where staff changes have to be made and then implement those changes.

Fielding was exceptional at getting out and talking to people; you always knew when he was in the room. Ridge is a quieter person – we are only beginning to get a sense of his decision making process.

Council has handed him a hot one – the Code of Conduct that has been kicking around for far too long and should have been agreed upon by this Council at its last meeting. Some fancy procedural foot work on the part of Councillor Sharman, aided and abetted by Councillors Craven and Lancaster, to reverse a change that had been agreed upon at Standing Committee preciously resulted in the whole matter being referred to the city manager who would work with it as part of the governance section of the Strategic Plan.

Strategic Plan sessions are frequently, if not always, done off site or in a room at city hall where there is no web casting capacity.
The scallywags on this council like it that way. It’s going to be messy.

Staff observes these changes and turn to their city manager to save them from this kind of unprofessional behaviour.

James Ridge Day 1 - pic 2

James Ridge the day he was introduced to the public at a council meeting – he didn’t say a word.

Is Ridge up to the job – can he manage the Mayor and the rest of |Council and hold a draw a clear line or will he choose to become “friendly” with council and fetch water for them rather than pour cold water on silly, expensive ideas that they come up with and expect him to find the money to pay for

James Ridge has the summer to work this one out. How he resolves this will tell what kind of a city manager we have; what kind of a culture will prevail at city and what kind of a city we end up being.  This assumes that he completes his five-year contract.

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5 comments to Changing the culture at city hall; bringing in the department leadership needed – and getting a Code of Conduct in place for the politicians.

  • Tom Muir

    Albert, I don’t understand why you waited 11 years to make this failure to process your application a public issue at Council, or elsewhere (OMB?). ADI downtown waited only the 180 days rule.

    If your application is in the Bridgeview area I understand that is in itself a reason for delay, but yes, 11 years is a standout. I can’t recall the specific reasons at Bridgeview right now, but Craven has reported on it in the past.

    In any case, by the Municipal Act rules of the city, staff do not, or should not, follow the instructions of individual councillors to approve or process development applications. They follow votes instructions on motions by Council as a whole. The City Manager is the staff top boss.

    You say he arranged a meeting with staff, so what did they tell you?

    My experience is that staff are not accountable, and don’t even answer questions if they don’t want to. But then neither are any of the councillors. That’s a main root of the problems we all have.

  • John

    Sounds like you did everything possible and were stonewalled.

    We can only hope Mr. Ridge and Mr. Stewart read the Gazette and use your unfortunate experience to help shape the changes that Burlington deserves.

  • Albert Faccenda

    Hi John thanks for the support. Councilor Craven was very supportive of this application and voted for this lot configuration in conjunction with the adjacent property that was developed earlier prior to my application. He also set up a meeting with those who were responsible for processing this application to move this thing along. He tried his best but his instructions fell on deaf ears. The fact that no one was fired over this or at least held accountable for neglecting their duty and the instructions of a City Councilor were ignored by City employees is in your words truly outrageous.

  • john

    Your adventure with the city is simply outrageous. No one should have to endure this type treatment in our city.
    I would be interested to know the ward this development is being proposed, and any comment (if you asked) that the councillor provided.

  • Albert Faccenda

    As a developer I have spent thousands of hours at the “counter”. Many times leaving knowing less than I did than when I got there.I feel confident that Mr. Stewart and Mr. Ridge can turn the good ship Chaos around. Freeing the minds of smart planners(Bad process) who have been brain washed by the previous director of that dept. Who believed an application that took 4 days to process should now take 5 months. Cost an applicant (The Taxpayer who pays their wages.) $20,000 more. By imposing one of the most onerous, expensive job and business killing application process in Canada. Open for business I don’t think so. Here is an example. In 2003 I started to work on a plan of subdivision for 6 lots using the exact lot pattern voted on by council a few years earlier. In 2004 (yes 2004)I applied for a plan of subdivision to the planning dept. for 6 lots. Pretty simple right? Not in Burlington. It is now 2015(Nobody has been fired yet???well maybe!) and this matter has still not gone to council for a vote. If lucky houses will start going up in 2018 probably 2019 after all this is Burlington. 15 years from start to finish to develop a few lots??? It didn’t take 15 years to process all the high rise buildings that block the sun. Or the massive subdivisions in North Burlington. I had to watch all this crap unfold while my application rotted on someones desk. The previous director of this dept. seemed to have no problem sliding (I know what your thinking) these big money deals right along. They were sprouting up like mushrooms. If I can make a suggestion. At the “counter” place 2 signs. On the applicants side the sign should read. HOW CAN WE HELP YOU? making an applicant feel like you are working to help them. On the Planning side of the counter the sign should read HOW CAN WE HELP THEM? (The applicants and Taxpayers some who have been waiting forever to have applications processed.) As a guide to the planners, as to why they are there and who pays them. How does a minor application sit around for 11 years? Where are we in Greece? Good luck to Mr. Stewart and Mr. Ridge. In helping small business, and creating high paying local employment.