Dedicated municipal servant rents apartment across from city hall; moves into city manager’s office.

 By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON  January 29, 2012  He got into the municipal business as a meter reader while still a student  in his home town and has worked for different cities for the past forty years.  Jeff Fielding was poached by Burlington from London and is about to become our third city manager.  He brings experience gained at municipalities across the country.  One of his proudest moments was the day he became city manager of Kitchener, his boyhood home town.

Jeff Fielding, Burlington's new city manager brings 40 years of experience and a collegial attitude to the 7th floor of city hall.

Burlington has a truly seasoned, experienced municipal bureaucrat who wasn’t looking for a place to end his career but rather a move to a city where he felt he could truly ply his profession.  Fielding comes across as a friendly, open, and more than prepared to listen, manager who can, when circumstances require it, be tough as nails.

I watched him work, admittedly for a very short period of time, with what struck me as a very sharp, motivated staff in London.  When the point of the discussion taking place in their Council chamber began to drift – Fielding cut in and asks that everyone stay focused.  You get the impression that one comes to meetings he chairs well prepared or you get one of those “in my office please” comments.

Fielding has taken part in six to seven meetings with Burlington city hall staff and used whatever spare time he had to find himself an apartment until his youngest is out of school and ready to transfer to Burlington.  His wife, who currently works in London, will be seeking new employment in Burlington.  There are three children; one in university, one making a community college decision and the youngest still in high school.

He was in town for the Mayor’s State of the City address to a Chamber of Commerce audience and met more people than he is going to remember.  He was also in town for a critical council and senior staff meeting that focused on what got done in 2011 and the strengths and weaknesses of the team.  Parts of that session were uncomfortable to more than one council member and a couple of staff members as well.  The city manager was in the room letting them know how he operates while staff and council had an opportunity to get their measure of the man.  If what I saw in London was any indication, Burlington is going to be very well served and the senior staff are going to have not only a leader but a solid mentor as well.

Fielding describes his job as giving Council what they need to make quality decisions and that behind everything he does is ensuring that the decisions made are aligned with the Strategic Plan, with the cities governance objectives

He will probably arrive in town sometime Sunday evening – get his stuff stowed away in his new apartment and be at city hall just a few minutes behind everyone else to give his new staff time to be ready for him.  His newly printed business cards will be on his desk and the room will be freshly painted, but he apparently doesn’t get a new chair.  He will sit in on his first Council meeting Monday night and watch how his staff handle the tricky question of what to do about the closed Drury Lane bridge and watch how his staff make up for a rather weak original report.

Then he might watch in amazement as he hears how council is going to deal with a bridge that handles something in the order of 70 people a day and could cost as much as $2.5 million to replace.  Might he wonder if the suggestion from one city hall wag that “it would be cheaper to just buy all the people in the community a small car or bicycles than it will be the replace the bridge” has any merit?

Fielding, a city manager who can be tough when he has to be. His experience will allow him to mentor a team that can be grown and at the same time address the problem with all the "acting" staff positions.

Fielding understands that time is everything and knows too that the Burlington “brand” has to be developed, polished and promoted if the city is to attract the corporations that will create those high-tech, high paying jobs that have been made the lynch pin of our financial success.

Like every other government practitioner Fielding tells you that he is going to be both transparent and accountable.  Does that mean the secret pre-meetings council and staff  pow-wow at are going to be dispensed with ?  A “pre-meeting” is an event that takes place before a scheduled meeting at which there is no “public” to listen.  If there is something they don’t want to come out – this is where that decision gets made on how to handle anything that is messy or sticky.

Late in 2010 Council learned there was a “surprise” surplus of $9.6 million.  Fielding does not use the term “surplus” and replaces it with planned savings.  That’s neat and it has the sound of professionals who are in control but it is really a bit of sophistry.

Funds that different departments are given in the budget to fulfill their work mandates are, in Fielding’s eyes, not necessarily the property of the department.  He talks in terms of shifting and sharing funds and doesn’t appear to have any time for corporate silos or turf building.  Maybe he will manage to pry some money out of the hands over at legal and please Councillor Dennison immensely by applying it to the “shave and pave” solution to our infrastructure shortfall. Shave and pave is a process used to upgrade roads – shaving off old asphalt and putting a new coat of asphalt on – extends the life of a road considerably.

Fielding wants to work with an aligned council where he can be part of the re-building trust, a phrase that comes up more often than one would expect.  Former Mayor Jackson gets tagged with the most divisive mayor label; but one has to ask if one man could have done that much damage in a single term.  If the previous Council was that divisive there has to be some sharing of responsibility.

What we have in Fielding is a man who the Mayor has great confidence in and expects him to develop the staff that will deliver on the promises this Council has made to the public and expects to make to the public as the city deals with both its problems and its opportunities.

Fielding sees the problems as something superior management can handle and says he looks forward to creating some revenue generating opportunities.  There aren’t that many traditional revenue generating opportunities for a municipality other than increasing fees and service charges.  Truly dynamic leaders will look for ways to go “outside the box” with their thinking and here the city’s decision to try and do more with Burlington Hydro,  a city wholly owned subsidiary, would seem to be hopefully a first step in looking at more than the tax rolls and service fees for revenue.

These are not traditional directions for any city – the idea that a municipality is in “business” is something new to most municipalities in this country.  However, the Mayor has some top notch entrepreneurial talent in his office and if that talent can be grafted onto a city manager that knows how to lead and develop senior management talent – Burlington just might be entering a new era.

London does some things quite differently than Burlington.  They use the honorific “Your Worship” rather than Mayor.  Wonder who decides what the language will be?

Will Burlington see substantial change in the way staff serves taxpayers; will there be real transparency and accountability?

The London city hall is quite modern looking and there is much more attention paid to the display of their history in the lobby.  And, the Mayor and members of Council are more available to the public – all are on the second floor right next to the Council Chamber.  On a personal note, media in London get much better treatment.  There are six individual desks in the Council chamber set aside and marked “Media”.  Extensive use is made of overhead projections and they have a projector that actually works.  There is quite a bit of glass used in the décor of the chamber.  Burlington has that ‘second hand furniture” look and feel to it.

They have a practice with delegations that will hopefully find its way to Burlington..  The chair of the meeting ask the delegation – what their outcomes are – in other words – what do they want to come out of what it is they are going to say to council.  We could benefit from a change to the way we handle our delegations.

Two television crews cover the meetings: Rogers Cable and CTV television – each has their own camera in the room with an attendant behind the tripod.  The result is a much more professional video production.

For Jeff  Fielding the team is what matters the most and based on my short period of time at the London city hall – it is very much a staff team environment.  There is a very comfortable level of camaraderie between the city manager and his staff.   Fielding exudes the confidence his staff needs to know they are being well led and at the same time expected to deliver their very best.

New city manager Jeff Fielding with General Managers Kim Phillips, centre and Scott Stuart. The three will set the tone for a new city hall culture.

In Burlington, Fielding expects to find his niche and then add value to the process. His style is relaxed and collegial.  He is certainly a dedicated municipal civil servant.  He leaves a city that was paying him 253,671. plus $9,882 in taxable benefits and coming to Burlington for about $215,000 – maybe a bit more- to head up a staff that has to be given credit for carrying the full load during the four months the city has been without a city manager. General managers Kim Phillips and Scott Stewart deserve significant performance bonuses for keeping things on track and together.  They not only did the job of acting city managers but carried their own work load as well.   Fielding obviously did not leave London and come to Burlington for a bigger pay cheque.

Fielding delights in telling people how he learned as a very young bureaucrat that “all I had to do was listen and people would provide me with a wealth of knowledge and insights – all for free.  I learned that people really cared about their neighbourhoods and about their City, but maybe not so much about local government.  I learned firsthand that public service could make a difference.” These became lifelong lessons that were never forgotten.

Fielding tells people that his close friends realize he is a “bit shy” and that he is best described “inwardly outgoing”.  That wasn’t my experience with the man as we talked for more than an hour. Jeff Fielding is direct, keeps his thoughts on track and reminds you that he sees public service as an honourable and deserving profession and that public servants make a difference in people’s lives every day.  “I believe this with all my heart”, he said.  He adds however that many city employees no longer believe in the value of public service because of their lack of confidence and trust in the organization.”  Expect Jeff Fielding to bring about a different culture at city hall.

Fielding's 39th birthday was awhile ago. His tone and approach to his new job as city manger will be evident to staff within 39 days.

“I have worked in public service in five different decades”, he states and adds “I grew up at a time that was influenced by John Kennedy who spoke so passionately about public service in the early 1960’s.  Admittedly there has been a tremendous change in public opinion but I am very proud to be a public servant.”

This is what Burlington has hired; a seasoned professional, committed to the ideals of public service who has left a larger city where he has done all he could get done, and decided that when he saw the opportunity in Burlington he felt he could bring his skills to a community that had both a Mayor he was sure he could work with and a Council that was decent and committed..  He also saw a staff that, given some leadership and mentoring, could really excel.  Burlington just might have taken the first step into a level of staff leadership.

Let’s see how things go in the next ninety days which is the amount of time Fielding feels he needs to get a grip on the various issues and gain some experience working with his senior team and the men and women who show up at their desks every day.  As he gets a clearer sense of how the pace works he will I am sure look at the list of names with the word “acting” before there title and make decisions that should have been made some time ago.

Welcome to Burlington Jeff.


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