Finding the new city manager - not as easy as some think; keeping the interim is not the solution

SwP thumbnail graphicBy Pepper Parr

April 12th, 2019


UPDATE: The Gazette asked the Mayor for some comment yesterday – her media specialist got back to us two hours after the story was first published with: The City of Burlington will be releasing information to the media regarding the city manager recruitment shortly.

When the city announced just before Christmas that Tim Commisso would serve as the Interim City Manager for a six month period while the search for a new city manager was found, determining just what the city needed in the way of a new city manager should have become one of the top three priorities.

The Gazette learned from a reliable source in the municipal sector that the Commisso contract had provision for an additional three months.

We are now into the fourth month of that interim position. A number of weeks ago the Gazette noticed that the title Commisso was using changed from Interim to Acting. Shortly after it reverted to interim.

Word the Gazette is picking up is that there is a movement among some members of Council to make that short term job into a long term job.

A number of Councillors see Commisso as their ”mentor”; someone they can take their troubles and concerns to.

When Roman Martiuk was city manager he would frequently use the phrase: “I serve at the will of council”; a phrase that the five new members of council might want to get comfortable with.

It is no secret that Marianne Meed Ward did not have a good working relationship with former city manager James Ridge. The first thing she did once she was sworn in was to call a Council meeting and dismiss Ridge; he left city hall the same day.

Shortly after Commisso was hired to serve as an interim city manager.

MaryLou Tanner Cogeco 2018 direct

Deputy city manager Mary Lou Tanner

The city does have a Deputy City Manager – there was little doubt in the minds of those who pay attention to what happens at city hall that Mary Lou Tanner would not be given the keys to the city manager’s office.

There are people in this city working diligently to have her removed from the position she holds.

There was concern in the minds of many that this council did not have the experience or depth in business to hire someone for a job that managed a staff of about 1000 and a budget of $123 million on the operating side.

The only member of council with any real experience in hiring at a corporate level is Paul Sharman. That experience didn’t include hiring someone for the top job.

The others have never run anything with more than three people.


Ward 5 Councillor Paul Sharman

Determining just what is needed in the way of a corporate leader is not a simple matter. The municipal sector is a relatively small community – a couple of hundred people lead the major municipalities – that in essence is the talent pool that can be drawn from.

We know what the majority of the members of city council voted for.

We have some idea as to what their values are but we don’t yet know what they individually and collectively want in the way of a city manager.

Will there be a council workshop that will allow delegations at which this council sets out what they want in the way of a city manager and what they want that person to do?

If this mayor, Marianne Meed Ward, and this council are full supporters of an open and fully engaged municipal government then let the process of choosing the next city manager be open and the public fully engaged.

Once the want has been fully explored publicly, members of council will have heard what the public wants and the public will know what the members of council think they need in the way of a city manager to run the administrative side of the city – then the process of hiring a human resources recruiting firm can begin.

Because all this is public, you can be certain the Gazette will publish everything that is said. Anyone interested in the job will know what they are walking into and just how big the opportunity is.

We believe there are municipal administrators that want to run a city that is open for business and ready to listen to the wishes of the people who pay the taxes.

Search firms are usually engaged to beat the bushes and see who is looking and who might be interviewed. Any city manager worth the title keeps in touch with at least one head hunter to see what there is in the way of opportunities out there.

Ridge and Chris Murray - city managers

Former Hamilton city manager Chris Murray found a new home in Toronto; we do not know yet where James Ridge is going to land.

Hamilton had a great city manager in Chris Murray. When Toronto needed a new city manager they hired him and Hamilton did what Mayor Meed Ward would love to do – hire a female city manager. Meed Ward will be quick to remind us that she wants the best person available for the job – but if that person happens to female … well.

The change in city manager in Hamilton brought to the surface staff people in Hamilton city hall who were bucking for promotion. There might be someone worth looking at in the list of people who didn’t make the grade.

Determining who should be the next city manager is a critically important task for Burlington. Filling that part of their mandate is not going to be easy but these are, for the most part, people of good will. They can be taught the fundamentals of hiring people, as long as they are not led by people who have their own agendas.

Burlington’s Director of Human Resources does not appear to have anything in the way of a professional designation.

When the Gazette asked if there was a designation we were asked why we wanted to know. We responded that that was not a fair question. Our contact followed up with:

The recognized professional association for Human Resources Professionals in Ontario is the HRPA. The requirements are listed on their website. There are three levels of certification: CHRP (i.e. Certified Human Resources Professional; Certified Human Resources Leader; Certified Human Resources Executive).

The full answer we had every right to expect from the city was either a yes or a no, and if a yes – where does the designation come from?

Kwab Ako-AdjeiSenior Manager, Government Relations & Strategic Communications asked us: “And what is the context that you’re looking for this info?”

Ako-Adjei works out of the City Manager’s Office.  They are keeping a tight grip on the information we requested.

We have concluded that the Director of Human Resources does not have a designation and the city doesn’t want that information to be public.

City council on innauguration Dec 3rd - 2018

This team is what the public wanted – now they have to hire the best person they can find to run city hall. That isn’t a job any of them are qualified to do.

The team that sits around the council table now does not have the experience or the competence to hire for the position of city manager. This is not a reflection on their skills, it is a comment on the experience they bring to the table and the resources available to them.

The first step should be for this council is to determine individually what they want to see in the way of a city manager. They need to be led through a disciplined approach to determining what they want and why.

Tim Commisso 2 smile

The intention was to bring Tim Commisso in until council had a chance in prepare and interview for their choice for a city manager. They should stick to that intention.

What this council should not be doing is deciding they like the guy in place and will choose him as their city manager.  Council has a responsibility to do their job and ensure that the job is advertised and that diligent efforts are made to ensure that the best person available is hired.

Will there be a council workshop that allow delegations at which this council sets out what they want in the way of a city manager and what they want that person to do?

When the city finds that person he or she can build the team that will make Burlington a truly great place to live.

The provincial government may decide that there should be just one level of government and rename Halton – but they aren’t going to rename Burlington and they aren’t going to change the values of the people of Burlington.

There is a lot of work to get done – and not a lot of time.

Commisso alone

Tim Commisso, Burlington’s Interim city manager.

Tim Commisso was brought in to serve in an interim capacity for a six-month period. Let’s not find ourselves asking him to stay longer keeping him from a well-earned retirement.

Salt with Pepper are the views, opinions and observations of the Gazette publisher.

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3 comments to Finding the new city manager – not as easy as some think; keeping the interim is not the solution

  • Stu Parr

    I’m not sure how practical it would be to have the public participate in the selection process but it certainly would be refreshing if they were able to clearly see the organization for which the City Manager is responsible and a description of the roles, responsibilities and compensible factors. The City website is almost completely opaque when it comes to the staff organization. In fact, there still isn’t an easily accessed and accessible staff listing. Interesting that at one point late last year the position description for the Deputy City Manager was unavailable. One had to wonder then on what basis the compensation for the position was established and the competition held. Not sure that the information is available even now but trust that it is. Time to “open up” the shop I think.

    • Mike E.

      By “unavailable” do you mean could not be accessed or did not exist? If the former, then this is just typical of the general absence of management or administrative information to which the public currently has access – when virtually everything should be. However, if the latter then this is a very serious accusation. It means that a $300k+ public service position was created, “competed” and filled with no recognized informing and authorized process. Do we know how many competed, how they were selected for interview and how they were evaluated if no objective framework (i.e. the position specification) existed? It would be cronyism at its very worst and, if true, speaks volumes of what was permissible under the former City Manager and his human resource practice. Has this practice changed? Time to “open up” the shop indeed!

      • Mike E.

        Erratum: That should be $200 not $300k. So, $100k less egregious. Many thanks to PIC for pointing out my error.