How is he doing, what is he doing, what is he thinking these days? A reflection on Mayor’s first year in office.

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON  December 30, 2011  –  Rick Goldring, who has had his job as Mayor for just over a year, took some time to reflect with Our Burlington on his first year in office.  We wondered what it is that defines his first term – and he agreed that the decision not to do a deal with Paletta International or the Hamilton Tiger Cats was not a defining moment for him.  He did agree though that it was a hectic couple of weeks and he got to see how city hall staff managed a situation under significant pressure.

The Burlington Tiger Cats? Not this time around. The Mayor dealt with his first challenge.

With the decision not to put any money on the table to bring a Canadian Football League team to Burlington – the Mayor was able to get on with the business of learning how to do his job and create a City Council that could work together as a team – and that seems to be what Goldring sees as his best contribution so far.  Not his only contribution by far.

Goldring explains that in any relationship there is a certain amount of tension, which he saw as a good thing.  The first steps he felt were critical for the Council he was leading was to establish trust between the members, three of whom were brand new to municipal politics, and had to learn what it was to be a council member, while he learned to be a Mayor.

Frank McKeown, on the left chats with Ward 5 councilllor Paul Sharman at a Strategic Planning session. Bringing McKeown in as his top advisor was one of the smartest moves the Mayor made - calling him his Chief of Staff wasn't as good an idea.

One of the smartest moves he made was to bring Frank McKeown into his office as his top aide and thinker.  Goldring knew that he was in a job that he had not been able to prepare for – all he had was one four year term as a Council member.  His contacts within the city were not limited, but they didn’t reach as deeply as they needed to reach, if he was to be a successful Mayor – and make no mistake – Goldring very much wanted to be a successful Mayor.

With the football issue behind him he next had to face the notice from the provincial government, that there might well be a road rammed through the Mt. Nemo part of the community.  That one kept him busy learning whom he had to talk to at Queen’s Park.  Joyce Savoline had announced, she was not going to run in the fall of 2010 as the MPP, so Goldring knew he was going to have to deal with a new person as MPP.

In a little less than 20 months you will be able to stand out on the Pier and look towards the city. The Pier - which could have crippled this administration has been handled in what we now see as a typical Goldring fashion - be direct, take action and be open.

Then of course there was The Pier, an issue that could have severely bogged down a lesser man.  It certainly didn’t get the attention it needed during the previous council’s term.  It was Goldring’s intention to do everything he could to complete The Pier but he wasn’t prepared to do so at any cost.  The previous Mayor, Cam Jackson, had advised Goldring to just tear down what was built and put the matter behind him – but that isn’t the way Goldring works.  He’s a builder and he wanted to see the project completed – but not at any price.

Add to that ongoing problem, the surprise that shook everyone on Council when they learned there was a surplus of more than $9 million and some pretty fancy managing of the work force at City Hall and you see a man getting a crash course in Mayor 101.

There was more.  Burlington has known for some time that its hospital needed a significant upgrade if not a complete re-build.  The provincial government made it known that they expected major dollars from the community so the city budgeted for $60 million over a six year period. Due to the surprise surplus the city was able to set aside the first $20 million almost immediately.   So – here’s a Mayor, new to the job, who finds he has a very significant surplus, which is nice when you have extra dollars to spend. Goldring also knew that this was really very poor municipal management.

His city manager “steps aside”

Out of that realization came an announcement that the city manager, after a meeting with the Mayor, had decided to “step aside”, which gave Goldring the opportunity to look for a city manager that fit his operational style.

The Mayor was beginning to look at the City Manager in a much different light.  During the Strategic Planning sessions, it became clear there were some significant differences in the way the Mayor and the then City Manager Roman Martiuk saw things.  The Mayor’s viewpoint prevailed and Martiuk chose to “step aside” allowing the Mayor to look for a City Manager that fit the management style of both the Mayor and his Council.

That led to the search for a new city manager, which didn’t take very long.  The current city manager for London will move to Burlington and lead the city for the next five years.  Jeff Fielding brings a career in municipal management to the city and a significantly different working style.  The city met over a two month period and got the guy they wanted.  City hall will be a much different place come the end of 2012

Mayor Goldring in the centre works with his council and senior staff to craft a Strategic Plan that will make itself felt in every decision the city makes during its term of office.

Goldring wanted to bring a significantly different approach to the way the city planned – and by that he meant planning at every level.  He knew that there was a better way to run a city and one of his early decisions was to create a really meaningful Strategic Plan.  Burlington is a city that has for some time been seen as a city that actually had a Strategic Plan – there has been one in place for more than seven years.  But those strategic plans really weren’t all that good, and for the most part they were forgotten once the exercises of creating the plan was done.

Goldring didn’t see municipal leadership quite that way and he convinced his Council to go along with him and create a really strong Strategic Plan that could be lived up to and revised each year to meet changing circumstances.   Both Council and senior staff  really didn’t know what they were getting into when they started, but eleven long, half day meetings later – there it was,  a Strategic Plan that is a model for other communities.

Goldring knew that the city needed to begin thinking much more strategically.  He wasn’t completely sure what the strategy had to be but the need for a strategy was essential if the city was going to manage the changes that were coming its way.

When he embarked on the creation of a Strategic Plan neither Goldring or his Council had any idea they would spend the amount of time they did – eleven half day sessions – on the creation of a Strategic Plan which, while considerably better than anything done previously, despite the protestations of a former Mayor, the current strategic plan isn’t all that it has to be.

Every thought, every idea made by anyone during the Strategic Plan sessions got written down. Staff and council put in much more than a full week of work to produce a document they are now committed to live within.

Two things have become evident with the plan.  The citizens are reading the thing and using it to suggest to Council that some of their actions are not reflecting the words that were written.  And Council and some staff are beginning to realize that a Strategic Plan is a big deal and requires a lot of thinking – much more than they realized when they worked together and got into the deliberations.  The creation of a Strategic Plan is a “big hairy deal”.  What this Council and senior city hall staff  were not able to come up with was that “big hairy audacious goal” that defined the city.  The best they could do this time around was to lean on the old standbys – the Lake, Spencer Smith Park and the Escarpment.  Burlington has yet to figure out just what it is that makes the city different.  The Strategic Plan they have is good – it just doesn’t go as far as it should.  They will be revisiting the Plan every year of their term and it may well become the document that the next municipal election focuses on.

Goldring has committed to reviewing the Strategic Plan once every quarter at a Committee of the Whole session.   City council then made a senior staff member responsible for the document and also tied it to the development of the budget. That senior staff member has his work cut out for him and may not be up to the task.

In the matter of relationships:

I’m not quite sure when Rick Goldring realized that governing was all about “tension” and that there were two kinds of tensions – one related to tasks that had to be done and one related to relationships with people.

As I get it from Goldring, there is tension the moment there is more than one person involved in a task or a relationship.  Each person brings their perspective and expectations to a task. Goldring began working with his Council on tasks – because the darn things were sitting there in front of him and they had to be dealt with.  And for the most part – the tasks that faced him during the first three months were dealt with fairly well.  Other than the shellacking he took over the reception his Council held after their inaugural meeting, when he got a chance to see the kind of political posturing he was going to have to put up with and the attempt to get the pay for Council members behind him – there were no major goofs.

Mayor Rick Goldring: He pays attention to detail, he is usually very well prepared and he listens.

The Mayor and his Council found they were able to get along quite well, which got them from the “task” focus into a place where trusting relationships could be developed.  Some of the task tension is still there but they tend to get resolved and the relationships get better and better.  The need to flaunt egos began to subside and one could see a real team beginning to develop.  It is when, Goldring believes, these two tensions are aligned that a team can really do good things.

They were all still politicians with goals, plans and expectations of their own and an apparent need to do some political posturing, but this Mayor was proving to be a different leader than the former Mayor.

The biggest task on the table for the next month is the budget and determining what the tax rate is going to be.  Goldring doesn’t believe the public has any appetite for tax increases greater than inflation and that seems to be the target they will work towards.

A surprise surplus:

Last year, due to a surplus that few on Council knew about during the municipal election, they were able to spend money on all kinds of items, including a big chunk of change going into the hospital re-build fund and some put into the significant infrastructure deficit the city faces.  More than 60% of the infrastructure work scheduled for the future is not funded.  Add to that the very clear fact that if the work is not done when scheduled, – it will cost even more when it does eventually get done.

During the budget sessions for the councils first year in office they were subjected to – and that may be too mild a word –  some incredibly boring briefings that told them precious little.  Some of the committee chairs were new to their jobs and let meetings run on for far too long.  When Goldring has the Chair, things move briskly – almost too quickly – but he doesn’t waste much time.  This time out the city has a Strategic Plan that will serve as a filter for every spending decision made.  The “does it fit with the strategic plan” question will come up every time spending is talked about.  Councillor Craven, who is very hard nosed about “sticking to what you said you would do”, will feel he has died and gone to heaven – if this Council does what it has said it will do.

Beachway might become a missed opportunity:

Then there is the Beachway Master Plan that the city has basically lost control of – it is now going to be a Conservation Authority issue with Burlington following along and looking for a way to deal with the thirty some odd families, who have led Council to believe they will leave their homes kicking and screaming every foot of the way.

Burlington has let a true gem sit idle and grossly underused.  The opportunity to develop something truly significant appears to be getting away from the city.  True that the land is owned by the Conservation Authority, but the city manages it and was in a position to take much more of a leadership role in how this was developed.  The fight over what happens to those 28 + homes on the Beachway could well become Burlington’s 2012 Pier level issue.  This need not have happened.

Downtown core and a changed development scene create challenges:

Then there is the Downtown Core – what to do with it? How do the retail merchants attract shoppers?  Is the commercial malaise that plagues downtown a parking issue?  Not if you tried to find a parking spot over the holiday Season at any of the malls.  There is going to have to be some very creative, out of the box thinking done by both the merchants and their association, The Burlington Downtown Business Association, to get this one resolved.

Alton; one of the last large community developments in Burlington. MAyor Goldring has to steer the development of a city that needs to grow UP rather than out.

Goldring takes the helm of a city that is in the dyeing days of robust economic growth, driven by housing developments that brought very significant development charges into the city’s coffers.  The last of the really big tracts of land available for housing development are being worked on now.  There is so little land left available for housing development, that the owners of large tracts of land set aside for industrial growth are trying to convince the city to re-zone some of the industrial land for housing.  Based on current zoning, all the city can look forward to is small infill development and going up instead of sideways.  That will mean a different look to the city and Goldring knows from experience that change does not come easily to Burlington.  The fact that the wave can be seen on the horizon and you know it is going to come crashing in and flood everything – Burlingtonians still don’t go out and buy rubber boots.   It is a city that is seldom ahead of the curve.

Goldring on the left and former Minitser of Transportation Kathleen Wynne on the right with Liberal candidate Karmel Sakran in the miiddle. Goldrings doesn't look as if he beleives what the Minister is saying then and we don't think he beleives what she is saying now as Minister of Municipal Affairs and overseeing the Regionbal Official Plan that sets out what will and won't be done with the Escarpment.non the right

Goldring will be the Mayor who has to fight with the province to ensure that developers are not allowed to nibble away at the 407 highway boundary that separates rural from suburban.  The moment one developer gets an approval from the OMB, and that is the only level that is going to approve anything north of 407, there will be a stampede and the Burlington we know will be lost forever.  There are perhaps as many as two dozen developers and land owners who are hanging in for the day that development is permitted.  The city’s executive director for economic development believes some of the land abutting the north side of 407 should be used for the location of environmentally friendly office buildings.  That would be the thin edge of the wedge.

The revenue side of the ledger takes on a different look.  Tax assessments will increase and result in more tax revenue but those increases will never equal what development charges produced for the city. Goldring is going to be the Mayor that was at the helm, when the shift from a rapidly growing suburban city was created out of a rural part of the province to a community that has matured and begun to see some urbanization and a degree of sophistication developed.  How that change gets implemented will be his legacy.

During this term of office the city’s Official Plan will be reviewed.  The challenge for the Mayor and his Council will be to see how they adjust and modify the plan to meet the changing realities. This is probably the most significant change that Burlington has had to face since the early development days, when the city was racing through one housing development proposal after another as orchards were plowed under and good agricultural land felt the blade of a plow.

Escarpment is still threatened:

The Region recently got a response to the Regional Official Plan – it was the document that let everyone know just over a year ago that a road through parts of the Escarpment was a very real possibility.  All the municipalities in the Region worked together on this and put their views before the provincial government.   The most recent response from the province says: “…The Ministry is satisfied that ROPA38, as modified, is consistent with the Provincial Policy Statement and conforms to the growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, the Greenbelt Plan and the Parkway Belt West Plan”, which sounds nice – kind of – until you read the more than 45 pages of deletions and alterations.  Saving the Escarpment from rapacious growth is far from a done deal.  Goldring’s comment is that “the situation is being closely monitored.

Your city council managed to put a keep on the size of the city staffing compliment and they were able to put a freeze on salary increases.  What they have not been able to do – no one is even sure it can be done – and that is to lessen the huge gap between the retirement benefits civil servants get and those that are available in the private sector.  The public sector pensions are, in a word, delicious and the pay scales aren’t by any means chintzy either.

Managing the size of the payroll:

Goldring, who spent his first career in the financial planning field, is all too aware of just how wide the gap in pension benefits is between the public and private sectors and comments that many of his fellow Mayors across the country “don’t have much of an appreciation as to how much public dissent could be created over this disparity”.

The city has had to allocate an additional sum to cover a shortfall in the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement fund and has been advised that they may have to do another top up in 2012.  The workers at those companies that have had to close down and were not able to meet their pension obligations must look in wonder at how taxpayer money gets used to pay civil servant pensions.

The city has heard the background briefings on a very big initiative that will see significant changes in the way it delivers information to the public.  The Information technology staff have brought forward a proposal that will make a huge difference in what the public can learn about what goes on at city hall.  The cost is quite steep and it might not make it through the budget process in 2012 but it does show that the city is looking for ways to improve communication and reduce the “information deficit” the Shape Burlington report brought to everyone’s attention.

Is the Shape report still shaping the city?

During the election campaign that moved Goldring from ward 5 where he was a Councillor to the office of the Mayor, the Shape Burlington report was probably the most important document the voters had to deal with.  How much of that report will Goldring implement and what part of his legacy will be shaped by the report?  Shape Burlington pointed to a city that had a significant information deficit – too early to say if Goldring is going to widen the flow of information from city hall to the people who pay for the place, but it is clear that he going to bring new ideas to the city and create an environment, where he gives the people of this city something to think about and ideally respond to.  The Mayor’s Inspire program was a success in 2011 and will be continued into 2012.  While just of 1/10th of one percent of the population took part in the Inspire series it has had a positive impact on the thinking within the city.  Fresh ideas never hurt.

How will the development that the city is going to require come about?  Will the Economic Development Corporation become something that drives the effort to attract new business or will the Mayor use Burlington Hydro, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of the city,  to drive the creation of new wealth for the city.

Goldring’s past was one of helping people create wealth and plan for their futures and it would not be unreasonable to see him look for ways to fashion Burlington Hydro as an organization that served as an incubator perhaps for the development of opportunities for the city.

Goldring has been doing some thinking about how he can pull the McMaster University DeGroote School of Business, which is now located on the South Service Road where it is a bit of an orphan, into the fabric of the city.  The McMaster University decision not to locate in the downtown core of the city was a huge missed opportunity for Burlington – but it’s done and all we can do is live with that mistake.  There is vacant land right beside DeGroote on the South Service Road that Goldring wants to see developed as a cluster that includes additional educational institutions and perhaps a start-up lab or a research organization that would develop new ideas out of the glare of public city council meetings.

Frank McKeown, the Mayor’s top aide who is a serial start up entrepreneur may be just the guy to get a little juice into Burlington Hydro and turn it into the economic driving force it has the potential to become.  At one point I thought McKeown was nearing that point where there wasn’t much more he could do for the Mayor; I may have been wrong on that point.  Council recently took steps to have Burlington Hydro financial data available to the public.   Up until now Hydro has been a sleepy little financial holding the city owns but doesn’t do much with.  In the right hands that corporation could be turned into something that could make a significant strategic and financial contribution to the city.  Look for major changes over at Burlington Hydro.  Right now all it does is pay fat dividends to the city.

Citizen’s Engagement Charter: Real or imagined?

Another Shape Burlington recommendation was the creation of a Citizen’s Engagement Charter.  The city has hired Christine Iamonaco as the Public Involvement Coordinator on a two year contract.  She is now rolling out a series of community meetings intended to educate and involve the community in the creation of a Community Engagement Charter.

The broad strokes of what we can expect from Rick Goldring as Mayor are now basically in place.  He doesn’t grandstand – doesn’t know how.  He is self-effacing; he wants an informed electorate and has taken some bold moves with his Inspire series of Speakers.

Now that he knows he can do the job – and he didn’t know that at the end of his first two months in office – he is venturing out a bit from his comfort zone.  Goldring is cautious by nature and an environmentalist at heart.  Will we see the inspired, bold, innovative, fiscally responsible leadership we need?  Probably not in year two of his mandate.  Goldring is still working through what he wants to do.  Remember, he ran for the office of Mayor because he couldn’t stand what then Mayor Jackson was doing to the city.  The election results made it clear that most of the city agreed with Goldring.  He isn’t ready yet to come forward with anything radical – he is still developing those relationships.

That BHAG, the Big Hairy Audacious Goal that eluded both Council and senior staff during the creation of the Strategic Plan has yet to be brought to the surface.  We’re not even sure yet that it is even in there waiting to be brought to the surface  –  Goldring is going to need all of this first term of office to figure that out.  What we do know at this point is that Rick Goldring has grown into the job of Mayor that he got just over a year ago and that there is the capacity to both lead and make the hard decisions that have to be made.

In the next 24 months we will get to see what kind of depth he brings to his first term and the vision he will offer the city when he prepares for his second term as Mayor.  And make no mistake about it – Goldring is at least a two term Mayor.


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