What kind of a city manager does Burlington need now?

SwP thumbnail graphicBy Pepper Parr

December 12th, 2018



The chatter amongst those who are worth a second look by Burlington’s city council as they search for a new city manager is revealing.

Several, who would not agree to talk if we named them, wonder if the civic administration can be revived. Total bedlam was the word one possible candidate who assured his colleagues that he would not be applying.

Ridge and Chris Murray - city managers

James Ridge with former Hamilton city manager Chris Murray. Both men moved on; one of his own accord, the other was asked to leave.

Both Hamilton and Burlington are looking for new city managers. Few, if any, possible candidates will apply for both.

What does Burlington need and does what the city needs exist was the question we put to the seven people we talked to.

It doesn’t need someone who has an agenda and knows exactly what the city needs said one.

It does need someone who has already made their mark as a city manager and is ready to take on a task that requires s basically a complete re-build.

Ideally you want someone who can spot talent within the organization and grow it said another who added that it has to be “Someone who can listen and then nurture the talent or know where to look for the talent that will be needed to replace some of the key people that need to move on.”

The answer a candidate should be able to give to the question: What do you want to achieve while you are with us is: Find my replacement.

Holding hands

These seven people will decide who the next city manager should be. If they get it right a lot of the current city hall screw ups can be brought to an end.

Burlington has a new council and they are going to need help in refining the political aspirations each of them brought to the public office they now hold.

They need administrative leadership that can begin the healing of the wounds mid-level staff are working through. Parts of the organization is almost like a zoo totally out of control.

A command and control style will not work.

The new city manager has to have the confidence of the elected members – and if that confidence doesn’t exist – they should walk.

There are some organizational changes that should at least be considered. Move the Economic Development Corporation into the Planning department. Economic development is currently in the hands of a group of Hamilton lawyers.

Strategic Plan Workbook

Traditionally Strategic Plans have been for a period of four years.


The Strategic Plan grew to a 25 year plan. There wasn’t much in the way of a vigorous public debate on whether or not this was a good idea.

Does the Strategic Plan that was foisted on the city by the consulting firm the city hired and the aspirations former city manager James Ridge had still make sense?  Traditionally a Strategic Plan is the agenda for a specific council and were four year documents.  Ridge grew that four years to 25 and then attached the Grow Bold concept to it.

Does this council now send the document to the recycle file ?  This council is going to be far too busy to get wrapped up in the long process of re-writing a Strategic Plan.  There are much bigger fish to fry.

The new city manager should have more than just some depth of understanding of how Queen’s Park works – he (or she) needs to be able to counsel and advise the Mayor on how to get the province to work for the city and not be at the mercy of a Premier that tends to act abruptly and really doesn’t know what a conflict of interest is and where he can legitimately exert his authority. The man just cannot be trusted.

Pandoras box

Opening a Pandora’s Box is a process that generates many complicated problems as the result of unwise interference in something.

These are perilous times for the municipal world. It is clear to many who watch the sector that there is going to be more in the way of consolidation. Former Mayor Rick Goldring certainly opened a Pandora ’s Box when he suggested Burlington should annex parts of Waterdown.

In one of his statements former city manager James Ridge spoke of Burlington’s “enviable” reputation as a great city. One can only gulp when reading that statement and looking at the serious problems surrounding the 2100 Brant development that is fraught with serious issues that smack of a total disregard for the public engagement process.

The Mayor has yet to say who will serve as the interim city manager. One would have thought that the Deputy City Manager would almost automatically assume that role. Any suggestions as to why that hasn’t happened?

Mayor Meed Ward was wise to ask her council to think about they think the city should be looking for and what they, individually, want to see put in place to carry out the mandate they have.

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

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8 comments to What kind of a city manager does Burlington need now?

  • Roger

    One that will not used taxpayer funded city legal resource to threaten legal actions against citizens for disagreeing with staff

  • Burlington’s next city manager will be successful if there is BOTH a technical skill match and a non-technical skill match to the specific performance requirements of the position. The candidate will obviously need the appropriate education, municipal government experience, and specific technical skills to display credibility and to meet minimum performance standards. But it is when they also possess the appropriate non-technical skills that above-average performance will be achieved. Superior productivity traits, motivation, communication skills, interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, integrity, managerial capability and true leadership traits are all “must haves” not just “preferred to haves”. But the MOST significant requirement is for there to be an appropriate cognitive capability match between the new manager and the role. They must be capable of coping with the COMPLEXITY of information and activities, and the desires of all stakeholders, and then to develop and implement an effective time-sensitive operational strategy that is congruent with the vision of council. Anything less will result in unsatisfactory performance. – Jim Gilchrist

  • Stephen White

    A task force comprising a cross-section of public servants, business leaders and citizen delegates can be constituted to write a draft Strategic Plan. Council’s immediate task should be to appoint a capable, qualified interim City Manager while the search goes on for the permanent replacement. The second priority should be an external review of the organizational structure of city government. The recent mini-reorg in which a Deputy City Manager was added and reporting relationships were changed was illogical, and the alignment of departments was baffling.

    The one person who I would like to see considered for City Manager is Jim Harnum who currently works at the Region of Halton as Commissioner of Public Works. I have been in several meetings with him and he never ceases to impress. Not only is he a strong communicator but he knows the community, he has municipal government experience, and he relates well with different stakeholders. Having someone with an engineering background and an MBA can’t hurt either.

    Editor’s note: Excellent recommendation. But does anyone think that I well qualified municipal civil servant will leave a good job in a community that is stable to come to Burlington and commit to the at least five years that are going to be needed to “right this ship”. Instead of an open competition, city council might look for a way to approach the person they believe can do the job and make them an offer they can’t refuse. On paper James Ridge looked great.

    • Hans

      Good point, about the organization structure. Unless there is a demonstrated need, adding a level (the Deputy City Manager) in the hierarchy/pyramid serves only to justify a compensation increase for the level above; i.e., an increase is needed to avoid compression. It’s an expensive job addition with no apparent value added.

      • Re: Editor’s point, you absolutely can bring someone from a stable community to a challenging one. Career-oriented top performers are always looking for a challenge, to increase their personal growth and to have an impact. The best way to find them is called “headhunting”. It is a more effective recruitment approach because you first identify what you want and then go out and FIND it, rather than “post and pray” that a truly talented person would find you (and then select the best of the bunch). Referring to my previous comments, initially you identify people on the basis of technical fit, then you zero in on the right choice by properly assessing a non-technical skill match.

        Regarding Stephen’s valid point about organizational structure, it certainly is possible to look at an organization and determine whether there are too many levels or too few. Often, organizations expand for the wrong reasons, believing that the expansion will increase performance when it actually accomplishes the opposite. Unfortunately, it is common in bureaucratic organizations that, when a person at one level does not have the capability to perform effectively, an additional level is inserted below to pick up the slack. A capable City Manager will be able to cope with this “complexity”, to evaluate the skill capability at each level, and to ensure that the right performers are in place, so that there is balanced functioning between an appropriate number of levels.

  • joe gaetan

    I would suggest that the following should be part of the City Manager position recruitment criteria. ” Will report to, will take direction from and will answer to council”. While we are at it, why not have the HR and CFO positions report to council, or at a minimum, look at having these positions report to council by a dotted line.

  • Hans

    A good place to start might be the city manager’s job description. Judging from the Ridge years, one might suspect that it lacked specifics; e.g., the Gazette reported on how Ridge dominated a meeting and advocated on behalf of developers, which amazed me.
    A new manager must have the capacity to fulfill the requirements of the job description without personal bias.
    In addition to the selection issue, it might be useful to consider what the new employment contract to be offered should include. Unsatisfactory performance needs to be considered, with measurable criteria to protect the new hire, to enable council to dismiss an unsatisfactory manager without incurring excessive financial obligations.