[box type=”note” ]Editor’s Note: Long time watchers of Hamilton City Hall will tell you that an unspoken, but important perquisite of the job of Councillor is the ability to nurture loyal relationships among staff, through bringing their influence on staff hiring, firing and promotions. it has certainly been that way in the 30 years that this reporter has been following civic affairs in Hamilton; and as is seen in a recent meeting of the Audit, Finance and Administration Committee, it is still a perk that Councillors cling to with death-like tenacity. [/box]

 

[dropcap]M[/dropcap]onday November 12th  should have been a good day for City of Hamilton Human Resources Director Helen Hale-Tomasik. Flanked by the entire Senior Management Team of the city, she was about to present to the Audit and Administration Committee, a detailed plan to address the fact that the City is about to lose a number of top managers to the twin scourges of retirement as well as recruitment from other jurisdictions. With the announced departure for Toronto of Hamilton’s financial whiz, Roberto Rossini only days before, it was reasonable to expect that the committee would be all ears on a plan to provide orderly succession when senior vacancies occur. In her presentation Hale-Tomasik would tell  the committee that through a confidential staff survey, some 15 senior managers – a full 25% of the total management team—had signalled their intention to retire in the next couple of years—and that to-date there were only 6 identified candidates who were ready to fill their shoes. The solution  to the brain drain would be  twofold. First the City would develop a transparent process to identify the up-and-comers in the various departments so they can be groomed to take over. While not stated in Hale-Tomasik’s presentation,  such transparency by definition would  possess  objective measurement criteria and  therefore would not be prone to cronyism. The second part of the solution would be to engage expertise to help develop a system for  providing training and professional development to those in lower ranks to enable them to assume leadership positions. Develop and promote from within, in other words. The staff development and succession process had been discussed in the strategic plan earlier approved by council, so the unveiling of details to the committee was the next step.

As the managers entered the Council Chamber the signs became suddenly inauspicious. There was only a bare quorum present.—Chair Brenda Johnson, and committee members Maria Pearson and Bernie Morelli. Committee members Brad Clark and Russ Powers were on medical and civic business leaves, respectively. Sitting next to Morelli, whose views on the  role between councillors and staff are part of an ongoing lawsuit between 3 fired city managers and the City; was Councillor Chad Collins, not a committee member—but no shrinking violet when it comes to promoting the careers of staff that he likes. As it turned out Collins would play a lead role in the discussion that followed.  Hale-Tomasik went ahead with her PowerPoint presentation, in the end asking for $177,000 to fund the project–$50,000 for a consultant to develop a succession plan for senior managers, and $127,000 to hire an expert to implement a staff development program. The money would come from a fund that had been established for the purpose at the time of amalgamation in 2000—there would be no impact on the current budget.

When the presentation was completed Collins led off the discussion. He talked about the large numbers under-employed college and university students desperately looking for work. “It’s a buyer’s market. We have a lot of people to choose from—why do we need more resources to find people?,” he asked. As an example that there is no shortage of qualified people,  Collins cited the fact that more than 75 people had applied for the job of GM at the Hamilton Conservation Authority of which Collins is a member. (The job went to long time Collins associate from the Waterfront Trust, Chris  Firth-Eagland).  Hale-Tomasik reminded Collins  that her plan was not about finding entry level candidates from among the underemployed college-level applicants that Collins referred to; but rather finding and grooming talent for a senior management role.  Perhaps getting closer to revealing his true opinion than intended, Collins replied, “All of us at the higher level would understand who the up-and-comers are…and most of us around the table would be able to pinpoint 2 to 3 people in each area of the organization to say ‘that person is a future director—that person is a candidate for a future GM’s position.’” Collins finished by suggesting that if there was room in the budget for a full time staff development officer than perhaps that was a sign of fat.

At that point Hale-Tomasik turned to her fellow managers for support for her position. The only one who spoke was the departing Rossini. He told the committee that the City needs a plan like the one in front of them—his own department being a prime example of the city’s vulnerability on management departure and retirements. Just before Rossini spoke, Chair Johnson looked at the management team and said, “I bet the rest of you are all breathing a sigh of relief.” Nervous laughter followed.

Councillor Morelli entered the discussion with what might be described a verbal  stream-of-consciousness, reminiscent of Beat poet Jack Kerouac’s habit of putting an teletype roll in his typewriter so he could just keep on writing without changing paper. He suggested that rather than being too aggressive, Hale-Tomasik’s 40-odd page  plan was ‘incomplete’—although no specifics were provided. Hale Tomasik attempted to answer several questions from the councillor, before finally giving up, concluding  with visible frustration…”these are my recommendations.” . For those listening closely, there were some salient points in Morelli’s remarks. There were some clear messages for the senior management team who had ostensibly shown up to show solidarity with the HR plan. Hale-Tomasik had cited Dofasco as an example of a company that had a strong human resources development and succession plan. Morelli reminded managers that Dofasco had also cut its workforce by 75%, and that when adopting Dofasco methodology they should be prepared to take the tough decisions that went along with it.(Hamilton’s workforce now exceeds pre-amalgamation levels and payroll has gone up by 60% in the past 10 years.) Morelli concluded with this advice for the Senior Managers, saying, “I am always more than available…and a number of senior management staff know this…to discuss (proposals like this) even BEFORE your reports come out.”

The Code of Conduct for Hamilton City Council states: members of Council shall be respectful of the role of City employees to advise based on political neutrality and objectivity and without undue influence from any individual member or faction of the Council; also: No member of Council shall use, or attempt to use, their authority or influence for the purpose of intimidating, threatening, coercing, commanding, or influencing any City employee with the intent of interfering with that employee’s duties, and finally all members of Council shall. treat one  another, City employees and members of the public appropriately and without abuse, bullying or intimidation.

As if often the case with Hamilton City Council, if somebody wasn’t at the meeting it gives them the ability to reopen the whole discussion. At council two days later that is exactly what happened. The two Councillors who had been absent from the committee meeting, Brad Clark and Russ Powers, rescued the plan, at least temporarily. Under questioning from Clark, Collins, Morelli and Johnson insisted they had not shot down the plan in its entirety—that they had only suggested it go back for improvement.  However the minutes of the meeting indicate that the report “be received,” which is bureaucratize for  ‘end of discussion’. The Clark-Powers resolution lets the city manager and the senior management team take another kick at solving the brain drain sometime in the future.

 

John Best had enjoyed a lengthy media management career, in television and radio and now print. As Vice President, News at CHCH in Hamilton, John oversaw a significant expansion of the news operation. He founded Independent Satellite News, Canada’s only television news service providing national content to Canadian independent TV stations. John is a frequent political commentator on radio and television, a documentary producer and author of a book and numerous articles on historical and political subjects. John is a past recipient of the New York Festival’s award for writing in the International TV category.

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