There is no question that Sewergate, as it came to be known, has been a massive embarrassment for Hamilton City Councillors. The actual spill of 24 billion litres of sewage-contaminated water into Coote’s Paradise was a shock to the community, but there was no obvious culprit. The leak took place over a period of years as a result of a gate on a combined sewer overflow tank being slightly open, and a warning light not functioning. What turned the event into a scandal was a decision by council, to accept legal advice to sit on the story for almost a year. The story only broke when documents were shared with the Hamilton Spectator. Whether it was scapegoating or not, the head of Hamilton’s legal department was let go earlier this year. Now Dan McKinnon who headed Hamilton Water until he was promoted to head Public Works in 2016, and Andrew Grice, who headed Hamilton Water from 2016 on are gone.
Both men were highly respected managers. One only need to look at the tapes of their various presentations to Council to see that they were both intelligent, articulate managers who calmly fielded sometimes uncomfortable questioning by councillors, especially in the wake of the sewage spill. A case in point is the November 23rd budget meeting of the General Issues Committee, where McKinnon and Grice teamed up to present a department progress report and budget recommendations. Readers can watch both McKinnon and Grice in the presentation to council and draw their own conclusion as to their capabilities. The presentation starts at 50:50.
At the end of a power point presentation by Grice, Ward Six councillor Tom Jackson said this.
Mary Lou Tanner, a planner who worked in Hamilton, Niagara and Burlington tweeted, “I’m very sorry to learn of the retirement of Dan McKinnon from #HamOnt today. I had the honour of working with Dan. A phenomenal leader, so committed to this City. We are all worse off today as a City. I wish him well.”
For his part, Grice was described by a former colleague as an “exceptional leader.” This writer had his own opportunity to interact with both men as heads of Hamilton Water, and went away impressed with their intelligence and their true enthusiasm for their work. They were keenly committed to improving water quality in Hamilton Harbour, and excited about how the re-build of the Woodward Water Treatment Centre would make further improvements possible.
In 2019 the Bay Observer interviewed Remedial Action Plan Coordinator John Hall who praised the progress that had been made by Hamilton Water to improve water quality in the harbour. “As stated in the RAP vision, the Harbour should be a vibrant centrepiece in the community’s life. The City of Hamilton has embraced the RAP vision and invested enormously in terms political energy, staff commitment and finances in bringing back the Bay.”
McKinnon has been described as forthright and honest. It was he after all, who first advised council of the Chedoke spill. When the story finally broke publicly in the fall of 2019 he told the Hamilton Spectator, “From a personal perspective, this happened when I was the senior director in Hamilton Water so this happened on my watch,” said McKinnon. “It is absolutely heartbreaking for me and it’s heartbreaking for our staff. This kind of news for the community, they’re just going to shake their head,” he added. “It’s going to challenge their trust and confidence in us and all we can do is work our ass off to try to bring that back.”
Nobody’s talking about this, but the clear inference that can be drawn from yesterday’s events was that a decision had been made to remove Grice from his position for whatever reason, and that as Grice’s boss, McKinnon said no and quit. Their departures are part of a long line of departures of respected leaders—Dave Dixon in Transit, who had the nerve to say Hamilton wasn’t ready for LRT; City Manager Chris Murray who had a strained relationship with Mayor Eisenberger and more recently Paul Johnson the head of Emergency and Safe Communities. Time and time again, we see strong managers replaced by less strong managers.
With a municipal election campaign less than a year away, the timing of this housecleaning can only be described as dumb. All it does is remind everybody about council’s role in the Sewergate affair. Grice and McKinnon have too many supporters in the community for them to be portrayed as incompetent. Whoever dreamt this up has made a major blunder.