Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Nonsense reigns on Main Street

No good excuse for delay in hiring new CAO

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Do our elected officials have an obligation to make sense?

That may seem like a nonsensical question itself. But after watching events unfold at Winnipeg City Hall this past week, it seems fair to ask whether making sense is a core competency for our municipal politicians.

Last week, a committee of councillors tasked with finding a new chief administrative officer (CAO) announced it was postponing its final decision until after the October municipal elections. As a result, Winnipeg will have gone more than a year without a top civil servant overseeing city operations.

The explanation for this delay was, in a word, nonsensical. A news release said "the time constraints of delivering a suitable candidate prior to the election" required a postponement.

This was rather remarkable, given that Mayor Sam Katz had just a day earlier said the city had received 80 applications for the job. Further, Katz said the hiring committee expected to have a short list in place in a matter of weeks. And then, a postponement.

Nobody associated with the hiring committee -- and that includes most of council -- would elaborate on its decision. So, all we're left with is a bunch of stuff that doesn't make sense.

First, consider we're already six months into the search for a new CAO. Although no one wants the committee to rush the decision and make a mistake, that is really more than long enough to find a suitable replacement.

If more than 80 applicants had come forward to this point, no one could argue the search has not been robust, or it had not returned a plethora of possibilities.

It is true the city was caught a bit off guard by the resignation of former CAO Phil Sheegl last October. Sheegl left his post suddenly, just before a damning audit of the fire and paramedic station controversy.

That audit found Sheegl was chiefly responsible for a decision to award no-bid contracts for the construction of new stations and to swap land with a private developer at a huge loss for the city. Rather than face the wrath of council, Sheegl got out while the getting was good.

It also deserves to be said municipal governments rarely practise formal succession planning for a job like this. If a top bureaucrat is nearing retirement, steps will be taken to groom a replacement in seamless fashion. If someone leaves suddenly, as was the case here, the process of finding a suitable replacement will take longer.

But a year or more? In the private sector, it's not unusual to see a search for a senior executive position stretch from four to six months. And it's certainly not unheard of for those searches to take longer if the right person simply isn't available.

It deserves to be noted the city has traditionally been very pokey about replacing its top bureaucrat.

It took eight months for the city to hire Sheegl after his predecessor, Glen Laubenstein, resigned suddenly in September 2010 to take a job in Fort McMurray, Alta. In fact, this time around, the formal hiring search did not begin until January 2011, four months after the job became vacant. However, once a search committee was struck, it took only four months to make a decision.

Prior to that, it took just five months to hire Laubenstein after his predecessor, Annita Stenning, left the CAO post.

By a process of elimination, you can see this decision is not based on a lack of qualified candidates or a flawed search process. This is, at some level, about politics. And pretty small-minded politics at that.

Some at city hall believe the committee wanted to prevent Katz from manipulating the hiring process, as it appears he did with the Sheegl hiring. Katz denied taking any active role in helping Sheegl, his lifelong friend and business associate, secure the job.

In fact, it was later learned he lobbied members of executive policy committee to approve Sheegl. The hard feelings from that process, exacerbated by the mess Sheegl left behind when he abruptly resigned, seem to have infected this current process.

Katz has not confirmed whether he will run in October. A working theory among some who are close to the process is the committee wants to punish Katz for the Sheegl hiring by delaying it until this fall's civic elections are complete. Possibly as a rebuke, or to ensure if he doesn't run, or runs and loses, he doesn't get an opportunity to manipulate the process again.

If that's true, then the hiring-committee members have decided to put petty internal politics ahead of the best interests of the citizens of Winnipeg.

This is not a job that can be left unfilled for a year. The CAO not only oversees all areas of city operations, he or she is the chief executive for all city employees. A smart, talented CAO is absolutely necessary for this city to function efficiently and effectively.

When you consider all that, it makes perfect sense to hire a new CAO as soon as possible.

And delaying the hire is nothing more than nonsense.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 5, 2014 A4

History

Updated on Monday, May 5, 2014 at 7:20 AM CDT: Replaces photo

8:04 AM: Corrects date

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