Special Report: City Manager

What's at Stake in the City Manager Hiring Process

The current course that Council is headed on feels just as patriarchal as it does paternalistic.

By Cameron Kroetsch
Published January 21, 2019

If you've been following The Hamilton Spectator's opinion section lately, you'll likely have noticed not only my article calling for an equitable hiring process for the next City Manager but also Councillor Nrinder Nann's article urging for diversity on the Steering Committee that will be managing that process.

Not to worry, I don't intend for this to be a summary of what's already been said. I am, however, interested in a bit of a deeper dive on the democratic issues that surround this process and in unpacking some of the City's historical decisions when it comes to hiring for the City Manager.

Why? Because the City must get this right and it can't rely on an outdated process. This will be the most important hiring process that the City will undertake in the next decade-what the City Manager does (and doesn't do) will have an impact on shaping Hamilton into the 2030s. I plan to be here and I want to feel good about the process for choosing this influential leader.

I'm also writing this because I strongly support the motion that Councillor Maureen Wilson put forward for the January 23 meeting of Council, which calls for a new recruitment process incorporating an equity, diversity, and inclusive lens (EDI).

The Last Time Hamilton Hired a City Manager

In 2008, City Manager Glen Peace resigned in early March. Council handed the reins to "head of finance" Joe Rinaldo and struck a Steering Committee to hire Peace's replacement.

The committee was composed of five members: Mayor Fred Eisenberger and councillors Tom Jackson, Maria Pearson, Russ Powers, and Terry Whitehead.

The process didn't start off well. Some councillors were looking to exclude external candidates and Eisenberger was quoted saying that Council didn't want a "change agent". There was a lot of speculation about who might fill the position, a bit of controversy about the secrecy of the process, and frustration about how long it was taking (it was supposed to wrap up by October 1 but didn't conclude until some time in December).

The committee held interviews with about 12 applicants (72 applied), and widdled it down to two internal candidates: Chris Murray, who was "head of housing," and Scott Stewart, the "general manager of public works". Eventually, Murray, described as a "long-shot" and "dark horse", was the candidate chosen to replace Peace.

The takeaways here, for me, are that the public basically had no say in the process and wasn't really aware of what was going on. The committee also made it pretty clear publicly, that even if they did eventually consider external candidates, they weren't as interested in the best overall candidate from a nationwide pool of competitors as they were in a safe internal choice who wouldn't rock the boat.

This is not to say that there's no way to make sense of the committee's decisions (though I'm not condoning them). Some of the reasons lay in the timing of Peace's resignation. If reports are to be believed, Council was shocked when Peace handed in his resignation so early - it was right in the middle of the 2006-2010 term.

It is likely that this was especially shocking since Peace was an internal hire (2004) meant to stabilize the office of City Manager. His two previous successors didn't stay in their roles for very long (Doug Lychak from 1998-2002 and Bob Robertson from 2002-2004). In addition to their brief tenure, both of the previous post-amalgamation City Managers were external to the City of Hamilton and that externality was at times touted as the reason for the troubles they faced during their tenures.

Because the hiring was taking place in the middle of the Council term and the new City Manager wouldn't be sworn in until 2009, it's also not a surprise that they went for a more conservative choice. At that point in a term of Council, politicians have usually made a series of pre-election promises and are gearing up for their re-election plans. A new vision for the City or a series of immediate key changes would very likely have disrupted those plans.

This is Not 2008

While I can attempt to understand this sort of process in 2008, it makes almost no sense to me in 2019. Despite that it's been more than a decade, the processes are overwhelmingly similar:

On the first point, of the head of finance being appointed interim City Manager, I have no quibbles really. That it happens to be the head of finance again is probably just a coincidence but it may hint to a long-standing internal City structure that isn't apparent (and should be).

Rinaldo was seen as the "right hand" of Glen Peace and had previously acted as interim City Manager. Can we presume the same about Zegarac? I'm not sure.

An easy way to solve this problem would be for the City to write a policy about succession planning for the City Manager including who would logically fill the interim position while the hiring process is being conducted. After all, the interim City Manager may be responsible for managing the city for up to a year.

On the composition of the committee, including the number of its members, I can't understand the justification. There's no reason that the Steering Committee must be made up of the chairs of Standing Committees. The chairs are in no way specifically qualified to lead a hiring process. There are other options here for selecting committee members which have been, up to the time of Wilson's motion, completely overlooked. Those include:

I think they should do all of these things, for the record. They could also do something interesting and just appoint the entire Council as the Steering Committee. This is similar to what the City of Mississauga has done as part of their policies for hiring high-level administrators as early as 2005 (the glaring point here being that Mississauga has had public hiring policies in place for high-level City positions since before Council started the last recruitment process).

Up to now, the selection process in Hamilton has been nothing short of pure internal politics. There is no evidence, aside from the experience that both Eisenberger and Pearson have from their stint on this committee last time, that the members have any experience in high-level hiring.

My point isn't that the argument couldn't be made, but that this isn't how the committee was selected. If you're responsible for a hiring process then you should select a committee that's most qualified to do it and you should be transparent and inclusive about that selection.

There are some other perhaps less obvious points here aside from the things I've mentioned above:

To the gender imbalance, the only thing I'll add to Councillor Nann's already excellent points on this subject is that in 2008 there were only two women on Council (Margaret McCarthy and Maria Pearson). This meant that of the entire 16 member Council, only 12.5 percent were women in 2008. That they had representation of 20 percent was in keeping with the composition of Council at the time (though not of the city's residents, to be clear).

In 2019, there are seven women on Council, making up 44 percent of the total members. It's unreasonable to maintain the same low level of representation on the hiring committee. At least one other woman should be appointed to the Committee in its current form.

I'd go further, as Wilson has in her motion, and agree that at least 50 percent of the composition of the committee should be women and that the number of people on the committee should be increased to six or eight. Yes, I know, these are both even numbers, but I don't think that's a bad thing in this instance as ties can be important in identifying flawed hiring outcomes.

To the point about new councillors being included on the committee, there are currently no new councillors on it. Interestingly, in 2008, there were also four new councillors to choose from and none were selected. At that point it was probably even harder to justify, since each of the new councillors would have had two years of experience working on Council by then (for the record, the new councillors were Brad Clark, Scott Duvall, Lloyd Ferguson, and Rob Pasuta).

The 2019 Council has only one racialized member and it's imperative that the selection process take this into consideration. The committee must not only reflect the composition of our elected Council but must also reflect the wider population of the City of Hamilton.

It must also account for the changes that Council has seen since 2008, including the election of two members from racialized communities, a member open about being from the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, and a very steady increase in the number of women elected to council (from two in 2006 to seven in 2018).

So How Did the City Get Here?

On August 17, 2018, shortly before the last council went on hiatus to begin final preparations for their election campaigns, they passed a motion to determine the composition of a Steering Committee to conduct the hiring for the new City Manager.

That the previous Council would approve a hiring process to be used by the next Council do this just before an election is itself questionable, in my opinion. Since the Steering Committee was not scheduled to meet until February 2019, there was no legitimate reason that this decision could not have waited until the new Council was sworn in (December 2018).

The original motion, which came out of a Discussion Item at the General Issues Committee (GIC) meeting on August 13, 2018, was moved by Councillor Lloyd Ferguson and seconded by Mayor Fred Eisenberger. It wasn't put on the agenda as a motion and it wasn't provided by way of Notice of Motion at the July 9, 2019 GIC meeting.

Essentially, it came out of nowhere and was designed to do two things: set the composition of the Steering Committee and hyper-accelerate the hiring and selection process. It achieved the first goal, but not necessarily the second (thankfully).

More surprising than the motion itself were the comments that were made when it was presented to GIC, which to me expose that the Steering Committee process was designed to exclude the incoming Council and any newly elected councillors. This was most obvious from Councillor Ferguson's comments especially when he asked, right off the bat, "Is there any reason we couldn't ... maybe even short list [the candidates]" and then asked "why are we waiting 'til November to start the process?"

The rest of his comments made it very clear that he wanted the committee selected immediately and that he wanted the committee to begin the process before the election took place.

Thankfully, Councillors Green, Whitehead, and the legislative coordinator put an end to that discussion by explaining, in different ways, the obvious conflict of interest that this represented.

You can see the whole exchange by watching the video that accompanies the meeting (starting around 4:15).

Disastrous Hiring Process

As some of you likely know, I spend my work hours in the field of labour relations and used to be the President of a union. I know a few things about good hiring.

In my professional opinion, this entire process has been set up disastrously. For me the largest problem is that it seemed normal or reasonable to use an outdated process as the model for hiring in 2019.

Good hiring processes must evolve, change, and strive to reflect not only new human resources theory but changes in the workplace and in the composition of a corporation's leadership. The most important part of this hiring process to date, the selection of the Steering Committee, has in no way departed from the one used in 2008.

And, if it goes as planned, it will be carried out in the same manner as it was in 2008: kept away from any public scrutiny and resulting in a safe choice who will be loyal to incumbent councillors.

I expect that those defending the old structure will argue that the last process resulted in the City hiring a good City Manager. They'll likely try to make this about Chris Murray himself arguing that he remained in the position for a long time and demonstrated loyalty, that he was well liked by Council, and that his hire by the City of Toronto somehow acts as confirmation that the City of Hamilton got it right. They'll argue that the City should use the same process it used last time because it doesn't need to "fix what isn't broken".

In my opinion, none of those arguments matter in the slightest and should be ignored. Even if I thought those were convincing arguments on their own, this is not how hiring works. Hiring processes are completely dependent on when they happen, who conducts them, and who is looking to be hired. When an employer uses identical processes at a much later date in a different context and with a completely different applicant pool, there's no way to ensure consistency in the outcome. That's just not how it works.

Leadership Over Tradition

Things have changed in this city over the past decade. Residents have elected more diverse and inclusive Councils and there have been major changes in Hamilton since Murray was hired. To ignore that would not only be a huge snub to all of the incoming councillors and their supporters but to the residents who don't see themselves reflected in this City's leadership. The least that this Council can do is to act in the spirit of allyship where it cannot be representative.

The current course that Council is headed on feels just as patriarchal as it does paternalistic.

Council must demonstrate that it understands that change is possible and that its residents want to see the City of Hamilton confront our current challenges in new and innovative ways. The City can only do that by embracing change (not by relying on what's easy and familiar). Trying to keep change out is not only impossible in the long-term but petty and destructive in the short-term.

Hamilton need its City Council to choose leadership over tradition.

To those of you who agree with me: please take a few minutes between now and 5:00 PM on January 23 to contact your Councillor and your Mayor to let them know that you support Councillor Wilson's motion and, if you have the time, come out to the meeting to show your solidarity in person.

Cameron Kroetsch moved to Hamilton in 2014. He's a labour relations professional, sometimes writer, and a passionate non-profit sector volunteer who cares about democracy in government and community advocacy. He lives in Corktown (Ward 2) with his partner Derek.

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By Crispy (registered) | Posted January 25, 2019 at 15:35:29

Why didn't councillor Wilson put forth her motion?

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