Nanaimo City Hall. (News Bulletin file photo)

Consultant’s report sheds light on ‘very difficult’ era at Nanaimo city hall

Cuff report from 2019, obtained via FOI, highlights concerns expressed by city employees

The City of Nanaimo struggled through a “very difficult” five-year period that saw the municipality endure a “number of blows” to its reputation, management and unionized workforce, according to an April 2019 organizational review and restructuring report obtained through a freedom of information request.

Commissioned by the City of Nanaimo for a cost of $70,000, the report highlights concerns felt among city employees during a period of “instability, uncertainty and angst” that occurred between 2011-2018 and provides dozens of recommendations. The version of the report obtained by the News Bulletin is heavily redacted.

The report was authored by Alberta-based municipal government consultant George Cuff. Its findings were based on interviews with at least 50 city employees as well as observations by Cuff and his associates.

“It is apparent from both our own observations and from those shared with us by those we interviewed that the city is struggling through decisions made over the past five years…” the report says. “We heard a great deal about the serious decline in the level of quality and services provided by the city.”

The city’s reputation as an “employer of choice” was damaged, employee performance reviews didn’t take place for “some time,” there was a lack of attention to building relationships with external organizations, and communication on all levels “diminished,” according to the report, which noted that managers expressed a desire to return to a “clear, open and transparent” system.

According to the report, there were 107 staffing changes at the senior management level from 2011-2018, which negatively impacted the city’s image and its ability to be accountable.

“The removal of managers in various areas and levels has created gaps in the city’s accountability structure…” the report says. “This has had the effect of transferring accountability to someone else who may already be overstretched due to their own depleted resources.”

While the report didn’t specifically point out specific examples of wrongdoing, “at the core of the issues and challenges throughout the organization is the underlying concern relative to ethical behaviour,” the report said, without going into further detail.

Cuff’s report presented the city with a number of recommendations such as improving communication between the city manager and council, adding a new performance management system that requires annual reviews of employees, hiring individuals with clear-headed financial management acumen, and hiring leaders who “see the big picture.”

“The city needs a unified body which is focused on leadership, rebuilding trust with community patterns, a culture of improvement and not wasting time,” the report states, adding that management must be able to speak the truth without intimidation.

The report suggested the city should communicate its commitment to ethical behaviour, hear complaints and “try to do something” about them, create a positive work culture and review strengths and weaknesses on a regular basis.

Cuff, who has been a consultant advising municipal governments across Canada for more than 40 years, told the News Bulletin that the situation the City of Nanaimo was in between 2011-2018 was peculiar.

“I thought it was quite unique,” he said. “I thought the organization had suffered significantly and that it reflected the battering that I think it took as an organization over the past five years.”

Cuff explained that the amount of turnover that occurred was devastating to organizational health, reputation and resulted in a brain drain and a loss of corporate knowledge and should have been a concern to residents.

“The turnover, in my view, was absolutely significant and it was highly unusual based on the work that I’ve done in other places…” he said. “When you have 107 people turn over in the last five years that is remarkable in itself and it should be of considerable concern to council and to the citizens.”

Cuff said many employees were afraid to speak out because of the culture that had been created at the city’s highest levels of management and a fear of being fired.

“You’re not going to make concerns known because people in local governments tend to spread word around about where they got their information from, so regardless of what you thought was a confidential conversation, my observation over 40 years is that in local government, confidential conversations exist in the privacy of your own home,” he said.

READ ALSO: Council adopts whistleblower policy for City of Nanaimo

Asked whether he heard from employees about human resource complaints that were ignored or never dealt with, Cuff said he did. However, he also said the human resources department was put in a difficult position and attempted to protect employees.

“Human resources, as they explained to me and which I found evidence of, tried to preserve and protect employees that they knew were on the firing line, which even the employee might not have known about…” Cuff said. “I think there was more of an effort to protect than anyone really had a recognition of and I think the pressure being applied on HR came from both ends.”

Cuff said it doesn’t appear that the city has implemented many of the recommendations in his report and believes it should. He also said residents in Nanaimo should take an active interest in what goes on at city hall, not just when things are bad but all the time.

“Organizations like the City of Nanaimo need some heat,” he said.

Speaking to the News Bulletin, Jake Rudolph, the city’s chief administrative officer, called the report a “great piece of work” that “tells a bit of the story” from a professional management perspective.

“I think it was part of helping the organization move forward and it gave people an outlet to tell their story to him because there had been a lot of organizational trauma here,” Rudolph said. “I wasn’t part of that but I am part of the healing process and moving forward.”

Asked whether the city would be implementing recommendations made in the report or if it already had, Rudolph said the document is “primarily an information report.”

“There are lots of ideas in there…” he said. “We are really focused, at the staff level, on rebuilding the culture, the trust and the system. We’re spending a lot of time on interdepartmental meetings and those collaboration efforts and identifying opportunities for efficiencies.”

Rudolph said there was “no reason” why the report wasn’t made public other than the fact that it covered some human resource issues. He acknowledged that the report “doesn’t speak well” for the municipality and said the city is still dealing with the “legacy issues of the past.”

“We need to move forward,” Rudolph said.

READ ALSO: City of Nanaimo reaches settlement with fired chief operations officer

READ ALSO: Nanaimo’s ex-CAO directing film about city manager taking on establishment’s ‘swampy ways’ 
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