A young Ted Swabey hung his head low as he faced his father on the gridiron of a private boarding school.
It was his father’s alma mater, and the same field where he had played football before heading to Princeton University.
Swabey wanted the same kind of opportunity and after a season-long losing streak, saw the final game as his last chance to impress scouts.
Instead he suffered another heartbreaking loss.
It’s all there in black and white in the office of Nanaimo’s new top bureaucrat. The old photograph is a reminder of how dejected he felt that day and his father’s advice that the game was just the beginning – that he needed to persevere instead of letting the loss get him down, Swabey said.
“I ended up getting scholarships to the U.S. and Canada so it did all work out,” said Swabey, who went on to play college football. “I think that was my dad’s point. There are ups and downs in everything you do … [but] if you put in effort and time things will work out.”
It’s a lesson Swabey plans to use as he makes his mark on city hall.
The new city manager took over the helm earlier this month from long-time manager Al Kenning, with plans to invest time in building relationships within the organization and change public perception around who’s in charge.
His appointment comes on the heels of criticism that senior employees have become more powerful than council and a recent review that red flagged negative internal issues as undermining attempts at good governance.
In a far-reaching discussion with media, Swabey said he expects there will be challenges ahead in taking over management of about 650 employees, including building trust among staff members, crafting a new budget process and potentially restructuring city hall.
“The starting point is the relationship building and trust building and I don’t think [those are] insurmountable issues to deal with,” he said. “I think dealing with the cultural issues first will help – ensuring that my role is seen for what it is.”
“[We] need to make sure we always recognize who is in control and that’s council.”
Swabey has been working at the City of Nanaimo for the past 23 years, climbing the corporate ladder from a counter clerk to economic development, protective services, and community safety and development. He understands the organization and its culture – tools that will help him move the corporation forward, he said.
A top goal will be in turning the attention away from the city manager, who he says has received undue focus as a significant power player.
Swabey said he’ll begin changing perceptions around city leadership by emphasizing more strongly his supporting role to council and checking in with elected officials more often about priorities, improvements for community engagement and potential reorganization at city hall.
Thirty per cent of employees – and about half of the city’s managers – will be eligible for retirement without pension penalties in the next five years.
It’s an opportunity for council to review how city staffing is structured and plan for succession.
“This is the start of [council’s] new relationship with their employee – which is me – and I am going to be checking in to see if I can meet their needs or if those needs have changed in any way,” he said.
Swabey has already started to put his mark on the corporation, helping to establish a new pilot budget process.
The approach is anticipated to allow politicians higher scrutiny of service levels and spending early on.
He will also be involved in action over the city’s new governance report, which highlighted the need for elected officials to assign him priorities and address internal issues like name-calling and tension.
“I think there is always room for improvement in how those [relationship and governance] issues are managed and perceived,” Swabey said.
“I think the challenge we have is how we move forward together in terms of decision-making as a body.”
As the former athlete forges ahead, he’s made sure to surround himself with mementos that remind him of his parent’s lessons, including the black and white photograph.
He said he’ll handle any future challenges the way his dad taught him to: with an investment of time and effort, relationships and a dose of good humour.
New leadership, fresh start
The City of Nanaimo has been grappling with challenges, ranging from public demand for transparency to internal tension between staff members and politicians. Council members say Ted Swabey could herald a new beginning – allowing officials to set different priorities for the city manager and establish or repair relationships.
Odai Sirri, chairman of the Greater Nanaimo Chamber of Commerce, also has high hopes for the new city manager.
“We hope he will be an agent of change to help run this city better … to help get the various stakeholders onside and feeling more confident about the city so we can realize our potential here.”