Report points out governance flaws at City of Nanaimo

NANAIMO – Interaction with staff, other councillors a common problem among municipalities

Significant tension, name calling and physical altercations among Nanaimo councillors and city staff members undermine any attempt at good governance and could be hurting the city’s ability to make decisions, a new governance report reveals.

The recently released Watson Governance Summary Report says the city has crippled its own efforts at good governance with behaviour that could be considered “a substantial reputational risk for the city.” Distrust, name calling and sarcastic tones in correspondence between staff and council has left city staff feeling demoralized and some councillors feeling marginalized, it reports.

It has also had an overall negative effect on the city’s ability to be high performing, make decisions and maintain the respect of other organizations. But city officials don’t all agree that there is a negative dynamic at City Hall or that it’s affected their ability to do a good job. They also wouldn’t comment on physical altercations mentioned in the report.

Coun. Ted Greves, head of the city’s governance committee, says strife with staff members is nothing new for city councils, pointing to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford as a prime example. But he acknowledges that the practice does distract people from doing the work of the city and it needs to stop. The city might need to consult a mediator, he said.

Mayor John Ruttan, however, is not convinced the situation at city hall is as dire as the consultant reports and is concerned the document has been released to the public.

City officials haven’t yet discussed the report and its recommendations, he said.

This is “not a circus we are trying to promote,” Ruttan said.

“It was not intended to amuse the public or create interest in the public or get media attention. It was meant to look at ourselves as mayor and council and find out what we are doing wrong and change it.”

Nanaimo city officials hired Watson Inc. to review governance at City Hall earlier this year, as part of its new strategic commitments. The review acknowledged many significant steps have been taken toward good governance practice, like public consultation for the strategic plan and development of a new cultural and communications strategy.

But Watson Inc. also pointed out several issues preventing the city from reaching its potential, including the ability to work well together. Negative relationships among councillors can hurt staff morale and the effectiveness of oversight and decision making. There is a degree of tension among council members that concern other officials at city hall, the report says.

It also reveals other issues like a lack of common understanding among councillors about what their responsibilities are and how they can carry them out. There is no clear alignment for a strategic direction despite a new strategic plan, and an inconsistent understanding of what in camera meetings should be used for. Recommendations span from a code of conduct for council to a review of the use of in camera meetings, and written guidelines for appropriate levels of interaction with staff members.

“Most of these senior staff we interact with and most of council … agree we are not performing as best we can and I think these recommendations sort of points that out,” Greves said, adding that the report recommendations are “dead on right.”

“I know we have to start getting our nose to the grindstone and start going by the rules and regulations, procedural bylaws and the community plan. We can do a lot better.”

Coun. Bill McKay, who sits on the governance board, hopes the city can rebuild trust with the community through the governance review and that council gains a greater understanding and respect for each other’s roles.

“Council itself needs to understand the mayor is CEO. He’s the top dog. And the mayor needs to take that role seriously and step up to the plate and be that top dog,” he said.

The governance committee has already held an in camera meeting to review its internal culture but will look at the recommendations at a public meeting in early September.

To read the report, please click here.