Edmonton Burns Through City Managers Like the Oilers Go Through Coaches

Andre Corbould was asked to cut costs, appease the union and make sure council's sacred cows were left unscathed. Was it a bridge too far?

Imagine that we’re about to begin the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Excitement in the city is high. But, somewhere in Rogers Place, Oilers President Jeff Jackson hauls coach Kris Knoblauch into his office.

“Kris, the expectation is that we can win a Stanley Cup.”

“Yes, I share that goal.”

“But here’s the thing. I need you to do this while committing to making Zach Hyman, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl healthy scratches through the playoffs…”

Of course that’s a ridiculous scenario. A no-win scenario. But, it’s not entirely unlike what former city manager Andre Corbould had to wrestle with during the City’s budget crisis, er, deliberations.

He was tasked to do the job with his arms tied behind his back.

He was asked to find $60 million in efficiencies at City Hall. Corbould had to also find $240 million under the couch cushions at City Hall to help bolster those priority areas. As well, as he worked with council on the capital side of the budget, he was faced with a list of sacred cows that could not be touched — climate resiliency, active transportation, housing, core services. The City’s stubborn dedication to overseeing the development of Blatchford deserves its own special mention; so far it has given us mostly empty fields and an LRT station in the middle of nowhere.

So, there were some differences between what Corbould and administration wanted to be on the table when it came to budget discussions, and what some councillors wanted to take off the table.

Look, there is nothing wrong with a councillor or councillors wanting certain projects to be prioritized or saved. Setting priorities is what council does. But the issue here is that things were being taken off the table — and, if you really want to be seen as serious about how you’re breaking down the budget, you have to be willing to lay out all the cards — even some of the things you believe are far too precious to cut or be adjusted.

Corbould was asked to find “efficiencies,” (don’t you love euphemisms?) when everyone at City Hall knew that a new contract was needed with more than 5,000 library and civic employees, who had been working without a contract since 2020. He was asked to find a way to cut operational spending, but, at the same time, knew that thousands of workers were in line for raises. The City held a hard, hard line till the 11th hour. But, despite the fact the lack of contract was no secret, many councillors didn’t really understand just how angry the CSU52 membership was until we got pretty late into the game. They said over and over it wasn’t council’s place to get into the negotiation process — that it was administration’s job to make a new deal work — and they did such a good job of that separation of church and state that they didn’t sense they had a big problem on their hands until the union held practice strike events.

During the negotiations, which weren’t really negotiations at all — but repeat after repeat of the same City offer — I had to stay away from the topic, because a family member is a member of the union. But, I did have contact with more than a few unhappy City employees, to a person they blamed Corbould for the impasse. He was the fall guy for the City. And there’s no shaking the feeling that it’s going to take a while for bridges to be rebuilt between the unionized staff, administration and council. Mayor Amarjeet Sohi admitted as much when council ratified the agreement this week. He said the City has “work ahead of us to repair some of the hurt.”

Now, I hear they are relieved that the deal is done, that Corbould has left the building. But, the lingering effect is that our mayor and left-leaning members of council have lost the support of union workers at the City. The hard line taken by the City, to the 11th hour, has left the staff feeling that council is a lot more Roy family than it might want to admit.

Like many of the journalists who cover City Hall, I’ve heard a lot of whispered complaints. About council debates that go on too long; being asked to re-do reports, or being tasked to do studies or reports that they know will end up going nowhere.

Edmonton goes through city managers like the Oilers go through head coaches. Once Corbould’s “permanent” replacement is named, it will be the fifth city manager in a little less than nine years. I had to place “permanent” in quotes, because, well, look at the history of the position. The Oilers have burned through six head coaches in 2015.

But, head coaches in hockey know that their job security sucks. They are in a results-oriented business, and as, the cliche goes, they’re hired to get fired.

City managers aren’t hockey coaches.

Just like the Oilers have had several different general managers through that time, Edmonton has had different councils. But, when you have a history of instability, it’s hard to correct that path. Instability begets more instability.