Thou Shalt Not Hire a City Manager in Thine Own Image

Don't believe the social-media hype; Andre Corbould was a victim of his own pragmatism

If you happen to follow City Council’s X (formerly Twitter) booster club, you could conclude that now former city manager Andre Courbold was insubordinate and too closely aligned with the provincial government. He had to go. Full stop.

Let’s not mistake social media for reality, however. Mr. Courbold’s departure from his post is very bad news for the City of Edmonton. (Full disclosure. I was part of the Council that hired him.) And in my mind he was close to as good as we could hope for.

The Iveson councils were two parts “city builder” dreamers, and one part practical thinkers. We needed a city manager that was the reverse — at least two parts practical thinker and maybe one part city builder/dreamer. Maybe.

A friend of mine who has worked around government at all levels once compared City Council to a Re/Max office, where you have 12 independent agents and a managing partner — all trying to outgun each other for sales and attention. A common and cohesive vision that all councillors buy into is usually elusive. This is maybe a bit cynical, but not wildly untrue.

This underscores the importance of an impartial free thinking and operationally focused city manager who is strong enough and experienced enough not to be wholly distracted by the wild-eyed whims of elected leaders. The city manager is focused on an army of city employees, largely tasked with the everyday things that matter a lot to the people who live here.

So while mayors and many councillors lay awake at night pondering the halt of climate change or the healing of all human trauma and sociological carnage or the beginning of an active transportation revolution, the city manager needs to be thinking about different things.

Will the buses be running on time and will the LRT and pedestrian paths be safe for people to get to school and work?

They need to fuss about whether the roads are clear, the parks are mowed and recreation centres and libraries are open.

And, can we pay for it all?

These are the basic public services that people expect for a major city to function. This is before it can promote itself as a place for investment, tourism or innovation. This is before it can imagine itself as a vibrant winter city, or a city committed to justice or equity or climate leadership. These are all important things but the majority of people won’t care about council’s views on them unless the basics are functioning.

In reflection I will confess a belief that the council I sat on strayed too far from our municipal “mandate” and certainly from our practical purpose. I don’t regret the passion for the issues on which we attempted to lead, but I regret our lack of strategy and pragmatism at times in pursuit of goals that were well beyond our financial capacity and our legislative reach.

The current council has not course-corrected our waywardness but rather has turbo-charged its focus on things it has little control over. This, well-intentioned or not, deploys the city manager and his deputies on endless wild goose chases.

But alas… looking forward there are many important challenges ahead. There are many important day-to-day services that need to be improved. There are large, small and complex capital projects underway and the issues of homelessness, drug poisonings, social disorder and public safety are far from satisfactorily addressed and require practical, unrelenting bridge-building between the city and the province — no matter how difficult it seems.

There continues to be missed opportunities at the regional level and there is perpetual, pointless and reciprocal gaslighting with the provincial government.

There continues to be challenged relationships between council and the EPS and between council and the business community.

These things can happen and a strong city manager can help bridge and heal some of these damaged relationships — for the good of the city — when council won’t or can’t.

City Council has two employees. The city manager is one of them. Council creates the vision and gives the direction, for sure. But it takes a pragmatic city manager to make that vision realistic.

This is the most important decision of this council’s term. It can’t be made by taking inspiration from what the mayor and councillors see in the mirror.

(Michael Walters is a former Edmonton city councillor and is currently a partner at Berlin Communications.)