Views / Edmonton / Urban Compass


Metro News globe


Danielle Paradis explores what makes Edmonton a great city.

Both Edmonton and Vancouver fired their city managers but for opposite reasons

Edmonton City Hall is seen in this file photo.

Metro File Photo

Edmonton City Hall is seen in this file photo.

Just as Edmonton’s elected officials were firing Simon Farbrother, Vancouver’s city councillors were also preparing their city manager’s pink slip.

The reasons for dumping the so-called “city CEOs” couldn’t have been more different: Farbrother, a charismatic team-builder, was so hands-off with senior managers’ files that our first LRT line since 1978 became a borderline boondoggle. In contrast, Penny Ballem was a strong-headed former physician whose micromanagement led to massive turnovers and hemorrhaged corporate knowledge.

Maybe the municipalities should have just traded? Of course, both leadership styles have their pros ands cons. I’ve already mentioned the latter, but would the CityLab initiative for small, temporary urban projects have happened without Farbrother’s allowance for experimentation? And could Vancouver’s infrastructure have been Olympic-ready without an uncompromising manager?

In council’s search for its next CEO, it’s not a matter of finding the right balance but finding the right balance for Edmonton — a city of a million with an aggressive plan to be one of North America’s most competitive cities. I reached out to a few current and former civil servants to understand what they need to get the city there.

“Edmonton has big-city problems to deal with and needs a big city manager,” said one. “We struggle to throw small-town solutions to big problems.” There’s no central planning division, for instance, which seems to only encourage unco-ordinated project management, like the parks department being unaware of trail closures caused by drainage upgrades.

Our councillors have a history of hiring top management from small cities — Regina or, in Fabrother’s case, Waterloo, who may be unfamiliar with the complexities of a major Canadian city. Our city shouldn’t shy from actively recruiting a major city’s top brass. If Farbrother’s $800,000 severance package proves anything, it’s that we can afford it.
A city manager’s background, civil servants said, needs to be interdisciplinary — any combination of finance, law, infrastructure, business, social services and planning. But it’s more important that he or she is a strong communicator who can give staff a sense of direction. At the moment, Edmonton’s City Vision 2040 documents are vague and desperately need a leader who can streamline their messages to staff.

Edmonton’s councillors are also politically very different than when Farbrother was hired in 2010 and the next city manager should be too. “Nobody had a sense that he had vision or opinion,” one councillor told me. Instead, Farbrother always put his trust in senior management. “The problem with that is you’re only as good as your team.”
Here is where Ballem’s famously high standards appeal. A visionary leader could force lagging administrators to get with the program — or get out.

Considering Edmonton’s many growing pains and loss of public faith in its quest to be a sustainable, competitive city known to the world, it can’t afford anything less.

More on