Samra to governance guru: confusing changes are “phased reorganization”

Nanaimo city manager goes on media offensive after municipal expert George Cuff calls her admin “a confused organization”
Tracy Samra
Tracy Samra calls three reorganizations and exodus of almost 35 management staff a “phased reorganization”
Nanaimo city manager Tracy Samra is hitting back at Canada’s leading municipal expert after he labeled her administration “a confused organization” in remarks to a local news outlet.

The city’s top bureaucrat, who is two years into her first city manager role, dismissed scathing criticism by veteran governance guru George Cuff as not based on “facts or context” and said she would like to “educate” him.

Meanwhile, a consultant’s report that Ms. Samra is relying on to justify her many restructures and staff changes seems to contradict the city manager’s moves by warning that the city must plan for a future staffing crisis.

Stinging rebuke

Acclaimed municipal expert Mr. Cuff, who has helped more than 500 municipalities and other public sector agencies across Canada, heaped scorn on Ms. Samra’s multiple management shuffles in an interview published by NanaimoNewsNow on Monday.

He told the news outlet that Nanaimo’s administration struck him as a “confused organization led by people who haven’t quite figured out their own agenda,” adding that constant change “impacts the morale” and the “ability to find quality people.”

The comments were a stinging rebuke of Nanaimo’s council and their top manager, who has restructured management ranks at least three times and overseen the loss of almost 35 non-union management staff since 2015.

NanaimoNewsNow article
Samra is responding to a NanaimoNewsNow article on Monday

More recently, Ms. Samra fired three managers but then rehired one of them three weeks later.

The ongoing onslaught of changes provoked an unprecedented protest in December when most union members boycotted the city’s year-end lunch to draw attention to the culture of “fear and vitriol” at the city.

But last night Ms. Samra hit back at Mr. Cuff in comments to News Nanaimo saying he was uninformed and his views are outdated.

“Mr. Cuff offers his opinions generally and do not appear to be based on facts or context,” said the city manager.

She said she would like to “educate and inform him” about the city “and then hear what he has to offer.”

Added Ms. Samra: “Modernization of city operations is certainly evolving in 2018.”

“Phased reorganization”

Her comments came after the city issued a news release yesterday afternoon that seemed to be a direct response to Mr. Cuff’s criticism in the NanaimoNewsNow article.

The release referred to the seemingly haphazard changes in reporting lines, staff departures and axings as a “phased reorganization” which was “now complete.”

The changes had been due to “recommendations of the Core Services Review” published May 2016, the release said. Vacant management positions were saving the city $745,000 per year, it was claimed.

But the Core Services Review, prepared by Western Management Consultants (WMC), never recommended a “phased reorganization” or that managers be fired or their positions not filled.

WMC found that the city had “fewer managers relative to its staff complement than is the case in the other benchmark municipalities.”

And the consultants warned the city to prepare for a bulge of retirements and stiff competition for new staff because babyboomers are leaving the workforce across the country.

Core Services Review
The core services review warned city leadership of a looming staff crunch

According to WMC, who the city paid more than $277,000 for its recommendations, five more managers are expected to become eligible for retirement this year alone.

Said the report: “It is important to note that there are 26 managerial positions and 144 staff positions where the incumbents will be eligible for retirement in the next five years.

“Also, amongst the remaining city employees will be a number of individuals whose skills and experience are important to the day-to-day ‘mission critical’ operations of the City and where finding a replacement in a short time period might be particularly challenging.”

WMC urged the city to “develop a succession plan” identifying positions likely to become vacant and “determine in advance how it will address these vacancies” in light of current “market demand for individuals with the required expertise and experience and the implications this may have for recruitment looking ahead.”

In yesterday’s release, the city said there had been “no layoffs or terminations of unionized employees.” But Ms. Samra told News Nanaimo this did not include some staff who were let go from the Nanaimo Economic Development Corporation because it was an “independent corporation.”


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  • George Cuff was Mayor of Spruce Grove,Alberta when I lived there from 1980 to 1987. He did a good job and has had 30 years of consulting work since then. Mr. Cuff knows a lot more about city management than Tracy Samra will ever know. George was democratically elected and Tracy Samra was hired without a proper job competition. She is not qualified or experienced enough for the job and she spends more than she is allowed on her expense account budget. That is just one measure of her inability to do a balanced job.

    Tracy Samara and the so-called “Fab Five” have been criticised for going beyond their authority in censuring Mayor McKay and councillor Brennan. They have spent far too much time on their witch hunt and not enough planning for the future. It is obvious they should all be replaced immediately, but Nanaimo residents have complained to the UBCM enough to get any action. There are severe irregularities occurring in Nanaimo that must be addressed. The city is getting a bad reputation. It used to be known as “a pulp mill at the end of a grease trail”. The pulp mill never stank this bad.

  • I think one should be circumspect about touting Mr. Cuff as Canada’s leading expert on municipal governance and some sort of “guru.” Mr. Cuff is best thought of as a municipal politician who saw an opportunity to become a consultant based on his own political experience rather than on any special expertise in the field of municipal government and administration.. Last time I checked his stated academic background was in English literature or some such field in the arts, not public administration, which is the most relevant field to the area of municipal administration.

    There are many suitably qualified experts available for comment locally, including Dr. Robert Bish, the most published and respected authority on local government in BC and a retired University of Victoria professor.

    That point aside, one should also consider the background to council’s cost-saving efforts and a major part of that background was widespread concern about the size of the city’s bureaucracy and the cost of maintaining it.

    Additionally, at one point Nanaimo’s tax rate ranked third among the top15 comparable municipalities in BC and was going nowhere but up. Thus there were many calls for a “core review” and council eventually acted. The type of review instituted, however, would not by any stretch of the imagination be considered fully rigorous, so it’s not surprizing that council might now choose to go beyond its recommendations in an effort to contain costs.

    It should also be kept in mind that Nanaimo is not a particularly well-off community and that it has a reasonably high proportion of senior citizens, many of whom are not in a position to afford the standard of service proffered by former CAO’s and councils.

    I therefore think council and Ms. Samra should be cut some slack on this particular matter, even if there are issues related to her own failure and that of the CFO to disclose and properly justify many personal expenses.

    Whatever one thinks of the issues at hand and the cast of political and administrative actors involved, it’s always going to be a struggle to effect changes when habits are so well entrenched. The process involved in Ms. Samra’s appointment, for example, while less than satisfactory, was certainly an improvement over the good-old-boy, pass the baton, method of the former regime.

    Overall, the critiques on this blog are well thought out and hopefully should have an impact on the way council and the administration are operating. However, at times the bigger picture needs to be examined and considered if the daily items of concern are to be properly understood. That’s something I hope will better inform future commentaries.

  • City management skills led me to consider that “We advantagement of the foundament. A come a valuable have levels of our cused it we with the destiny have involvements the man recogning quality, cycle the company. We recognized importantal. People that we will demance on a likely improving operfor deman recognized valuable the demanagement. A would have changed, teamworld-class compete involvement to product designed the has a valuable in they nears a shared importantal. People the changed, teamworld-class companing optimal structices.” – from a nonsense generator