Why Nanaimo’s staff ‘brain drain’ is likely to get worse — much worse

New portfolio system likely to aggravate already bad situation due to council-staff conflicts
The flow of professional managers leaving the City of Nanaimo is likely to get worse in coming months due to a retirement bulge and conflicts between staff and councillors under a new governance system.

headlines of Nanaimo staff departures

Fully 18 managers, directors and general managers have left the city for other jobs or retired since the start of 2015. Recent departures include:

  • Toby Seward, acting senior director of strategic operations, who took an “early retirement” package;
  • Guillermo Ferrero, director of information and technology legislative services, who is now city manager at the Town of Ladysmith;
  • Suzanne Samborski, director of strategic relations, culture and heritage, now director of parks and recreation at District of Saanich ;
  • Geoff Goodall, director of engineering and public works, who moved to Ladysmith in the same position;
  • Chris Jackson, manager of legislative services; who went to Powell River as city clerk; and,
  • Jason Birch, manager of information systems, who has taken on the same role at the Municipality of North Cowichan.

14 more managers able to retire in 2016

Based on these departures, Nanaimo’s management turnover rate is about 10% in the past six months — double the maximum 5% considered healthy for top performing staff.

And it’s set to get worse.Retirement ready staff for City of Nanaimo

According to the City’s recent Core Services Review report, 14 management staff can bid goodbye and take retirement this year. And 10 more can do so in the next four years.

Warns the report: “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.”

But that may still only be the tip of the iceberg.

Portfolio system’s chief pitfall: staff resignations

A new governance system for the city recommended by city manager Tracy Samra and adopted by Council in March comes with a worrying pitfall that could compound the skills crisis — high management turnover.

According to governance expert John Graham, the “portfolio system” is mostly used in small rural municipalities and First Nations administrations and has a history of leading to clashes between councillors and professional staff who run city services.

“The councillor becomes in effect the program manager, leaving the nominal program manager disempowered and discouraged. The sad result is a high turnover in the program manager position,” says Graham, who has conducted over 350 governance related projects.

Under Nanaimo’s portfolio system (PDF), councillors are assigned to one of nine city departments on a quarterly rotating basis. They are “provided the opportunity to interact directly with staff and observe how council initiatives are implemented.” They also have to compile weekly email updates about their portfolio department to the city manager and the rest of council.

Partisan politics defines service delivery

Another serious side-effect of the system, says Graham, is that as managers leave, councillors become more involved in operations and make political decisions about services.

“Instead of administrators relying on program policies to decide who gets what, partisan politics will increasingly be the dominant player,” warns Graham.

The portfolio system has also been slammed by renowned municipal governance guru George Cuff  in reports to municipalities across the country.

In a report to City Council of Kenora, Cuff said: “At the heart of much of the confusion regarding the roles of Council and management lies the portfolio system. This has inadvertently drawn members of Council into the administration with the mistaken impression in some instances that they are to help manage the system.”

Councillors hear more from staff than public

Another downside for the public who elect councillors to represent them is that our representatives begin to take city staff’s side in council matters.

The public’s role is limited to going to council meetings to state their case, which leaves little time for councillors to reflect on complex issues.

In Nanaimo, that may already be happening.

Jerry Hong on council portfolio system

Councillor Jerry Hong, in comments on Facebook this past week about the recent controversial council meeting over a driveway application made it clear that his views on the matter were heavily influenced by staff.

In the meantime, many of the city’s committees and commissions that used to provide a conduit for community input to council have been suspended since February.