The most common reaction to the news late last Friday that Kathleen Soltis is no longer the city manager has been a call to “clean house.”
That’s the polite version. Others have adopted the Donald Trump slogan “drain the swamp,” while some argue that the entire senior management team at the City of Prince George needs to go.
It seems the wisdom of the old saying “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water” doesn’t apply to Facebook comment threads.
It was certainly long past time for Soltis to go but that doesn’t mean everybody that reported directly to her also needs to be shown the door.
As anyone who’s ever held a job for more than five minutes knows, good employees and bad employees, good managers and bad managers, work side by side. Often, it is the dedicated workers that prop up poor leaders, disguising their incompetence. Only a closer look reveals what’s really going on.
Most employees at most employers, including the City of Prince George, are solid, qualified individuals who work hard for their paycheques and take their responsibilities seriously.
Is a housecleaning required among senior leadership at city hall? Frankly, yes, but that effort needs to be done carefully and strategically for the long-term benefit of a lean, efficient municipal government, not for the short-term satisfaction of slashing salaries.
Mayor and council are now in a solid position to implement deep, institutional change, something which Soltis, a 34-year city employee, never seemed willing to deliver.
The first order of business is to task interim city manager Walter Babicz with putting together a plan to streamline the management structure at city hall. Once approved by mayor and council, Babicz would implement that plan, ideally by year-end.
Numerous significant wins would come from that action and the speed in which it’s done.
The directors who are not good leaders would be weeded out of the organization.
The positions that do not deliver good value for their cost would be eliminated. Note the focus is on the positions, not the people. Doesn’t matter how nice the person filling the chair is if the role is unnecessary.
Talented, up-and-coming employees would be given the opportunity to move into new roles of greater responsibility, change the culture and improve their departments.
The process would serve as an audition for city council to assess whether Babicz should become the new city manager.
Even if city council decides to bring in a fresh face to lead the local bureaucracy, that new city manager would benefit from the improvements Babicz implements.
The quick action would demonstrate to local residents how serious mayor and council are in restoring confidence in local government. The quick action would also send the right message to the Canadian Union of Public Employees heading into bargaining for new contracts later this year. Senior managers will now lead by example when it comes to belt tightening, not by “do as we say, not as we do.”
If Soltis had remained, she would have been a poor choice to lead contract negotiations, since her salary increased by 15 per cent during the same time period where CUPE workers received a total of 6.75 per cent in wage hikes. That and the double time she collected in overtime during the 2017 Cariboo wildfires evacuation crisis, as opposed to the time-and-a-half paid to unionized staff, would have left her open to the reasonable argument that if she and her team are worthy of big raises, so are the people beneath them.
Mayor and council are going to have to work hard over the next two years to earn their pay as the city grapples with the effects of the pandemic on its revenue. Carrying on as normal while passing on huge tax increases to local taxpayers and demanding bailout money from the provincial and federal governments is not an option.
Difficult choices need to be made in the months ahead. The departure of Soltis should only be the start of that process at city hall.
That work shouldn’t be done with glum faces, however, but with enthusiasm and pride. The hard work required to deliver lasting, meaningful and beneficial change sees talented workers rallying around devoted leaders, with everyone holding each other accountable.
“Fire them all” wouldn’t help in that process, it would hinder it.