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Glimmer of hope at city hall

There is change in the air at Prince George city hall but whether it will amount to anything still hangs in the balance, as it is dependent on the choice city council makes for the next city manager.

There is change in the air at Prince George city hall but whether it will amount to anything still hangs in the balance, as it is dependent on the choice city council makes for the next city manager.

The parting of ways between Mayor Lyn Hall and the rest of council with Kathleen Soltis, a 35-year city employee who served six-and-a-half years as the City of Prince George's top bureaucrat, last September was reportedly mutual. In other words, she had had enough of them and vice versa. 

Although we'll never truly know what went on behind the scenes, the glimpses offered in just the 2018 emails about the George Street Parkade show Soltis was a city manager who fervently protected her authority and did not appreciate challenges from city councillors - especially Brian Skakun - to her decisions.

While that kind of assertive leadership, along with being a calm, familiar hand on the wheel, was probably what got Soltis the job in 2014, it clearly wore out its welcome over time with enough city councillors that a change had to happen.

Others in senior management followed Soltis. By November, Dave Dyer had retired and public works director Gina Layte Liston and infrastructure service director Adam Homes were gone as acting city manager Walter Babicz restructured and streamlined the organization. 

Then, in December and January, came the shocking revelations about the true cost of the parkade. In December, council was told it was $22.4 million and then, upon council demanding more information, the final cost of $34 million. That's a far cry from the $12.6 million originally budgeted and the $16.4 million reported to council's finance and audit committee in November 2019.

The entire senior management team knew about this financial disaster as it was happening, according to now deputy city manager Ian Wells, but it was kept from council and even the mayor. Despite repeated requests from the Citizen for an interview, Hall has only answered questions from reporters about this once - back in late January - to adamantly deny he knew anything about the soaring parkade expenses. 

Although internal emails suggest he was given at least one "heads up" from Soltis and was having conversations with the parkade developer in the summer of 2018, there remains no direct, public evidence proving Hall wrong.

Meanwhile, the oversight changes Hall and council committed to back in January - a whistleblower policy, reconsideration of the city manager's authority (especially around spending and budgets) and external reviews of the parkade in particular and other major projects in general - are moving along, albeit as drawn out and painful as a multi-appointment root canal.

This was a mess years in the making and it will take both time but also bold action to fix.

The changes so far are small, promising first steps but the bold action (or not) will come in the form of the new city manager. Local residents should know fairly soon after that how serious city council is about turning the page on the Soltis era.

City council needs to hire a “change agent,” someone who will dramatically alter the structure and culture of city hall with fresh ideas, bringing both transparency and accountability to the leadership of an organization in desperate need of it. If that kind of city manager is put in place this spring, the early results should be plainly obvious by the time the snow flies again in the fall.

Mayor and council have so far showed a willingness to change but it will take a forceful instrument – in the form of the next city manager – to actually deliver.

What happens in the next 18 months, heading into next fall’s municipal election, hinges on that hire.

May they choose wisely.