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Opinion: New city manager a rising star?

City council appointed long-time city senior administrator Walter Babicz the new city manager, but was he the best, or only, candidate for the job, columnist Tracy Klassen wonders
15 Walter Babicz
City council has named Walter Babicz the new city manager. Babicz served as the acting city manager for the past nine months.

Prince George city council recently revealed they had hired a new city manager. New means different things to different people, and our city council believes that Walter Babicz, who has worked for the city as the corporate officer since 2008, was the best choice to be the new city manager.

Like many past decisions by this city council, this appointment raises new questions, without answering the old ones.

Starting with the assumption that the search was nationwide, and knowing that major changes need to happen, why would city council end up hiring someone who has been part of the culture at city hall since 2008? Surely there many people applying for a job which pays $223,000 per year (that’s $18,500 each month!) Surely there would be many excellent candidates clamouring to move to the capital of northern B.C. Surely there would be many excellent candidates competing for the opportunity to work for a city governed by long time city councillors who have done their best to make the city a great place to live and work for the past three, four, five terms?

Or not? If not, why not? Was Mr. Babicz chosen because he was the only viable candidate to apply? Was he the only one willing to risk his reputation by working with a council that, based on the terrible cost overruns because of poor project planning, seems to not understand that their sacred duty is to ensure that taxpayer money (everyone pays taxes) is spent properly, accountably and transparently?  

Or did few apply because they took one look at the current culture at city hall and ran away as fast as they could? Or because there is less opportunity for a good future here for their children because of a segment of activist folks willing to shut down each and every major business opportunity that comes our way? Or because the city has an unfortunate record of not supporting initiatives and opportunities in surrounding municipalities which means we will eventually run out of small towns to poach retail sales from? 

As for the selected candidate, Mr. Babicz does deserve a chance. He has begun some needed changes which his hiring announcement highlighted: Reorganizing and streamlining the city’s organizational structure, amending the exempt employee overtime procedure, increasing the frequency of major capital project updates to city council, proposing and implementing a council-approved reduction in the city manager’s delegated authority for budget amendments. So, a decent beginning.

His most difficult and urgent task will be overcoming perceptions because of some of the compromises he must have made. He must have known about the problems with the contracts that resulted in the huge cost overruns. How will he gain respect from staff that knew he knew?  

Can he improve staff morale? Will he promote the best people, or simply default to those who are good at making themselves look good? Will he be able to keep or promote the staff who speak up about improvements to how things are done?  Will he get rid of the use of the alternative approval process for fleet updates and maintenance spending? Will he be able to untie his salary from going up as union contracts go up? Will he be able to change the culture he has been part of for so many years?

 For the sake of the people of Prince George, I wish Mr. Babicz’s time as city manager to be marked by success and a growing, thriving city. I hope that his hiring will be seen as the best decision this council has made.  As others have said, time will tell.