Linda Cochrane is Edmonton’s new City Manager

Mayor Don Iveson announced this morning that City Council has hired Linda Cochrane as Edmonton’s new City Manager. A long-time City employee, Linda has been the Acting City Manager since September when Council decided to fire Simon Farbrother.

Linda Cochrane

Here’s what the mayor had to say on why Linda was selected:

“As you know, Linda had been Acting City Manager since the fall of 2015. In that time she has earned the complete trust of City Council through her continuing work to transform the structure of the corporation and lead a more open and effective local government.

It is important to note that this was an international search with applications from candidates far and wide. The interest of so many talented applicants is a wonderful compliment to our community, our vision, and the work of our administration – things we should all be immensely proud of. More to the point, it is a reflection of the quality of Linda’s tremendous service and inspiring leadership that she was considered best amongst this class of impressive candidates.”

Council has signed Linda to a three year term, with options to renew. Linda was very clear back in January that she wanted to be considered for the role. Today she was elated to have been selected, telling the Journal: “I’m just over the moon. It’s a realization of a lifetime dream. I couldn’t be happier.”

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Linda started her career in aquatics programs, first in Edmonton as a swim instructor and then with Spruce Grove. She returned to the City in 1982 and started climbing the management ladder. She was director of the Kinsmen Sports Centre and in 1990 was asked to take on the role of director at the Valley Zoo. It wasn’t long until she was in charge of the City’s parks and recreation centres. Linda was most recently the general manager of Community Services (now Citizen Services after the reorg she announced in January), a position she took on in 2006.

Linda has worked on a number of high profile projects throughout her career. She defended the Valley Zoo’s care of Lucy the Elephant and refused to bow to pressure from Bob Barker and others who wanted Lucy moved. Linda was one of only four women on the eighteen-person bid committee for the 2001 World Championships in Athletics. She led the charge to build the Terwillegar Rec Centre and led a review of all the City’s facilities. Most recently of course she earned the nickname “cabbie whisperer” for her quick action to restore order during contentious Council discussions on Uber.

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Linda is Edmonton’s first female City Manager. That’s particularly interesting given that she is the only woman on the Corporate Leadership Team (CLT). “Between 2012 and 2015, the percentage of general and branch managers who were woman held steady at 22 per cent. It’s now 16 per cent,” reported the Journal. Of course there’s just one woman – Bev Esslinger – on City Council as well.

I wrote back in November that I didn’t think Linda was likely to get the job. That comment was based not on her abilities, but on what Council had publicly stated they were looking for. Mayor Iveson’s statement back in September said “the scale and complexity of the challenges ahead demand a fresh perspective” and that Council’s goal was to “hire someone who can meet the aspirations of this city head-on and help build the kind of city we can all be proud of.” It seemed as though Council wanted someone from the outside.

I do think Linda is a great choice for City Manager. She is well-known and widely respected at the City has earned a reputation as someone who gets things done. Linda will tell it like it is, and that’s certainly important to Council. She has been supportive of the ongoing culture shift at the City and has talked often of leading through service. Linda is ideally suited to guiding the City through turbulent times.

In just a few short months as Acting City Manager, Linda has really put her stamp on the organization, earning Council’s trust, the public’s admiration, and leading a key reorganization. I can’t wait to see what she accomplishes in her new role.

Dominoes are falling at the City of Edmonton

There’s a lot change taking place at the City of Edmonton right now and you should expect it to continue until well into next year. You might say the dominoes have started falling and no one knows when the final one will land. There are both internal and external causes for this change. Before we get into the changes, let’s consider some context.

Where It All Began
Photo by mckinney75402

Certainly the new Provincial and Federal governments have had an impact, both directly and indirectly. By directly I mean that the City has lost some key individuals. For instance, former City Clerk Alayne Sinclair left earlier this year to work in Premier Notley’s office, and of course former Councillor Amarjeet Sohi was just named to Prime Minister Trudeau’s cabinet. And by indirectly, there’s the uncertainty about funding and working relationships that always comes with new faces. At the Provincial level, the review of the Municipal Government Act and the ongoing discussions about the Big City Charter will also have an impact depending on the outcome.

As a result of the last municipal election, both Council and Administration identified public engagement as a key challenge area of focus. Council launched the Public Engagement Initiative while Administration launched the Open City Initiative. Now with the release of the Phase 1 report back in September, work is underway to establish an Advisory Committee and working groups organized around the five strategic areas of focus. That work is expected to last through the remainder of the current Council term.

I think another big factor to consider is The Way Ahead, the City’s strategic plan. That document, which was approved in 2009, was just reviewed and updated last year, but planning will soon be underway for a more thorough overhaul leading up to 2018 (though we need to ensure we do and not just plan). How public engagement and the municipal election in 2017 factor into that work is still an open question. And at some point, the new City of Edmonton office tower will be completed allowing staff to consolidate at a single location, which could have big cultural impacts.

Top of mind at the moment is the Operating Budget. Instead of an annual budget as in years past, the City has switched to a multi-year budget, and that’s having all kinds of knock-on effects. It should mean less effort is required each year to prepare the budget, but it also means that Council can be more strategic about spending.

And of course the City’s missteps have been well-documented this year. Major projects like the 102 Avenue Bridge over Groat Road and the new Walterdale Bridge have been significantly delayed, and the Metro Line LRT was perhaps the key catalyst for much of the change that has taken place.

Simon Farbrother
Simon Farbrother, photo by City of Edmonton

The most obvious change was Council’s decision to fire City Manager Simon Farbrother back in September. I must admit I was caught off-guard by the news, mainly because although Councillor Nickel called for Farbrother’s head during the Metro Line LRT discussions, he was the only one really doing so. Mayor Iveson and other Councillors suggested Nickel was grandstanding and said Farbrother had their full confidence. So the about face just a couple of weeks later was a surprise.

Linda Cochrane has been the Acting City Manager since late September. I think she’s a fantastic choice, certainly to maintain some stability throughout this uncertain time. But I don’t think it’s likely she’ll get the job. Here’s what Councillor Anderson said after she was made the Acting City Manager:

“She’s certainly been a part of everything that’s happened here for a long, long time and has a way with people,” he said. “I think an excellent choice.”

Being “a part of everything that’s happened here for a long, long time” is certainly a good thing for stability, institutional knowledge, and efficiency. But it’s not necessarily what you look for when you want to change things up. And that’s what Council seems to be interested in.

As Paula Simons noted, Al Maurer was widely considered a micro-manager and perhaps had too much control over the operations of the City. In contrast, Simon Farbrother brought more hands-off approach and focused on communication and culture. The assumption now is that the right person for the job can straddle the fence, able to get into the details and also able to articulate and connect the work to the big picture.

It’s clear that Council, led by Mayor Iveson, wants to go in a different direction:

“The scale and complexity of the challenges ahead demand a fresh perspective,” Iveson said. “This is about setting our administration on a new path to manage the next chapter in the city’s growth.”

Whoever the successful candidate is, it’s very likely they’ll want to make some big changes. That could mean even more turnover in senior staff than we have already begun to see.

Scott Mackie, who was in charge of Current Planning under Sustainable Development, tendered his resignation a couple weeks ago and will leave the City on November 13. I understand that Peter Ohm has been tapped to take his place. That’s a big branch, responsible for some of the most contentious issues that the City has dealt with this year.

Changes in transportation continue, with Eddie Robar joining the City from Halifax to lead ETS, filling the role that has been vacant since Charles Stolte was let go earlier this year. Robar will start on January 4. He’s very likely to shake things up upon arrival, bringing his experience overhauling Halifax’s transit system to the ongoing debate about our own.

And the biggest change could still be coming. Yesterday, Council voted to have Administration outline steps for a full program review. Mayor Iveson repeated a phrase he has used many times before, saying that setting targets for cuts is “the old ‘pin the tail on the budget'” and that the review should be focused on efficiency instead.

“Of the give or take 87 different things that we do at the city of Edmonton, there may be some that we should either stop doing or do less of versus other priorities,” said Iveson in support of the review. “Budget is not the best way to make those decisions and yet it is the default by which we make those decisions.”

The full program review is likely welcome news for some, like the Canadian Federation for Independent Business, which called current spending “unreasonable” and said property taxes have “ballooned”.

The last major review took place in 1997. Bruce Thom, who joined the City of Edmonton as City Manager in 1996, wasted no time in making changes. One of the first things he did was spend $500,000 to have Ernst & Young evaluate the City’s operations. That resulted in City ’97 (subtitled “Preparing for the Future”), a plan to save $52 million per year by the year 2000, principally by eliminating roughly 750 of the City’s 8,700 jobs. In the end about 400 positions were eliminated and the City reorganized from thirteen departments to just eight, resulting in a savings of roughly $22.5 million annually between 1997 and 2000.

It was a stressful time for City bureaucrats, and Council raised that as a concern with conducting another review now. They cited the importance of a clear communications plan and downplayed the idea that the review is being undertaken solely to find opportunities for job cuts.

full time positions

Though Simon Farbrother led a relatively minor reorganization in 2011, the City’s workforce has generally been growing in recent years. Prior to City ’97, the last major round of layoffs took place in 1983. At the time the City had about 11,000 employees, a number the City surpassed once again in 2012.

I think a review of the City’s operations makes sense, and perhaps the timing is right. With a new City Manager coming in, the possibility of a new relationship with the Provincial and Federal governments (especially with the City Charter), and a new round of strategic planning coming up, it’s entirely appropriate for Council and Administration to get aligned on priorities.

Expect much more change to come!

Taking the City of Edmonton to another level with City Manager Simon Farbrother

Last week, on the one year anniversary of his first official day as the City of Edmonton’s new City Manager, Simon Farbrother sat down with me to reflect on the past twelve months. In addition to settling into the role and continually learning about the organization, Simon is leading the City through a major cultural shift that is fundamentally changing the way it does business.

Simon Farbrother
Coffee with Simon

Simon came to the City of Edmonton from Waterloo, where he was that city’s Chief Administrative Officer. He’s not new to the capital region however, having worked at the City of Leduc from 1988 until 1997, and at the City of Spruce Grove from 1997 until 2005. I wondered if he had thought about working in “the big city” but he said that was never the game plan, though he did admit the thought crossed his mind once or twice. “I think it’s important to stretch yourself, “ Simon told me, “when opportunities come up you grab them and away you go.” That’s how he ended up in Waterloo, and in January 2010, how he found himself here in Edmonton taking over for retiring City Manager Al Maurer.

Simon said his first year has gone by really quickly, but described it as “challenging, fun, and stimulating.” Noting the number of projects the City has on the go, Simon said “Edmonton is at a very interesting point in time.” He lives in the southwest and uses the LRT quite a bit and depending on his schedule. “The south LRT has changed the way people think about transit in our city.” Though he felt Edmonton had matured politically while he was out east, Simon said that he has “always thought Edmonton’s strength was its people, and I still do.” He thinks it’s because we have a unique sense of connection here. “We’re the big city on the prairie, we’re multicultural; the people who choose to live here are really carving out their lives.”

For the first few weeks of last year, Simon spent his time getting to know people at the City while Al continued on as Manager (though Simon actually knew quite a few people already from his previous positions). On January 18th 2010, he took over and hit the ground running. “You have to get up-to-speed quickly and bring your skills to the table.” Simon told me the ladies in the Manager’s office were “tremendously helpful” and made the transition a smooth one. “When you join, naturally there’s a lot of questions about you,” he said, recalling that it wasn’t just him that had to adjust to the new role. “Fundamentally I am about building – I always have a strong belief in a person’s abilities and general willingness to do the right thing.”

Simon Farbrother
Conversation with Simon & Extended Leadership Team

One of the first things Simon did was have an open conversation with the general managers. “Leadership is about framing,” he said. Simon made it clear that the City would be moving in a new direction, and told them, “your primary role is to lead the City, not your department.” He called it a “fundamental shift” and said there has been a lot of positive engagement from the general managers on the new approach. Discussions since have focused on how the City leads, rather than on each individual project that comes up. “We also opened the door to branch managers and directors around leadership,” Simon confirmed. The City of Edmonton currently has 6 general managers and 35 branch managers, but the number is not important. “It’s about what makes sense at the time to lead.” To reinforce the shift, the Senior Management Team (SMT) was renamed to the Corporate Leadership Team (CLT). Demonstrating leadership is more important than having worked at the organization for most of your career. “We’re trying to engage people to be leaders, everyone can do that.”

Simon’s focus for 2011 is this internal cultural conversation. He shared that the City has formed a group called Transforming Edmonton and Me (TEAM) that has been challenged to explore the question, “what do we want our culture to be?” An early activity involved the creation of a word cloud, and ‘communication’ emerged as the biggest word. There’s a desire to be more transparent, and to have meaningful conversations (no more going to the meeting then having the real conversation in the hallway). “It’s about how we agree to work as an organization,” Simon said. “If you don’t see me acting in the way I say I am going to act, you have every right to tell me.”

Most of Simon’s communication has been focused internally so far (he’s going to look into updating his pagearchived here – on the public website). “Having various ways to communicate is really valuable.” To that end, Simon has published videos every few weeks for employees, focusing not on what the City got approved but on leadership within the organization. “For example, a video might talk about our approach to the budget, rather than giving details on what was approved.” The effort has given him the opportunity to meet people across the organization. “I’ve learned to cut trees, drive a bus, I’ve been in the sewers, it has been great.” He hopes the videos reinforce the notion that all employees at the City are important. He is thinking about an internal blog too, and said the intranet is a really important tool for giving context.

Simon Farbrother
Simon getting some hands-on experience felling trees in Delwood Park

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Simon was a BlackBerry user while in Waterloo. Now he’s got an iPhone and an iPad, but doesn’t consider himself to be an early adopter. “I really like the iPad in a meeting environment,” he said, because there’s less paper to carry and the device is great for graphics. “I do lots of email and text messaging,” he told me, and while he is familiar with Twitter, he has no plans to use the service. “A lot of my emails would look like tweets though!” Simon’s day consists largely of meetings, so it’s important to communicate efficiently. He uses text messaging to stay in touch with his family throughout the day.

Turning to external communication, Simon said the City “should talk about what we’re doing and what we’re trying to achieve.” It’s the philosophy that is important, not the list of projects. “We’re part of a bigger picture, we work for the full community.” Simon thinks it is important for employees to be mindful of that broader perspective too. “You can’t disconnect being a transit driver or an accountant or even a manager from being an ambassador and a representative of the City.” In other words, employees need to be accountable not just to their boss, but to all Edmontonians.

The word accountability was mentioned alongside transparency in his introductory letter last year. When I asked for his assessment of the City’s performance on those issues, Simon replied: “I think we’re getting better.” Being accountable and transparent to the public is a challenge given the size of the organization. “We’re in the A to Z business,” Simon remarked, “and we’re the only the organization that does all of our business in the public eye.” I suggested that the City could do more on the transparency side, especially as it relates to making information available and accessible. “I don’t think we consciously hoard,” he told me. “There are legitimate reasons for some information to be confidential.” He agreed that getting information into people’s hands is important though.

Simon Farbrother
Simon with Councillor Amarjeet Sohi

I asked Simon how he has found working with Mayor Mandel and the rest of City Council over the last year. Due to the nature of the position in large cities, Simon has worked more closely with Mayor Mandel, and described him as “very committed and very driven.” He said they get along well. Though he hasn’t had as many opportunities to work with the Councillors, he said “they’re all trying to build a better City, which is a positive environment to work in.”

Looking ahead to 2011, I asked if Simon had made any personal new years resolutions – he didn’t. “For me it’s about lifelong learning,” he said. “In whatever you do, you need to be relevant and adding value.” He’s excited for the year ahead, and talked about some of the big projects that have made headlines recently. “EXPO wasn’t just a three month event, it was positioning Edmonton as an important city in North America.” Similarly he thinks we need to look at the bigger picture when it comes to topics like the downtown arena or the city centre redevelopment. “We need to be strategic and aligned as a city.”

Simon said the City of Edmonton has always had aspirations, but has never embedded that into the culture. “Being aspirational has to be a fundamental part of what we do.” When it was discovered that some material was being created internally that talked about Edmonton being successful as a “tier 2 city”, Simon and his team put a stop to it. “What would a tier 1 city do? There’s nothing stopping us from being tier 1.” It’s about having vision and not being afraid to go after it. “We shouldn’t be shy about opportunities.” For Simon, it’s about taking Edmonton to another level. “We need to up our game and galvanize around being a city.”

“It’s going to be a good year.”

Thoughts on Edmonton’s new City Manager

On Tuesday evening I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to meet Simon Farbrother, the City of Edmonton’s new City Manager. He started on Monday, just less than three months after his selection was announced. There were a lot of people there on Tuesday, so I only had a couple of minutes to introduce myself, but based on that quick interaction and Simon’s brief remarks to the crowd, I can say that he seems very genuine, personable, and intelligent.

Simon is no stranger to Edmonton. He earned his MA in Geography from the University of Alberta in 1985, started as a city planner at the City of Leduc in 1989, and after moving up there, left to become the City Manager of Spruce Grove in 1997, a position he held until 2005 when he became Chief Administrative Office for the City of Waterloo. You can read more about Simon’s background here and here.

I never really had the opportunity to interact with Al Maurer, Simon’s predecessor, but by most accounts he was a competent manager and all-around great guy. He joined the City of Edmonton back in 1970, as a traffic operations engineer. He became the department general manager in 1982, and went on to lead the Asset Management & Public Works department, and the Corporate Services department, before being appointed City Manager in 2000. During his tenure, quality of life remained constant (93% in 2000 vs. 91% in 2009) as did overall citizen satisfaction with City services (79% in 2000 vs. 72% in 2009 – all figures come from the Citizen Satisfaction Surveys of those years). It’s easy to find negatives too, such as the ballooning amount spent on consultants ($22 million in 1999 vs. $92 million in 2008). When Al joined the City, the population of Edmonton was about 430,000. When he became Manager 30 years later, Edmonton had grown to about 660,000. And today, as Simon takes over, Edmonton’s population sits at just over 780,000.

Obviously, Al Maurer and Simon Farbrother are quite different from one another. Al spent his entire career at the City of Edmonton, while Simon has moved around (and not just in Canada either, he earned his BA from the University of Portsmouth). Simon has never worked at a city with a population greater than 100,000 while Al has throughout his entire career. Al’s education was in engineering, Simon’s was in geography and economics. And of course, Simon is quite a bit younger at 49 than Al is. Here they are:

I was by far the youngest person in the room the other night, so maybe that’s why I took note of the age difference. I don’t want to make too big a deal of it, but I quite like the fact that Simon is a bit younger. My guess is that he’s younger than many of the other senior managers at the City, so I hope he uses that to his advantage. He said the right things in his letter to citizens, citing the need to “take advantage of new technologies and emerging opportunities” and generally exuding optimism and excitement for the challenges and opportunities ahead.

We’ve got a municipal election coming up on October 18, 2010 – maybe the average age of City Council will come down too?

Congratulations to Al Maurer on his retirement, and on the creation of the Al Maurer Awards Fund to recognize excellence in public service. And good luck to Simon Farbrother – I look forward to seeing Edmonton grow and prosper under his watch!