Calgary city manager leaving with no apologies

City manager Jeff Fielding announced this week he's leaving as Calgary's top bureaucrat for a job in Toronto. He chatted with CBC News about his time and accomplishments in the job.

Jeff Fielding seen as steady hand and a fixer in turbulent economic times

City manager Jeff Fielding, whom Mayor Nenshi called 'the consumate public servant' is leaving his job in April for a similar position in Toronto (Scott Dippel/CBC News)

The city's top bureaucrat surprised many this week when he announced he's moving on.

City manager Jeff Fielding is leaving for a new job with the City of Toronto in April. He will become the chief of staff to the city manager there.

The move is connected to his wish to be closer to an ailing family member. 

Fielding had previously worked for the City of Calgary before working for several municipalities in Ontario. He returned to this city in June 2014 as council's top employee. 

This week, Mayor Naheed Nenshi called Fielding "the consummate public servant" and said he will be sad to see Fielding go.

After making his departure announcement this week, Fielding sat down with CBC News to talk about his experience working for the city.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Finding savings

CBC: There might be some Calgarians who would say that the fact that you were able to find $600 million of savings is an indicator that maybe the city wasn't being mindful about every dollar that it was spending. How do you respond to that notion that you didn't do that until you had to do it? 

FIELDING:  That's fair. Any administration that's going through a situation where they're riding the wave [of economic growth], they're focused on getting growth accommodated. How do we get things done in this environment as opposed to making sure that we're looking after every dollar? So I think there is a healthy view that 'we can do better' and that  the main goal of mine was to say 'If we didn't need to spend it, don't spend it.'

That was a change in attitude and it certainly came from my time in Winnipeg and other places where we just simply didn't have the resources. So I have to be completely honest. As we transitioned into [downturn in] 2015, we had some opportunity to find some relatively low-hanging fruit and even moving into 2016, there were things that we could do that were for me easily identifiable.

I'd been through it before and so to identify those areas where we could actually generate the efficiency of these savings, I was accustomed to that. I could go to that experience and say 'here's where we can find opportunities' without dramatically impacting the services that people feel and experience every day.

So, as we get through 2017 and 2018, it gets more difficult. It becomes a more protracted longer-term strategy that you're bringing in, that you've got to bring everything to bear. You've got to make sure that you're identifying where you don't need to spend money, where do you have inventory, where can you save in overtime? How can you save in terms of your salary dollars?

All of those things are now in play. We really needed to be able to focus in on those types of things and I think now that focus is in place.

Speaking truth to power

CBC: You were known for speaking honestly and bluntly to Council at times. Why do you think sometimes politicians need a kick up the backside to sort of wake them up or make them realize something? 

FIELDING:  I am an observer most of the time at council, but I'm [also] sitting in the horseshoe (the council table). And so I get the vibes that are going on. You can't miss it. And you can see when they're starting to spiral and starting to churn and sometimes, it's necessary just to break that.

You can do in a variety of different ways. Sometimes it's a stern word that catches their attention. Other times, I'll try to say something funny. It's purposeful. It's intended to do that. I've never been shut up by council. It's never been a situation where somebody says 'you're speaking out of turn. Why didn't you put your hand up? You have to wait until you're acknowledged by the chair.'

I try to be respectful around that. But I think people realize in that horseshoe that every once in a while, it's necessary to get them off the track that they're on and get them to do a reset and I hope I brought some of that occasionally. I'll be the first to admit there have been times when I think that I've missed the boat, so it hasn't always worked 100 per cent of the time. 

CBC:     Mayor Nenshi referred to you as his partner. Is there anything you could tell me about your 'partner' that people may not know about him?

FIELDING:    First of all, I like him very much. I like the quiet times with him. Actually my most fun times are when we're sitting side by side on council and we're chatting about things that are going on. Not on the council floor (laughs) but actually things that are happening on this day or what's happening in the world. Just those quiet personal conversations. Those are the most enjoyable.

I was mentioning to him when we were going through the budget how much I enjoyed that time together. I see him in a different light than most people. I'm sure that his family sees him like that. I see him when he's vulnerable. I see him when he's afraid of what's happening and you know, when he's concerned that he doesn't have the issue nailed down. When the council doesn't seem to be able to grapple with the issues in the way in which he hopes for. So I see the vulnerable side to him.

The persona — that he's very confident, knows what he is doing, all those types of things —  that's certainly part of his personality. But there's another part that I see that is tremendously appealing to me and I really enjoyed that relationship.

Naheed Nenshi announces that city manager Jeff Fielding will be leaving his job in April. (CBC News)

Brain drain

CBC: You are the latest senior manager to leave the city. I'm sure you've probably seen or heard there's been chatter out there on the street, on social media about why so many people are leaving at about the same time. What are we seeing here? 

FIELDING:    Quite frankly, we're in a downturn. So it shouldn't surprise anybody — just as in the private sector — you're going to see it turn over to a greater extent in the midst of a significant downturn.

I think that we've got some really good people coming up. We've got a huge amount of capacity in terms of the women in our organization who have stepped up in the last little bit. So we've got a number of women in the queue that are ready to go for new positions.

It's going to be a challenge to find everybody those opportunities. So I'm quite comfortable that we've got a real good group of what I would say mid-managers coming up from the organization that need the opportunity.

CBC: You've been through the process of leaving top jobs like this before. Do you tend to provide advice to your successor or leave them to their own devices?

FIELDING:    I'm available if they'd like, but the other side of the coin is: you always get different people and normally they have different assignments. I have the utmost confidence that this place will find its way. 

About the Author

Scott Dippel

Politics Reporter

Scott Dippel has been at CBC News for more than two decades across four provinces. His roles have included legislative reporter, news reader, assignment editor and national reporter. When not at Calgary's City Hall, it's still all politics, all the time.


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