Ottawa·Analysis

Steve Kanellakos takes over as city manager from Kent Kirkpatrick

For the first time in 12 years, the City of Ottawa sees a new city manager at the helm of more than 17,000 municipal workers.

Lessons for Ottawa's new city manager after a 12-year reign from his predecessor

Mayor Jim Watson (left) stands next to newly appointed city manager Steve Kanellakos (right) on Feb. 8, 2016. (Kate Porter/CBC)

For the first time in 12 years, a new city manager is at the helm of more than 17,000 municipal workers at the City of Ottawa.

For Steve Kanellakos, who started on Monday, it's somewhat of a back-to-the-future moment. He's been in the local municipal service since 1985, and was the deputy city manager from 2008 to 2015. He left Ottawa last year for the top bureaucrat's job in Vaughan after Kent Kirkpatrick's contract was renewed.

But when Kirkpatrick, who has multiple sclerosis, announced last September he would be stepping down in March, Kanellakos threw his hat in the ring.

A powerful position, complicated by politics

Despite being a powerful position, we don't pay a whole lot of attention the role of city manager. He (and it's always been a "he" in Ottawa) oversees a huge workforce that picks up your garbage, clears snow from your street, makes sure drinking water runs from your tap, and that your bus arrives. Then there's the small matter of putting together the city's $3 billion budget with the city treasurer and mayor's office.

It's a huge job that, frankly, we don't know enough about.

Like all bureaucrats, the city manager serves at the pleasure of elected officials, who make the decisions. Councillors rely on the public servant to give them expert information that inform those decisions.

To that end, a city manager has to be willing to give "bad news" to council, says former River ward councillor Maria McRae, who had a close professional relationship with Kirkpatrick.

"The city manager has to be willing to deliver information that perhaps council doesn't want to hear," she said. "And a city manager has to be willing to learn from past mistakes, not just their own, but from past administrations and reports from the auditor general."

While things move along more smoothly when the city manager and the mayor's office have a productive relationship, he shouldn't be a slave to the mayor's wishes either.

The city manager, and the public servants who report to him, are responsible for delivering objective information, as well as rigorous analysis of complex situations. And while a city manager's role is not to be in the public eye, "he should be ready to answer tough questions in front of the public," said McRae.

Fine line between getting job done and cheerleader

By most accounts, Kent Kirkpatrick did a difficult job well for a long time. Maybe a little too long. Not that his keen mind ever wavered for a moment — Mayor Jim Watson said Kirkpatrick was "one of the sharpest minds I've ever worked with" — but when you run a multi-billion dollar corporation for more than a decade, you inevitably pick up some baggage along the way.

Kirkpatrick's included Lansdowne Park, Plasco Energy and Orgaworld.

Former city manager Kent Kirkpatrick. (City of Ottawa)
In the years spent negotiating the controversial Lansdowne Park redevelopment, Kirkpatrick was arguably too personally involved in the file. And perhaps because of that, some critics charged that Kirkpatrick was too much of an advocate for the project. It's hard to know where to draw the line of appropriateness.

After all, you're given a job to do by council, you work tirelessly on the project and want it so succeed — because that's what you were told to do. 

The same criticism has been lobbed at Kirkpatrick over the failed Plasco deal. The company promised to turn waste into energy, and to let Ottawa in on the ground floor of the game-changing technology. And there's no denying the fact that if Plasco worked out, it would have been a great thing for the city. But it didn't. 

In the end, what mattered most was that the Plasco contract Kirkpatrick oversaw appears to have protected Ottawa taxpayers from too much damage.

It may be decades before we know if taxpayers were protected to the same extent when it comes to the city's contract with the Lansdowne developers.

Can't be micromanager

As for Orgaworld, the debacle surrounding that contract may be the biggest failure of the city's bureaucracy under Kirkpatrick's watch. In 2014, the city's auditor general found that the contract for processing our green-bin organics waste was based on seemingly manufactured data from city staff, costing taxpayers $7.7 million.

It was the complete antithesis of how the system is supposed to work. When the audit was released, Kirkpatrick took the blame for the fiasco, as he has a buck-stops-here sort of job.

But it can't be the city manager's responsibility to oversee the details of every single file. Indeed, Kirkpatrick's micro-management of Lansdowne and LRT perhaps was the reason he wasn't overseeing files like Orgaworld in a more general way.

A city manager needs his own management team he can trust, but that will also be held responsible when things go awry. It's not clear that Kirkpatrick did that. The former city manager was perhaps guilty of being loyal to a fault.

That's a lovely trait in a friend. But when it comes to overseeing a one-million-strong city operation, it should be the taxpayers that have the city manager's ultimate loyalty.

About the Author

Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at joanne.chianello@cbc.ca or tweet her at @jchianello.