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No explanation is not good enough for city hall departures

This week's Market Squared doesn't want to deal with any more flights from the upper floors of city hall without the public being told about it
20160201 Guelph City Hall Exterior KA

Apparently, to the knowledge of no one outside Guelph City Hall, two upper management positions in the City of Guelph organization have been vacant since well before Christmas.

If you look on the city’s website and find the organizational chart for management, it’s plain as day that the General Manager of Human Resources and the General Manager of General Manager of Business Development and Enterprise positions are both vacant. That’s the word you find under these titles, no name, just “vacant.”

According to the GuelphToday article by Tony Saxon, David Godwaldt’s employment at the city “ceased” on Dec. 11 and Helen Loftin was gone before that when she resigned on Dec. 3.

It’s strange that it took Tony to tell us this because typically the City of Guelph tries to paint some kind of smile on the departure of senior staff, either they’re moving on to new and different challenges, or it’s said that there’s some kind of mutual agreement that everyone would be happier if the departee moves on.

So why are we saying goodbye to Loftin and Godwaldt nearly two months after their last day at the office?

The City of Guelph jealously guards information about the hirings and departures of city staff, and it’s understandable because there’s a reasonable expectation of privacy and confidentiality when it comes to human resources matters. But how reasonable is “reasonable” when we’re talking about the people in upper management of the city?

For instance, most people at city hall with manager in their job title are on the “Sunshine List”, which means that their salaries and benefits are already known to the public. That’s basic info, and not an indication of that person’s worth as an employee, but disclosing this information is meant to be in the interest of transparency.

Transparency is an artefact that’s hard to come by when it comes to staffing matters at city hall. It’s not typically council business, so there’s no regular insight into staffing. In the rare instance a staffing matter does come to city council’s attention, it’s handled in closed meeting, which means not a lot of insight for the general public.  

It’s insight that people are looking for because under that GuelphToday story mentioned above is a comment thread filled with the worst kind of conspiratorial drivel. All that was missing from the thread was the suggestion that the reverse vampires and the Rand Corporation were behind the two staffers leaving their posts.

Between the ones that think the corporation of the City of Guelph is one, big black op, and the ones that think a city of 130,000 people and growing should be managed by people making minimum wage and not a dollar more, it’s hard not to develop a siege mentality. It seems like you can’t do anything right, but the city is not doing right when it doesn’t tell us when two members of senior staff suddenly leave.

More than that, we need to know why there are times in the life of the corporation where it seems like the upper levels of city hall have hit an iceberg and people are scrambling to get to the life boats. Losing one manager once in a while is one thing, but these loses seem to come two or three at a time every couple of months.

Now it could be that we just have a great economy with lots of opportunities for accomplished individuals with a particular set of skills, but it could also be that there are issues in city hall itself that, at times, might make it an uncomfortable place to work.

The point is that there are no firm answers because when the city does announce the departure of a high-ranking staff member, it’s with a terse press release, and if you want more information, they cite confidentiality concerns. Here’s the question though: does it have to be this way?

I would argue that it does not, and I have some suggestions to change things.

First, if someone in upper management leaves their position – whether they’re fired, retired, or are opening a stand on the beach where they paint clam shells to look like Lucille Ball – the city needs to post a notice about it like they would for any other piece of information about city business.

Second, we need to know the reason. If it’s personal, that’s fine, that’s all that has to be said, but if it’s a matter of a clash of cultures inside city hall, what they call in Hollywood “creative differences”, then we deserve to know why something at 1 Carden St. isn’t working.

And finally, we really need to have more of a general sense of how city hall fares as a workplace. How often have you seen lists ranking Canada’s top employers? Granted that’s all in the service of corporate jockeying but knowing that our employees in city hall are happy is to know that they’re productive.

I know it goes against every instinct to embrace the bad news instead of burying it, but the city needs to build faith that there’s not a chaos engine at its core. No one wants to believe that, but no one’s offering an official alternative either.