City Staff — Just Doing Their Job

May 21, 2011

City staff.

Is there a faceless group more vilified and/or acclaimed by our elected representatives? Entrenched, intractable obstructionists to some on some days. Bringers of light, knowledge and wisdom to others on other days. And vice versa.

It must be a special breed of person to climb the ranks of the city staff, so to speak. Able to set aside their personal political beliefs to provide nonpartisan service to the city. To cater to whim and ignorance if necessary but help forward thinking ideas take flight when they appear, mirage-like above the rough and tumble of business as usual. Ignored and extolled in unequal measure.

I sat thinking about this during Tuesday’s city council debate on garbage privatization. City staff littered the periphery of council floor, responding to the grilling from various councillors. Some of it amicable, some of it, not so much. They were there to answer questions about the report recommending privatizing residential garbage collection in District 2. Defenders of the privatization faith on this particular day.

What they weren’t defending, however, was the mayor. That’s not their job. While it may seem like that’s what they were doing, they were only assuming the position that, in short, stated that privatizing waste collection in one of the city’s four districts would save the city $8 million. It just so happened that’s also what the mayor believes. Interests intersect.

Now, how they arrived at that conclusion is another matter entirely. I’d imagine it all depended on how the request was framed. If a mayor, say, one of a more curious and open minded sort, went to staff and asked more along the lines of, You know, I’ve been wondering about this whole privatization of garbage collection thingie. Do you think you could crunch some numbers and let me know if it would save the city money or not?, city staff might’ve been defending something quite different on Tuesday.

Somehow, and I’m only guessing here, Mayor Ford didn’t pose the question quite like that. Having campaigned hard on the theory that privatization would save the city money, $49 million/year citywide was the going rate last year when the C.D. Howe Institute’s report was the baseline all the I’ll Smarten The City Up candidates were using, I believe it was, it’s hard to imagine, once elected, the mayor would then ask for a report that might challenge his assumption. The request probably sounded more like, The city’ll save money privatizing garbage. Show me how much. Bigger number, the better. And I need it yesterday.

We’re not talking about fudging figures here. It’s about best case scenarios and commencing from the jumping off point that knows cities save money by privatizing waste collection. There’s no nul hypothesis involved. A real scientific, rational approach would be trying to prove your hypothesis wrong. This was all about trying to prove a position right.

And remember, not long after assuming office, at a press conference Mayor Ford said he was looking for a 5% cut across all departments. If department heads couldn’t deliver those savings, the mayor intimated darkly, he’d find department heads that could. My thinking is, there’s not a lot of back-and-forth, give-and-take, brainstorming happening between city staff and the mayor’s office. I’m envisioning more of Scotty’s constant state of duress under his captain. “Damn it, Jim! I’m an engineer not a doctor. We’re already at warp speed 10,000. The magic chrysalids won’t hold. Oh my god, they’re disbanding the PTA!!!” (Yeah, I don’t know anything about Star Trek.)

My way or the highway, folks. I know a thousand people out there who would die to have your jobs. If you don’t like it, there’s the door.

When was the last time your boss came to you and dropped a big, steaming load of impossible on your desk and you just turned around and told him to go fuck himself? The mayor, having gone public with the fact he’s not going to abide with anyone not abiding by his wishes, asks/demands city staff for a report that accentuates the positives of garbage privatization. What are you going to do but eliminate the negative?

Now, many of us raised on the ‘Yes, Minister/Prime Minister’ franchise might love to think there is a scheming, conniving Sir Humphrey Appleby bureaucracy at work, undercutting the pols when their hubris calls for it and saving their asses as needed. Oh, if only life were exactly like TV. We’d all remain young, beautiful and hairless in all the right places.

Since it isn’t, let’s assume the work environment at City Hall is pretty much like work environments everywhere. A reflection of the dynamic at work between the boss and staff. It can be creative and vital with everyone asked for their input and expertise in pursuit of the best outcome possible. Or simply a one-way street, hierarchical in the extreme, demands made, desired results delivered. Staff doesn’t determine which scenario plays out. That’s the boss’s job.

dutifully submitted by Cityslikr