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Former CAO: 'Mind-blowing' problems at city hall

Bob Johnston, the city's former interim CAO, says he can no longer stay silent on what he describes as the most toxic and dysfunctional working environment he has ever seen at city hall.
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Former interim city CAO Bob Johnston has gone public with his concerns over the "toxic" environment at city hall. File photo.

 Bob Johnston, the city's former interim CAO, says he can no longer stay silent on what he describes as the most toxic and dysfunctional working environment he has ever seen at city hall.

Johnston, who was hired last summer and was expected to hold the job until a permanent candidate was found, revealed in an interview Wednesday that he was fired in September because there were “mind-blowing” health and safety concerns about the fire department that Mayor Brian Bigger ordered him to ignore.

At issue is a shift change schedule implemented in 2013 that switched firefighters to a 24-hour schedule. Since then, Johnston said overtime costs have increased 132 per cent, and will cost taxpayers an estimated $880,000 this year alone. Sick leave has increased by 40 per cent, workplace incidents (which includes exposure to hazards) have increased 73 per cent and grievances by 300 per cent.

"What really hit home to me was when I looked at the sick leave,” Johnston said. “When you go to a new shift schedule, and sick leave increases to that ... magnitude, to me, there's something there. I have a concern as CAO for the health and well-being of the staff, and this was something I had to address.

"It was mind-blowing, really.”

While Bigger backed him at first, Johnston said he did an abrupt about face, to the point he ordered him not to even mention the word “fire” in his presence. But it was a question of ethics for him, Johnston said, and he couldn't pretend it wasn't happening.

"I wouldn't turn a blind eye to it,” he said.

That was the issue that led to his firing, Johnston said. After Bigger sent an email to the rest of council accusing Johnston of insubordination, he confronted the mayor in his office, where he demanded he retract his accusation and restore his reputation.

He admits to being “inflamed” and raising his voice for much of the conversation.

"Was I upset? Absolutely," Johnston said. "I went in and shut the door, and said we have to talk. This is my reputation. Something you stated is not a fact and you have to retract that and you have to restore my reputation. It was nothing personal, I was never threatening or anything. But this was BS."

"It was so demoralizing, some of the discussions I had with the mayor, because of really widespread conspiracies and lack of trust with our staff. It was really never about me. It was really about what I was seeing, how our city was functioning. In fact, I was the guy he picked, right? He thought my experience and my reputation, what I did at the airport, I was someone he wanted in there. So I had a high degree of trust from the mayor throughout the process.

"For the most part, it was the communication and the overbearing, critical, negativity from the mayor's office to staff. That's primarily where it rests. I dealt with it on a daily basis with the mayor's office."

In response to a request for an interview, as well as a list of questions regarding Johnston's comments, the mayor's office declined to speak but sent this email:

“It is inappropriate for any member of council or staff to comment on personnel matters. As evidenced by our first year in office, I, along with council, always act in the best interests of the citizens of Greater Sudbury and within our roles as elected representatives.

“Council relies on the expertise and the best recommendations of staff to be able to make the right decisions for the citizens of our great community. I, and council, look forward to working with staff on the implementation of our strategic plan.”

Johnston said the disagreement over the fire department is symptomatic of the problems at city hall, he said, where political interference and constant negativity from the mayor's office has trickled down through the corporation.

"I've worked 20 years at the city and roughly 15 at the airport, and I've seen a lot,” said Johnston, who oversaw a remarkable turnaround at the city's airport, an accomplishment that made him a natural choice as CAO.

“I've worked in different departments in different capacities. And what I witnessed was something I found really hard to believe, quite frankly. The morale was the worst I've ever seen -- exponentially – than I've ever seen working at the city ... It was simply a toxic working environment.”

When he took the job in April, replacing Doug Nadorozny, Johnston said he made it clear to council and the mayor he wasn't there to collect a paycheque until a permanent person was hired.

"I felt that I had something to give,” he said. “I truly wanted to make a difference, and that's the attitude I took went I went into the city."

But what he quickly discovered was a situation where a mayor and new council didn't understand the roles of politicians and staff. Politicians are expected to determine priorities and goals, he said, and then hold staff accountable for accomplishing them.

While some in the public may like the idea of politicians constantly looking over staff's shoulder, in practical terms, it costs everyone significant dollars, he said.

For one thing, staff reports are being tailored to please politicians, rather than giving the best advice. That means deep-rooted organizational issues don't get addressed, because staff fear they will end up like Johnston if they don't produce the reports skewered in the way politicians want.

And no one wants to make a decision, instead they seek consensus of “six, seven, eight” other staffers, so if councillors aren't happy, they have cover.

"If I was running a private business, I would want my employees to come to me and say, 'here's an issue that's costing you money, and costing your company profits, we have to address this,'” he said. “You don't get that willingness to bring that forward because often where those pressure points are are politically sensitive areas.

"If I had my way, in a perfect working environment, would be a separation of those decisions where politicians truly have the authority to make those decisions, but they actually welcome, acknowledge, recognize, reward staff for having the fortitude to bring the most difficult things forward to them and say, this is what we believe should be done."

He said some of new city councillors are insisting on taking part in negotiations on such matters as lease agreements. That a specific skill and the city has experienced staff to handle those talks, Johnston said.

“Now what happens is, (the staffer believes) I have to make this councillor happy -- not necessarily strike the best deal for our corporation or the best deal for the taxpayers, and the best deal for the non-for-profit, too," he said.

"In this one situation, the intervention by a councillor actually -- because we already essentially had a deal in principal -- we came out of that with a far worse deal at the end of it because of the intervention. That staff person, you talk about fear, you think they're going to say, 'Councillor, stay out of my business?' Then they'd be sitting here like I am.

"You need to take the politics out. You need good, honest, credible reports to council. If they want to turn it down, and spend taxpayer's money on something, that's their prerogative. They've been voted in. But everything should be transparent."

Disregard for staff and their jobs starts at the top, Johnston says, where Bigger and chief of staff Melissa Zanette work very closely together and seem to have the same opinion on everything.

"They work hand-in-hand – they are both totally on the same page. They really are," he said. "It was always a barrage of negativity about what was going on in the corporation. Daily. And I said this is not productive. If there are issues you don't think are working right, the way I do business, I go down and have a chat with the people I'm working with and say, if I do have a concern, this is my concern, let's talk about it.”

Daily they would criticize a variety of staff members, and Johnston said they were paranoid that people were conspiring against them.

"There's a tremendous amount of paranoia in the mayor's office,” he said. “I've tried to be respectful here, but I worked on a daily basis with the chief of staff and the mayor, and the lion's share of my problems was coming from the mayor's office. And the mayor's office sets the tone for the rest of council."

In one case, Bigger tasked Johnston to hire a firm to investigate the Sudbury Transit ticket scandal audit. He says Zanette hired another lawyer to review the contract with the firm, even though the city's own legal staff had already done so.

 Johnston said it demonstrated how little trust they have in anyone to do their job, even him. The incident took place  before the fire issue came to a head.

"You have to allow the employees, who have expertise in a wide range of areas … all of them can do their jobs better than I can do them, than the mayor can do, or city council can do,” he said.

“You have to allow those processes. They have to be managed properly, but ultimately the people delivering the service have to be given the authority to be engaged in their work and deliver that service."

The situation has led to harassment grievances being filed against the mayor's office, Johnston confirmed, and the steady exit of managers who are able to find work elsewhere. The most significant example – and there have been several in recent months – is the departure of Lorella Hayes, the city's highly respected budget chief, who resigned earlier this month for a job at the GSU.

"(She's) in the prime of her career, and certainly someone that I worked with closely and know she's a very highly regarded employee, a very skilled employee – she was really a shining star." Johnston said. "For her to leave, I think that has to be a message ... that we are going to start losing some of our best people unless the working environment changes."

An exception to the political interference recently was the P6M process – the successful initiative to save $6 million to pay for the 2015 tax freeze. Staff were left alone, Johnston said, likely because politicians didn't want to be tied to it if the reports recommended big service cuts.

"Good governance is, to me -- and maybe I'm naive -- but I think council sets the strategic goals and priorities and policies, pass resolutions, and it's the staff (who) enact those directions and provide services in the most cost-effective manner possible," he said.

"The working environment wasn't conducive to that. What I noticed that was contributing to this poor morale was this poor governance. And I saw it first-hand. I worked extremely closely with the mayor and chief of staff and I have to be truthful -- it was very high level of micromanaging, interference in the work I was doing.”

That creates an environment where the buzzword of this mayor and council – openness and transparency – is impossible for staff, who must please the politicians.

"I find it somewhat ironic, because since I went to the city, council prides itself so openly on transparency and openness,” he said. “And I hear that so much. And to me, it's more than just making a statement. You have to walk the talk. You have to actually live that.

"What true transparency is, not just listening to your CAO, but to all your employees, listening to your citizens, to anyone who may have valuable input running our corporation.”

He saw the practical effect as CAO, where decisions that seemed straightforward were taking forever, he said.

"It was costing developers money and to me, it was something that was untenable and something that shouldn't be allowed to exist," he said. "I basically told the mayor unless we respect good governance, unless we understand the roles and how you're interacting with staff, as a corporation, we can't be successful. We cannot be cost-effective because we have too much bureaucracy, too much governance.

"What's wrong is that the public feels it's city employees that are not fulfilling their jobs. When, in fact, I feel it's the opposite. I think we have many, many dedicated, committed and very skillful employees. But they have to be allowed to be able to work in an environment that's free of fear and is rewarding, and that encourages creative thinking and taking risks and actually serving the customer."

He speculates the roots of the mayor's office negative view of staff stems from his years as auditor general, where he fought staff and developed poor relationships with some senior managers.

"My opinion is, because of the background of the mayor, as auditor general, separating himself from that role, and his mayor role, I think was very difficult for him,” he said. “And his chief of staff is someone obviously works closely with him and carries out a lot of his direction with staff."

Johnston expects a reaction from some on council for speaking out, and said he harbours no ill will toward anyone, but says he couldn't in good conscience keep quiet. He said only two councillors reached out to him when the dispute over the fire department emerged – Ward 8 Coun. Al Sizer and Ward 9 Coun. Deb McIntosh. He had emailed all of them to ask they listen to his side before making a decision.

“Regardless of where they stood on the issue, at the end of the day, I have to thank them and I highly respect the fact they had the courtesy at least to to that," he said. "I was very disappointed that absolutely no one else (did.)"

Johnston left the city in September and has since returned to the airport. He's not sure whether they will try and remove him from that position now that he has gone public, but said the issues were too important for him to remain silent.

"I had to reflect on the situation and determine if I wanted to talk,” he said. “I worked for 20 years with the city quite successfully, with Jim Gordon and a number of good mayors. I've never been subject to or seen the amount of micromanaging and negativity. This is beyond anything that I would have believed.

"In any case, a city just can't function the way it is right now. And it will not function in the future unless changes are made." 

 

 

Update: 

Mayor Brian Bigger's office sent this email at 6:30 this evening in response to Bob Johnston's comments: 

 

"I, along with Council am very disappointed by the comments made by Bob Johnston. He came highly recommended. Mr. Johnston had a temporary secondment, which came to an end and he is now back in his role at the Greater Sudbury Airport."  

 
"Last year, the citizens of Greater Sudbury spoke loudly when they chose this Council and Mayor that provided a new era of openness, transparency and good governance." 
 
"Every decision made by myself and Council has been made in the best interest of our City and our citizens. Council has shown respect for staff and their enquiries for information should not be seen as interference. It is why we were elected."
 
"We expect a high standard of performance, which may be higher than evidenced in the past, but always in the best interest of the community."
 

 

"Mayor and Council will continue to represent the public in a responsible and accountable manner. It is what the citizens of Greater Sudbury deserve."

Darren MacDonald

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