The Staff & Council Relationship

The previous council in Brighton was known for being divided and fractious. As much as there were big election issues in 2018, the biggest mandate the current council received (I think it’s fair to say) was to get rid of the infighting and provide stable leadership. And I think they’ve done a good job of that, all things considered.

But the behaviour of Council doesn’t just affect Council. The division in leadership didn’t just rile up the community, it politicized the work environment of our municipal staff. When competition increases within Council, there are opportunities for councillors to score points by calling out the failings of the municipality. Sometimes that paints a target on the backs of staff, opening them up to the scrutiny and outrage of the public. The divisiveness of Council abated after the 2018 election, and we had a relatively calm four years, but the staff turnover has largely continued. Two different reviews were initiated by this council.

Tonight there was a special meeting of Council to review a report provided by KPMG about the work environment and culture of the municipality. It was not an HR audit, but more of a way of taking stock of the workplace culture and issues, and make suggestions for improvements. It includes a lot of issues that are the purview of the CAO and departmental managers. But there were quite a few references to Council, and they’re concerning. From the report:

  • Many staff noted various instances of Council interfering with operational issues and undermining staff and management (p. 17)
  • Some staff shared concerns about peers contacting Council directly instead of following the appropriate hierarchy (p. 17)
  • Many staff reported hearing about or observing acts of bullying and harassment by Council members towards staff (p. 18)
  • Many staff described a lack of trust between Council, management, and staff that needs to be repaired (p. 18)
  • While it is common to observe tension between Council and Management/Staff, the examples of disrespectful behaviour suggest that some members are not balancing their role to represent citizens with their duty to represent Brighton. While the relationship is improving, it needs to continue to do so as this conflict is a barrier to attracting talent and is one of the main sources of a negative employee experience and turnover today. (p. 30)
  • Some employees are fearful of Council and their peers’ disrespectful behaviour (p. 32)
  • Some employees feel they are undermined when the chain of command is not followed (p. 32)
  • Since the conduct of a couple of Council members has been linked to poor employee morale and turnover, every member of Council needs to align with the desired culture to address this situation that is negatively impacting the employee experience and improve Brighton’s reputation in the community. (p. 39)
  • All Council members are aware of the protocols for directing citizen inquiries to the appropriate department, and all but one are consistently following it (p. 51)
  • Almost all Council members noted instances of a couple of members breaching policies (e.g., code of conduct) (p. 51)
  • A few Council members noted that there are instances of one Council member overstepping boundaries and getting overly involved in daily operations (p. 52)
  • Some Council members recognized that staff and management feel attacked or “called out” by the actions of one or two Council members (p. 52)
  • Some Council members demonstrated a potential lack of respect for citizens and employees who are not from the local area (p. 52)

It’s a sobering read, for a lot of different reasons.

Critical Insights for Council

First and foremost, no councillor should be directing staff. Ever. It is not a councillor’s job to tell staff how to do their jobs. Council should be friendly to staff, supportive of them, and completely arms-length from the day to day operations of the municipality. We are not running for the position of CAO or departmental manager! Even if a given councillor has the expertise needed to comment authoritatively on the work of staff, it is not their role to do so. The Municipality of Brighton should hire staff who are qualified to do the work, and equip them with whatever resources they need to accomplish it; as far as Council is concerned, every staff member is the resident expert in their own job, and any concerns Council has about staff performance should be addressed to the CAO. No manager should find out that their boss’ boss is micromanaging their subordinates without them even knowing about it.

I want to be clear that this is a common problem. I’ve seen it in volunteer organizations, businesses, and nonprofits. When people want to be part of the solution, we tend to interject and get involved in any problem we see. I’m sure that I’ve done it myself, and it often comes from a good place of wanting to help. It also can come from a lack of familiarity with an institution’s hierarchies and system design: sometimes people don’t know that they’re out of bounds, and sometimes “role creep” happens slowly over time. It’s also sometimes a function of personal relationships: we’re a small town, and it’s not uncommon for staff and councillors to know each other, maybe even be neighbours, so it feels natural to talk to someone directly rather than going through a chain of command. No matter the intentions, it’s something we all need to watch ourselves carefully for.

Secondly, there’s no excuse for harassment or bullying behaviour. Full stop.

Third, just as councillors should never direct staff, they also shouldn’t try to stand in for them: councillors are not a complaints department, and especially not a special “in” to get a problem solved. I understand the impulse to want to help people, especially if they’ve already tried going through the official channels and had trouble either navigating the system or getting a timely or favourable response. I had a call today from someone who has already spoken with staff about a matter but still had questions, and I quickly became aware that I didn’t understand the relevant bylaws well enough to understand the staff decision. I nonetheless supported the staff decision, but indicated that I had some learning to do, and could follow up with the caller once I understood it better. And while my impulse might be to call or email the most knowledgeable person on the subject, I don’t want to waste his time making him address something he’s already made a decision on; I’ll spend some time reading bylaws instead. I don’t want to further enlarge the backlog he deals with!

Finally, just a note about the “citizens and employees who are not from the local area,” since it came up a few times in the report and was the subject of a resident’s question tonight: if you live in Brighton, you’re a Brightonian. You’re “from here” if this is your home, whether it’s been five generations or five minutes. We’re all invested in this community, as stakeholders if nothing else; that’s more than enough.

So Now What?

There are a lot of other insights to be gleaned from the report, especially for municipal managers. But it’s very clear that workplace culture is a leadership matter, and Council sets the tone. The next council will need to deal with this promptly.

Tonight, the current council ensured that: after a closed session, they voted to defer the report to the next council.

As much as I don’t want our next council to have to start by addressing the sins of the last one, it’s critical to handle this decisively and early on. This report describes a pattern of behaviour that should have been addressed a long time ago. Even tonight, nobody would name the parties involved in these complaints; it’s why Council moved into a closed session to discuss it. I respect the desire to address this person/these persons gently, rather than a big public reveal in the last week before voting opens; it’s a sensitive subject, and could have a serious impact on someone’s reputation. They should have been corrected before now, first directly and then, if necessary, with a formal complaint; that’s what the Integrity Commissioner is for. Instead we’ll go to the polls with this issue hanging over us, and I find that very disappointing and frustrating. I’m sure that the other candidates and current councillors do too; this is an unhappy chapter in our collective story. Thankfully, we know how to address it, no matter who ends up on the next council.

May the next chapter be brighter.

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