Tim Commisso: takes the wheel and trims the sails of the good ship Burlington - and keeping it afloat so far.

News 100 blueBy Pepper Parr

January 12th, 2020

BURLINGTON, ON

 

We now have a sense as to how City Manager Tim Commisso approaches issues and works through them.

Tim Commisso Jan 28

Tim Commisso – he works well on his own. Speaks softly.

In an exclusive interview Commisso told the Gazette that he has been a strategic plan advocate since the mid 80’s and adds that “a strategic approach provides direction from which a work plan can flow.”

It was that plan that resulted in the Vision to Focus (V2F) approach council has in front of them.

The 25 year Strategic Plan doesn’t do much for anyone as a standalone document. It is only when a city council decides what it can achieve during its term and decides what it wants to focus on that the document becomes relevant.

Burlington already had a Strategic Plan when Commisso arrived – he will undoubtedly provide counsel to council on where they might want to revise the city plan going forward, but for now he has determined, with Council, what is going to get done during their term of office.

The four pillars on which the Strategic Plan are built are:

A City that Grows
• Promoting Economic Growth
• Intensification
• Focused Population Growth

A City that Moves
• Increased Transportation Flows and Connectivity

A Healthy and Greener City
• Healthy Lifestyles
• Environmental and Energy Leadership

An Engaging City
• Good Governance
• Community Building through Arts and Culture via Community Activities

Given what the Strategic Plan calls for, the V2F sets out the five focus areas it will spend their time and money on during their term of office.

The five focus areas are as follows:

• Focus Area 1 – Increasing Economic Prosperity and Community Responsive Growth Management
• Focus Area 2 – Improving Integrated City Mobility
• Focus Area 3 – Supporting Sustainable Infrastructure and a Resilient Environment
• Focus Area 4 – Building more Citizen Engagement, Community Health and Culture
• Focus Area 5 – Delivering Customer Centric Services with a Focus on Efficiency and Technology Transformation.

Commisso stare

When you get the look from Tim Commisso – pay attention.

Strategic Plans were once four year documents prepared by Staff and Council. In the past, at least for Burlington, the document was completed, accepted by Council and that was basically the end of it until the next Council was in place. Tim Commisso was part of the city of Burlington administration that operated that way for a period of time.

He apparently grew and is firmly committed to, and actively working within, the current V2F document Staff created.

How he does that is of interest.

Commisso was invited by newly minted Mayor Marianne Meed Ward to serve as an interim City Manager. She had dismissed James Ridge, the former city manager, within 48 hours of having the Chain of Office placed upon her shoulders. Commisso had worked for Burlington in the past so knew where the bodies were buried and the lay of the land.

He may not have been fully aware of just how bad morale was within the Hall; one of the early reports he was given set out what he was up against and what he had to work with. Hunan Resources Director Laura Boyd wrote a report that identified a lot of dysfunction within the Hall and poor pay scales didn’t help.

Commisso is not a young man, it became evident quite quickly that his style was going to be to identify just where the talent he needed was and then shape that talent and look for people to fill the gaps. There are a number of gaps.

Site Planning co-coordinator Jamie Tellier explans what is going to be built whereon the JBMH campus.

Jamie Tellier explaining a site plan.

Blair Smith talking to planner Heaher MacDonald

Heather MacDonald talking to a citizen at a public meeting.

Site Planning co-coordinator Jamie Tellier explains what is going to be built where on the JBMH campus.

The first major move the public saw was the news that the Deputy City manager no longer had a position. Commisso had reorganized the senior staff level putting Heather MacDonald, who had not much more than a year with the city, in as an Executive Director handling  Planning, Regulation and Mobility  and  Alan Magi in as Executive Director of Environment, Infrastructure and Community Services.

Commisso centralized a lot of the departmental work and has it working within what was named the Office of the City Manager. At one point there were 24 direct reports to the city manager; Commisso has whittled that down to 17. His approach is to look for the best people he can find and give them every opportunity to grow and become leaders.

That kind of development takes time; Commisso has a five year contract which he intends to complete.

Burlington’s recent experience with city managers has been less than three years into the five year contract and they were off to somewhere else. Can Commisso build the organization he thinks the city needs in that five year period of time?

Jeff Fielding, a former city manager, tried hard to create a more effective senior staff – he left for Calgary a truly frustrated man. The Mayor’s Chief of Staff at the time once said that city hall had a toxic culture.

Commisso is fully aware of just how deep the dysfunction runs but it isn’t something he will talk about. He does talk about improving the culture and improving the level of customer service. He created a Customer Centric Services unit and is moving City Clerk Angela Morgan to serving as the Executive Lead of the Customer Experience;  welcome news to many that have had to work with the Morgan.

The relationship between media and a city manager is not supposed to be smooth – just as long as there is respect both sides can do the job they are in place to do.

Commisso is not comfortable with the way the Gazette names staff – we call it transparent accountability. In the past the Gazette has been frank and forthright with some of its articles; we have also been very direct when we say the Finance department is the best run department in the city with some exceptional people doing excellent work under challenging conditions.

The recent appointment of Sheila Jones as Executive Director of Strategy, Risk & Accountability was one of the best decisions Commisso has made – if he continues to make that kind of quality decision Burlington will become a city where people want to work.

Commiso watching Glenn

Commisso pays close attention to situations that he feels warrant some scrutiny.

We suspect that Tim Commisso has not had media that truly does the job that is required. Municipalities have a daily story to tell – using media releases that contain a paragraph that touts how great the place is – is tiring, trite and sophomoric. When you have to sing your own praises the praise is faint.

Commisso doesn’t say very much. He listens, makes notes; from time to time he will tap someone on the shoulder and say a few words. He doesn’t speak unless he feels he has to and even then he doesn’t tell people what to do but suggests what can be done.

When city council raided the reserve funds Commisso actually squirmed a bit in his seat. The treasurer looked like she was about to go into septic shock. Reserves are there for very good reasons; something that didn’t appear fully evident to the Mayor.

To be fair to both the Mayor and Council, the list of Reserve funds and their purpose is far from clear. Expect Commisso to clean that up.

This year getting an Official Plan that meets the wishes of the public as this city council interprets them and producing something that will pass muster at the Regional level is critical.

Winding up the Interim Control Bylaw (ICBL) that froze development in the Urban Growth Centre until March 5th is his most pressing issue. Both matters come before Standing Committees meetings this week.

Commisso is a strong advocate of clear processes – identifying and limiting risk are touch stone points for him. The risks within an Official Plan that is badly outdated and an Interim Control Bylaw he dares not extend are major risks that have to be managed.

The ICBL was put in place before then Deputy City Manager and former Director of Planning, Mary Lou Tanner was removed from the city payroll. The bylaw was perhaps a good idea at the time – it was the one way the city could put a halt to the development applications that were coming in daily and it may have been the only legislative tool the city could use. Planning Staff couldn’t handle the volume and the mission, as the Planning department saw it at the time, was not the mission the new council believes they were elected on.

Commisso appears to be a quiet man making it difficult to get a good read of him. The picture, released by the Mayor’s office, of Tim doing a dance on the streets of Itabashi during the Twin City trip is one we promise to use sparingly. The Mayor is at the head of what appears to be a parade with the Mayor of Itabashi and other dignitaries and Burlington’s city manager prancing along behind her; it is not an image that squares all that well with the Tim Commisso one sees at council meetings

Among the tasks Commisso mentioned on his to do list is a friendlier, more welcoming city hall. He is waiting for permission to use federal/provincial funding to improve the look and feel of Civic Square.

People on pier between trees

Commisso was involved in the early thinking about the Pier – one wonders if he ever thought the city would have something like this?

Commisso has been around municipal politics for a long time. While with Burlington, from 1988 to 2008, he served as  manager of budgets, deputy treasurer and director of parks and recreation. He had lead responsibility for a number of major projects including the waterfront renewal as well as downtown revitalization strategies and corporate strategic plans.

Commisso learned that Thunder Bay, his home town, was looking for a new city manager in 2008; applied for the job and came out on top of the interview list. He retired from Thunder Bay in 2015 after seven years of service and sometime later took up a position with MNP, a national accounting/consulting operation with more than 5,000 people on the payroll in offices across the country.

Sometime in December of 2018 Marianne Meed Ward invited him for coffee and as Tim said “little did I know what the conversation was going to lead to”. He started as interim city manager, did the job keeping things afloat at city hall after the very abrupt dismissal of James Ridge, while the new city council went about looking for a new city manager.

Sources told the Gazette at the time that their conversations with Commisso suggested that he wasn’t certain he was going to apply for the job. He did and he got it.

The municipal world is almost the bottom rung on the public service organizational ladder. Boards of Education are below us.

UW crowd at civic square

At some point, perhaps not in this term of office Civic Square is going to get a do-over. Why not replace city hall, an inefficient structure that no longer meets the city’s space needs.

Funding from the federal and provincial levels is a constant flow of ideas the higher order of governments come up with and expect the municipal sector to make happen – the time frame for getting in on a funding opportunity is usually very short. Every municipality makes a point of having projects that are shovel ready or things they want to do that can be revised quick-quick. The federal or provincial governments provide the money, which comes out of the same taxpayer’s pocket, and on occasion require a contribution from the municipality.

Keeping on top of these opportunities is vital. The Region has an enviable reputation for being the place the provincial government goes to when there is an idea they want to pilot.

Kwab

Senior communications manager Kwab Ako-Adjei adding to his photo data base.

Commisso looks like the kind of city manager who would staff his office with people who can read an application document quickly and thoroughly and find a way to make it relevant to Burlington. Kwab Ako-Adjei and Helen Walahura are in place to do just that kind of thing. Kwab more so than Helen.

The high hurdles are right in front of Commisso. He has to aide a city council that has yet to find its pace. The members of council get along quite well but there are tensions; mild at this point. The individual values and visions are beginning to come to the surface – each member has a stronger sense of where they have support and who they can look to for help.

Early in their first year most of the newly elected five were asking to meet with Commisso to learn what their jobs were. Commisso was in that awkward position of instructing the people who gave him his marching orders. When the Gazette mentioned this to Commisso he suggested that we had mis-characterized what he was doing. It was our view that Commisso had a conflict of interest and that everyone would have been better served if he had used some of the slush fund he had to hire a retired, respected city Councillor to meet with the newbies and guide them through the early stages. It will be difficult for the five to call Commisso to account should such a moment arise.

Commisso is happy as a clam with this latest job. He loves the energy of what he calls the council team. His respect for them is genuine; he no doubt sees their strengths and weaknesses and probably sees himself being in a position to help this group grow to the point where he can, at some future date, turn the wheel over to someone else – his job will have been done – well done.

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