I heard the news at the intermission of the Grand Theatre’s opening night production of Cinderella: Jeff Fielding, city manager for the past eight years, was leaving London. I stared at the bearer of this information in disbelief.
Not that I should have been surprised. I felt much as I did when I heard of Jack Layton’s death, knowing it was probably coming but not this suddenly, without warning.
“City's top bureaucrat quits for Burlington job,” I read in the online London Free Press later that evening. I wasn’t quite sure that my informant hadn’t been mistaken. Jeff Fielding a bureaucrat? It’s hard to imagine someone more personable and less bureaucratic than Jeff Fielding.
I was fortunate to have Fielding as Chief Administrative Officer, as he was classified when I arrived on city council in 2006. There were five of us who were new after that election—Steven Orser, Nancy Branscombe, Walter Lonc, Paul Hubert, and myself. Fielding met with each of individually, giving us an opportunity to discuss our expectations at a time when we hardly knew what to expect.
He gave me some pointers: remember who you are and what you stand for; get to know the different departments and the people working in them; don’t be afraid to ask for help. He gave me a great set of maps of newly-developing areas of London.
He was always accessible. If you had an idea or issue to discuss, he was there in person at an early morning breakfast or late at night on his cell phone. Emails and phone calls were always returned, usually within minutes.
He was not afraid to disclose his personal situation, either. When there were illnesses, his or a family member’s, we were kept informed. We knew how important his getaways with his son were to him. We heard about his love of cycling, especially as a means of keeping him fit and healthy.
Most of all, we knew he loved London and was committed to staying here. There were times when as a council we were difficult—argumentative, divided, indecisive. He had a way of calling us into line, keeping us focused on the bigger picture. At times, it must have been discouraging. Nevertheless, he stuck by us.
I thought he was a treasure, and I was not the only one to think so. On a number of occasions, when I was having doubts about some administrative action, I recall Joni Baechler saying that, despite any differences, she worshipped the ground he walked on. She remembered what things were like before he took over—the deceptions, the backstabbing, the minefields. He brought honesty, decency and fiscal responsibility to city hall.
He had a vision for London. He loved it, but he knew it could be better. He took councillors and staff to other cities where they could experience first-hand the possibilities. But he also recognized that you can’t realize dreams without a plan and without cash. So he put council on a diet to get its financial affairs in order and the debt, which had ballooned at the beginning of the millennium, under control. With him in charge, council moved toward more aggressive debt reduction and pay-as-you-go spending on capital projects. He began to put his stamp on the administrative structure.
He was clear about how he saw his job. “My job is to make council look good,” he said from time to time. It was not always an easy task.
And it hasn’t gotten any easier since the new council took office a year ago. Despite the strong advances in putting London on a fiscally sustainable footing, with London being hailed by Maclean’s magazine as Ontario’s best managed city, strong forces were at work prior to the last municipal election suggesting that spending was out of control and that London’s taxes were among the highest in the country.
The man who would be mayor squeaked in on a promise of a four year tax freeze with no cuts in service, 10,000 new jobs in four or five years, and assessment growth of 2.5%. Once in office, he quickly developed an appetite for public adulation and megaprojects which could cost the residents of London three-quarters of a billion dollars. Although during the campaign the new mayor had suggested he might forego his salary, he soon identified a need for an additional $50,000 of discretionary spending through his office.
He also showed a penchant for controlling all the committees of council, and a disdain for council procedures, rules of order and consultation.
And the councillors themselves seemed unable to formulate a vision or a plan. Although a budget with no tax increase was achieved in record time, thanks to union negotiations already concluded and administration’s willingness to absorb budget cuts through pay freezes and delayed hiring, an ever-expanding wish list of projects small and large found no sources of revenue for their execution. Time and again, council had to be reminded by the city treasurer that there was no money in the budget for the expenditures it was endorsing.
The mayor had a solution: not a tax but a 1% levy. Only $30 per year per household (on average in the first year), it could bring in $70M in four or five years. It would be a start. Despite a council motion to look to anything but a levy, a half year later when the hour was approaching midnight and three councillors were not available, the levy was introduced and narrowly passed. It still had to await the approval of council at budget-time, but a source of cash had been identified. That was until a small committee sent it sideways while the mayor was out of the country shortly after it had been presented with some information on the wishlist so it could be prioritized.
How do you make a council look good when it is hell-bent on being bad?
I don’t know why Jeff is leaving. I do know that he is taking a job in a smaller city with less pay. It will mean the upheaval of relocating his family.
He’s an intelligent man, a man of integrity and honour. He cares about London; he will not be leaving it lightly.
But who can continue in such circumstances?
It’s a tremendous loss for London. It’s also a tremendous loss for the councillors, although not all of them will appreciate that. And maybe that’s the reason for Jeff’s decision.
Let’s hope that Burlington has a smarter, more appreciative council.
Let's hope, too, that London is able attract as decent, hard-working and intelligent a city manager as Jeff Fielding.
But as they say, good luck with that.