Christine Smith says that communication is at the heart of her vision as Whitehorse’s city manager. Yet there is one thing she says she can’t talk about, even if it remains the talk of the town: her recent decision to sack two of the city’s long-standing senior managers, Brian Crist and Robert Fendrick.
The firings have been described as being without cause. No additional details have been provided about the decision. That’s partly due to advice Smith received from the city’s lawyer, she said.
“You have to protect people’s privacy and human rights.”
She concedes it’s “counter-intuitive” that the reasons are not being released, when much of the city’s operations are expected to be public. One city councillor, Kirk Cameron, has resigned to protest the firings. And one past city councillor, Dave Austin, recently urged the current council to provide reasons for the dismissals.
Smith maintains there have been no major policy disagreements with senior staff in the past year. But she concedes that there may have been some communication break-downs between city staff, council and the public.
When plans to build two new municipal headquarters were announced in November, a $56-million project years in the making, the main criticism was the public hadn’t heard about it.
And when the Yukon Outdoor Soccer Complex Association spoke to city council in February about its plans for an outdoor soccer field and track in Whistle Bend, councillors also said they hadn’t heard about it. The plan’s proponents, meanwhile, assert they’ve been in discussions with the city for a year.
“I’m all about reality,” said Smith. “If someone says there’s a communication issue, then there is one.
“I’d say there are always communication problems whenever you have a relationship. The question is, how do you learn from those?
“I can make sure council has all the information well in advance but we also need our government partners to do the same, we don’t control other people.”
Smith is coming up on her one-year anniversary at the job. She took over the position last April from Crist, who inherited the role temporarily after former city manager Stan Westby was fired in 2013.
It was a minimal learning curve for Smith, the former director of community affairs for the Yukon government.
“Coming here wasn’t new, as I oversaw the communities while at the government,” she said.
“What was new was getting familiar with the City of Whitehorse processes, policies and procedures. I could see the outcomes, but I wouldn’t know the ‘how.’”
If Smith is the “how” then city council is the “what.”
Her role as Whitehorse’s most senior appointed official includes assisting council in setting the direction of the city.
Part of that vision is to align the city’s budget cycle with its strategic plan, a document that outlines its priorities for the duration of its three-year term.
Some of those priorities include solid waste management, housing and the municipal services building.
She said it makes the city more efficient to do an annual review of the plan, as opposed to every three years.
“Strategic planning has been done at the city for many years but I can offer an objective perspective on how to tweak things,” she said.
“I can also bring forward ideas knowing that things will change in the next 20 years, and offer suggestions. I can tell them what I’d like them to start thinking about and they can set my limits.”
Sitting on her desk is a big, blue binder filled with feedback from city employees.
It talks about their roles at the city and how they see themselves fulfilling council’s vision.
It’s part of a large departmental review to get everyone on the same page, she said.
“Is what Joe on the frontlines doing reflected in council’s vision?” she asked rhetorically.
“It is, but he doesn’t know it yet. So we have that conversation and show how what you do is what council wants.
“It’s about laying it out and everyone sees where they fit. Lining up everyone’s strategies in their day-to-day performance with council’s vision.”
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