A sign inside Yellowknife's City Hall. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
Yellowknife’s next city manager can write off many evenings and weekends, and might need to lead the city through some unpleasant discussions.
City Hall is beginning its search for a candidate to replace Sheila Bassi-Kellett, who has said she’ll step down by the end of March after seven years in the position.
Bassi-Kellett says the job was an honour in a community that’s been her home for more than three decades, but a holiday earlier in the fall made clear that she needed a change.
“It’s been a pretty intense year and honestly, there are so many things that I want to do that I just don’t have time to do given the demands of this job. I work probably 11 to 12 hours a day. There’s always one day on the weekend that I’m at work – and it doesn’t, frankly, leave a lot of time for other things,” she said last week.
“I don’t know if it’s possible, if there’s someone out there that can do this job 8:30am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. It’s constant. You live this job. It’s at the grocery store, it’s at social events with friends. It’s on a dog walk. It’s never-ending.”
City Hall was making noises about attempting too much with too little even before a years-long stretch that brought a pandemic followed by wildfires. Climate change is likely to bring more disruption.
Yellowknife’s mayor, Rebecca Alty, said the ability of Canada’s municipalities to get everything done – and keep staff happy and sane – is becoming a nationwide conversation.
Issues the city has faced in the past year, which range from weeks of strike action to a three-week evacuation, turned Bassi-Kellett’s job into “six, seven days a week, 12-plus-hour days,” Alty said.
“It’s tough to sustain that for too long … I think Alberta just released the stats that city managers there are lasting two years at max, which isn’t good. You’re barely able to get somebody up to speed before they’re moving on. As a whole organization, we’re going to have to look at how we build a resilient structure so that it is attractive, there is work-life balance and it’s not just work.
“It’s easy to be like, ‘Don’t work so hard and take a day off every once in a while,’ but in the midst of an emergency, that’s easier said than done. It’s a big question that not only the City of Yellowknife will have to grapple with, but municipalities across the country.”
‘Is there a way we can automate?’
On the one hand, the likes of a city manager in the Northwest Territories can expect to earn a salary comfortably into six figures for the time they’re expected to dedicate to the work.
But on the other, it’s not just the city manager struggling to find the time to meet municipal demands.
“A council member just this past week said, ‘Hey, can we get presentations sent to us in advance?’ And I told him we would aim for that but frankly, we’re usually making those presentations on the weekend,” said Bassi-Kellett.
“He was really surprised. I appreciated the concern he had – ‘Oh my God, are you guys working on weekends?’ Yeah. Yeah, we are – and the concern that that shouldn’t be the case. But at the same time, if I were to turn around and say, ‘Awesome, I’d like an assistant city manager position and we should have assistant director positions…’ Boom, there’s a tax hike that is not going to be palatable to Yellowknifers with everything else that’s going on.
“It’s a conundrum – and municipal governments are stretched.”
As another example, almost identical concerns were voiced at a meeting in Thunder Bay, Ontario just weeks earlier.
There, business leaders were told by Thunder Bay’s city manager: “We are on an unsustainable path … we simply can’t keep doing what we’re doing. There’s no world that exists where you have modest or zero tax increases, great public services and reliable modern infrastructure. Something has to give somewhere.”
In Yellowknife, Alty is even looking to technological advances like artificial intelligence for ways to make some tasks quicker and ease the burden on City Hall without raising taxes.
Hiring more people means a tax hike, she said, so either the city works “to whittle it down and be really focused” – meaning disappointing some residents by cutting services they believe are important – or another solution is found. What that solution should be isn’t obvious, she added.
“How do we have the financial model that will support what residents are looking for in their communities? I wouldn’t say there’s been a model yet,” Alty said.
“Whether there’s more AI or automation for certain aspects of jobs, we’ll see if that can help lower the demands.
“Is there a way we can automate? Folks think of AI and automation as a decrease in jobs, but it’s really about if there’s anything that can be done quicker and easier through automation, and then you can leave the rest of the heavy thinking to the humans. So yeah, where are those opportunities?”
Bassi-Kellett, though, has parting words of reassurance for whoever takes on the city manager’s job, weekends and all.
“It’s a really super-rewarding career because municipal governments are so transparent and have the most immediate impact on people’s lives,” she said. “That is the importance and the relevance for this.”
“It’s the one level of government where I think you really can see the changes quickly,” said Alty.
“For people that love Yellowknife and want to continue to make it a great community, it’s a great role for that energetic person.”