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Ramara’s ‘toxic’ culture

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In Council Watch
Jan 15th, 2016
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Mayor Basil Clarke

By Patrick Bales, The Orillia Packet & Times

Sixteen recommendations have been presented to Ramara Township council and staff as ways to eliminate the “toxic” culture within the municipal offices.

The organization and service-delivery review, prepared by John Whitesell, of Whitesell and Company, was unveiled at the township’s Jan. 11 council meeting. Whitesell had been retained early in the council’s mandate for an efficiency review.

Whitesell visited the township regularly, conducting his study between June and October of last year. While there, he held two public meetings, free of township staff or council members. Those excluded from the meetings were interviewed by Whitesell at least once.

In total, he conducted 61 face-to-face interviews, 12 follow-up interviews and 10 telephone interviews. He also fielded calls or emails from 27 employees.

The consultant found a workforce eager to talk about its employer — and the bevy of issues faced by employees.

“There was a consistent theme of workplace tension among employees and departments that has resulted in a level of inefficiency that borders on operational dysfunction,” Whitesell wrote in his report. “Several township staff have described the culture as ‘toxic’ and, indeed, there is some evidence to support the notion that the workplace has contributed to extreme stress for some employees.”

Mayor Basil Clarke, who has served on Ramara council since 2000, said the “toxic” comment was fair.

“It happened gradually,” he said. “As development went down in our township, money became quite tight. So, then the frustration starts between departments: ‘How come they get this and I don’t get this?'”

The township’s finances, Clarke believes, are at the root of most of its troubles. Fewer than 100 new dwellings have been constructed since 2008, including a three-year span with no development. That lack has been crippling to the township’s reserves.

Making matters worse was a lack of communication, both physically between township staff themselves and with the public, and with the technology used by those staff members on a daily basis.

One of the biggest issues was with the Diamond software, which has been used since May 2014. It was ideally going to serve all the departments, not just the treasury. However, the planning, environmental, municipal works and fire and rescue departments continued to use Keystone software because Diamond didn’t meet their needs, the consultant’s report stated. That has caused those departments to not have full access to their financials.

“We have to resolve that one way or another. Fix it, make it work or abandon it,” Clarke said. “We have to get that working. Then we can start to focus on issues like economic development and actually trying to go out and recruit businesses we desperately need.”

Making that fix is one of the “significant and immediate” changes the consultant’s report calls for in the first half of 2016. Whitesell indicated a change in attitude and morale since the appointment of Janice McKinnon as CAO last year, a notion Clarke concurred with, but there is still more to come.

Between now and April, the organizational structure will be reviewed, with recommendations to follow to either confirm the current configuration or to make adjustments in an effort to support and enhance delivery of services.

“The biggest, most important thing is when we set out these small groups that are going to target problems and find solutions,” Clarke said. “(In) the breakout sessions, we’re going to sit down and target problems managers say they have and find solutions. Let’s not ignore the problem. Let’s deal with it.”

The full report presented as part of the Jan. 11 council meeting is available at ramara.ca.

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