A Regina city manager rides off in a cloud of dust and mystery
City by Paul Dechene
Fridays are supposed to be good days to hide news stories, so clever newshawks keep their eyes especially peeled on the ticker during the waning hours of the week. But on Friday April 22, I was still reeling from Prince’s death the day before — so I almost missed the huge shake-up at city hall that went down that day.
Brent Sjoberg, the City of Regina’s deputy city manager and chief operations officer, had been let go.
Sjoberg was the dude in charge of the city’s two biggest, big-money projects — the Wastewater Treatment Plant Public-Private Partnership and the Regina Revitalization Initiative (which includes the new stadium build) — but as of that fateful April 22, he was out.
Over the years, I’ve interviewed Brent Sjoberg numerous times and remarked on the might of his Accounting Kung-Fu and on how much I enjoy quizzing him on city issues because his answers were always so thorough. I’d even confessed privately to Whitworth that Brent was probably the only guy in the city whose arguments were convincing enough that he could get me to support the Wastewater Treatment Plant P3.
(He didn’t succeed on that score, though, because I’m stubborn.)
So, you could say I was pretty bummed to learn that Sjoberg had been sacked. I follow city hall like it’s a primetime soap — one that’s way more thrilling than Walking Dead. And now I’d never get to see Sjoberg’s character arc unfold.
But what felt to me like new city manager, Chris Holden, Joss-Whedoning a favourite protagonist was in fact just the most public staff reorganization so far since Holden had taken over the administration’s top job. Still, Brent Sjoberg wasn’t just in charge of the city’s two make-or-break megaprojects, he was also arguably the highest profile executive at city hall during the waning years of Glen Davies’s tenure as city manager. Sjoberg was even more recognizable than Davies himself.
So, when I got in touch with Chris Holden, I had to ask if he was concerned about the mass of institutional knowledge that would disappear with Sjoberg’s departure.
“Brent had been here for almost 10 years,” said Holden. “Obviously he had a lot of corporate knowledge. Yes, that has walked out the door. But there are others in the organization that have the intimate knowledge of those projects. Obviously, those projects are very important to the city of Regina. It’s about our credibility and our reputation in the community. So obviously, we have to make sure those projects continue along a successful path and I have every confidence we’re putting mechanisms in place to make sure that that happens.”
Holden says he and executive director of city services Kim Onrait are working together to determine who between them will take over direct lead on each of the city’s marquee projects.
But what if questions about the RRI or the Wastewater Treatment Plant P3 arise that no one still on staff can answer? Would they still be able to phone up Brent Sjoberg for insight?
“I guess that opportunity would remain to be seen,” says Holden. “At this point, I’m confident that we have the knowledge that we need internal to the organization.”
Still, Holden’s shake up of the top level of the executive not only puts a deputy city manager out of work, it also completely revamps the organizational structure that former city manager Glen Davies had spent years crafting.
Could it be Holden wasn’t happy with the way responsibilities had been concentrated under his predecessor?
“I wouldn’t say that,” says Holden. “I think at the time when Glen was preparing to step back he put an organizational structure in place that created two senior positions in the chief financial officer and the chief operating officer. And I think at the time where we were in terms of the initial phases of both the RRI Stadium and the Wastewater Treatment Plant, it was necessary. And now, I think there’s an opportunity to put a structure in place that creates a stronger culture of collaboration for the organization just by nature of the structure requiring people to interact with each other more.
“This change really is about an opportunity to head in a new direction in terms of the leadership and the way that the leadership is structured.”
Under his new structure, Holden says he will have more executive directors reporting directly to him.
“The structure prior to change on Friday had a three-chief system,” says Holden. “We had chief administrative officers, a chief financial officer and a chief operating officer. What we will have now is a city manager, a chief financial officer and a layer of executive directors. And those exec directors will have to work much closer with the city manager and with the CFO and with each other.
It’s creating, for me, a stronger leadership group in terms of the conversations and the reliance that the senior management in the organization will have on each other.”
Of course, almost immediately after city hall announced Holden’s reorganization, social media lit up with theories about how this was all a smoke-screen covering up problems downtown and all this forebode some very bad news about the state of either the stadium, the RRI Railyard project, the WWTP P3 or all of the above.
“I’ll reinforce: the decision to remove Brent from the organization has nothing to do with his performance and has nothing to do with the status of those major projects,” replies Holden.
“It’s a change in direction in terms of leadership. It’s as simple as that,” he says.
But was it a firing or was there a softer management euphemism that would describe the decision to ask Sjoberg to leave?
“He’s no longer with the organization,” concludes Holden.