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Calgary city manager’s philosophy led administration to $600M in savings

If city manager Jeff Fielding wasn’t on your radar, you might be forgiven for first hearing about him on Tuesday as news broke that he’s leaving Calgary to work in Toronto.

Fielding will be taking on the role of chief of staff at the City of Toronto – a new role which even Fielding admits doesn’t yet have clearly defined responsibilities.

As the top bureaucrat, the city manager doesn’t get much of the limelight when it comes to big city projects, but the person in the position has an important role to play in management of the city.

In Calgary, the city manager is usually seated at the right hand of the mayor during council meetings, answering questions when needed and explaining matters to councillors.

If the elected officials are the captains of the ship that is the city, steering it where it has to go, then the city manager is like the chief engineer, who has the job of keeping the engine and equipment running efficiently.

And during his four-and-a-half year term at the City of Calgary, Fielding was all about finding efficiencies, according to Ward 12 Coun. Shane Keating.

He said Fielding brought a certain philosophy to city administration, which hadn’t been seen before, and in the process found $600 million in budget savings over his four-plus years.

Some of that money was used for property tax relief and other cost reductions during his tenure with the city.

“He believed the city of Calgary should operate like a business – being fiscally responsible, doing the services you absolutely need to do, eliminating those that you don’t; finding efficiencies, saving money, and spending dollars wisely,” said Keating.

“Yet it has to behave like a service organization – at some point in time you have to make a decision that’s in the best interest of residents, and not so much be worried about the dollar figure behind it because it represents the best thing to do at that time.”

Keating said Fielding embodied that spirit by bringing more fiscal prudence to a city that had seen years of boom.

He demanded business cases for important decisions.

“If that business case wasn’t the absolute best business case, well then you’d have to rethink it,” said Keating.

Coun. Evan Woolley said Fielding’s previous experience at cities that weren’t growing prepared him to lead city administration through one of its worst downturns in a generation.

“When he came to Calgary it was a booming city, this was going to be a different opportunity at the pinnacle of his career,” said Woolley. “And within a year, the bottom fell out of the economy and he had to work to transform our organization.”

He said Fielding did a very good job of transforming Calgary after the 2013 flood, and he did it by looking at the big, strategic picture, and letting those under him do their jobs.

Woolley also gave Fielding points for being able to have frank discussions with council – a trait he said helped win him the confidence of pretty much every councillor.

“He was able to give very good strategic advice – sometimes advice that we didn’t want to hear – and that’s a good thing.”

Keating noted that as a leader, Fielding led by example.

“He didn’t say we need to reduce expenses and then make sure he was topped up on his bonus pay.

He technically eliminated the bonus pay – he just said we should pay him his salary.”

Now council will have the tough job of recruiting a new manager to fill Fielding’s position. Keating said he wants to keep that momentum going under the city’s next manager.

“We need to continue that impact because over time, he reduced the budget by over $600 million,” said Keating.