Published On: Monday, 25 January 2016
Samra pioneering positive path as Nanaimo city manager
NANAIMO – So far, so good.
As interim City Manager, Tracy Samra is getting glowing reviews within and without the City of Nanaimo. It hasn’t been easy since taking the assignment in November, but Samra – the first woman, and Aboriginal, to hold Nanaimo’s top administrative position - has been more than up to the task.
Working closely with Council and staff, Samra has overseen streamlining of upper management positions within the city, which many believed was long overdue. That, along with other adjustments, already has the city in a position to consider a net zero per cent tax increase for the next fiscal year, if council decides to head in that direction.
“My experience working with the Senior Management group and staff has been very exceptional,” says Samra. “From day one, staff has welcomed and supported me as the City Manager. Without their support I could not have been as successful as I have been in making changing and dealing with some very difficult and contentious files.”
Samra’s hiring raised a few eyebrows in November, but the interim tag and council’s position made it a necessary and prudent move. With the unforeseen departure of former city manager Ted Swabey, the city was floating the idea of having Mayor Bill McKay serve as interim administrator, until a full-fledged search for a permanent replacement could be conducted.
Clearly this was unacceptable, having an elected official pull double-duty as mayor and head of city staff operations. No to mention the fact that McKay wasn’t qualified to do the job. He had managed HarbourLynx, the Nanaimo-Vancouver foot passenger ferry service that ceased operations, and SignAge, a local sign company.
Samra was eminently qualified, previously serving as Manager of Legislative Services for the city. Her lengthy resume notes she has 19 years’ experience a senior administrator, consultant and lawyer, including four years as Associate Regional Director General, Regional Operations for Aboriginal Affairs & Northern Development Canada.
As soon as she started, Samra met with each member of Council one on one to hear their vision and priorities firsthand.
“Working with Council has been the most challenging part of my job, but not for the reasons the public may suspect,” she says. “I have been slowing gaining their support and I regularly receive positive feedback from almost all of them.”
Contrary to public opinion, Council is not fixed at a 5:4 vote split. Most of the votes during Samra’s tenure have been unanimous, and there have been numerous 7:2 and 6:3 votes.
Samra has been proactive in her approach to staff, attending each director’s management team meetings in their offices, noting “I don’t believe you can run a city the size of Nanaimo sitting in your office.”
There is a lack of women on the senior management team and within middle management at the city, but Samra did say the Directors, Fire Chief and Superintendent have been respectful and professional in their dealings with her.
“As with any new City Manager, it will take time to build their trust and respect in my capabilities as a leader,” she says.
“I think my leadership style is a radical departure for the city,” she adds. “For example, I have invited the directors to participate more actively in the strategic direction of the City's operations. Our group of 10 meets once a week to go over council agenda planning and follow up, share departmental updates and workshop priority files.”
Samra has also established a managers’ round-table for middle managers – there are close to 60 in total - to have a voice and an opportunity to develop their leadership skills.
“They will be having their first meeting in February to set their terms of reference,” she says, adding an all-staff meeting will be held before the end of January. She plans on having at least one annually to promote awareness regarding council’s priorities and giving staff an opportunity to ask questions and provide input.
Samra’s background is an asset, as is her ability to work together with other groups.
The City has traditionally had a chilly, arms-length relationship with the Nanaimo Port Authority (NPA), and Samra has already made inroads there towards building new bridges between the two organizations.
“In my opinion, all of the parties need to be working together to be successful - not at cross-purposes,” Samra says. “Council and the NPA Board came out of our first meeting with a renewed sense of partnership and an agreement to meet more frequently going forward. It was a very positive meeting.”
Bernie Dumas, President and CEO of the NPA, concurs.
“The Port is very pleased with Tracy Samra’s current role as interim city manager,” notes Dumas. “The Port and City are jointly working together to develop an RFP process to secure a long term passenger only ferry service for Nanaimo and Tracy is offering a stable and professional environment for us to work within.”
That should bode well for Nanaimo’s efforts to finally attract a viable foot passenger ferry service from downtown Nanaimo to downtown Vancouver. Island Ferries Ltd. has been proposing such a service the ownership of the Victoria Clipper group’s recent announcement of a Victoria-Vancouver route – after an Australian group had done the same – has heightened expectations of a Nanaimo-based route in advance of the RFP.
The city is currently undergoing a Core Review of its services. Once the findings are disclosed, navigating a course to implement its recommendations – or not – will be one of Samra’s responsibilities.
“I am optimistic about the review of the City's departments, their operations and the program and services we offer,” she says. “ It represents an opportunity for staff to make recommendations to improve their departmental operations. I am keen to see recommendations on policies and procedures to centralize core operations.”
As one would expect, CUPE Local 401, which represents city workers, is being ever watchful on the Core Review file.
Blaine Gurrie, President of CUPE Local 401, says “Tracy has the task of trying to deal with the Core Review in a way that allows us all to see if we can find some efficiencies, while at the same time, respecting contracts, plus a multitude of other issues, to say the least. That’s not an easy balancing act. The desires of management, council and the union are difficult to reconcile sometimes.”
Gurrie has known Samra for many years.
“I’ve always respected her for her honesty, her principals and the commitment she’s shown to working with the rules. We had a good relationship when she was with the city on her first assignment as Legislative Services Manager,” he states.
Gurrie is impressed with how Samra has handled the challenges of serving as interim City Manager, and instilled an environment of trust between staff and management - particularly important as the long-anticipated Core Review is underway.
“Tracy has been a breath of fresh air. She has been inclusive, and we do not have the feeling that there are undercurrents and plans being made and hidden from us. She has been open to suggestions, and has made some changes to flatten the management structure which seems to be working. “
It is a major accomplishment, and something many viewed as much needed.
"We have seen a marked improvement in the trust factor,” says Gurrie. “We see her hiring as positive, and it has provided a renewed desire to work together. That’s a truly positive development and one we hope continues.”