Brampton needs a visionary with principles and expertise, like Jennifer Keesmaat, to lead our city into the future
Photos from Flickr-The Academy of Urbanism/Mansoor Tanweer

Brampton needs a visionary with principles and expertise, like Jennifer Keesmaat, to lead our city into the future

“Over the city lies the sweet, rotting odor of yesterday’s unrecollected sins.”

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall


In Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel, Thomas Cromwell is brought to life as the ultimate puppeteer, the behind-the-scenes maneuverer who guided England to glory while the bloviating Henry VIII ran riot with an overstuffed lifestyle and questionable political decisions.

In effect, Cromwell kept the realm afloat during one of the most tumultuous eras in Blighty’s long history.  

It might be argued that Cromwell’s modern-day equivalent is Joe Pennachetti, former manager of the City of Toronto. He sat in the background as the other Mad King, Rob Ford, operated in a bubbling cauldron of controversies that led to his eventual demise as the mayor of the City of Toronto.

Pennachetti was city manager and chief financial officer before retiring in 2015 and joining the normalcy of the University of Toronto.

Ford’s odious lifestyle was fueled by crack cocaine and high-proof booze. His outrageous pronouncements were rife with memorable malapropisms, and he made a mockery of himself and his city – fodder for the late-night comics who looked at him as a dog would a fire hydrant.

In the calming eye of this Category 5 storm sat Pennachetti who steered Toronto through one of the greatest expansions in its history.

His career is a case study of Cromwell-like coolness under fire.

Few novelists ever wrote about a mandarin’s impact on history, and Mantel’s genius was in recognizing that while the storm clouds of politics crackles with lightening and thunders from on high, it is indoors, in the inner sanctum of the government offices, where the real – and often dramatic – story plays out.

Cromwell never wore the crown, but he was the real change maker near the middle years of the 16th century.

Pennachetti never wore the chain of office, but he was Toronto’s leader, writ large.

Which brings us to Brampton.

City Council is finally taking steps to start recruiting a new CAO to replace Harry Schlange, more than nine months after he was fired. This past Wednesday, councillors were given details of the talent search they initiated only a couple weeks earlier when they voted to establish a CAO recruitment committee, consisting of themselves.

They’ll soon find out that the sweet, rotting odour of yesterday’s unrecollected sins didn’t just emit from the mayor’s office, or council chambers, but also came from the office of our chief administrative officer, previously referred to as the city manager.

The problem is, no such management took place. Deborah Dubenofsky was tapped in 2007, not to guide one of the country’s most dynamic and fastest growing cities that was facing a wide range of complex challenges, but to allow former mayor Susan Fennell continue her destructive ways. Since her arrival and council’s eventual decision to get rid of her, it’s been a revolving door to the office of the city’s most senior bureaucrat. We’ve never had a Cromwell to save us from ourselves.

Brampton’s modern-day CAOs

Lorne McCool (1999-2007)

John Marshall (2007 interim)

Deborah Dubenofsky (2007-2012)

John Corbett (2012-2015)

Marilyn Ball (2015-2016 interim)

Harry Schlange (2016-2018)

Joe Pittari (2018-2019 interim)

Al Meneses (2019-?? interim)

Mississauga CAO:

Janice Baker (2005 – scheduled to retire in 2020)

Dubenofsky looked the other way, while Fennell took from the city’s hardworking taxpayers, using public funds to pay for the Queen’s luxury Lincoln Navigator SUV, on top of her 24/7 on-call limousine service. The former mayor flew first class to India, China and the Philippines within a four-month period, begging the question, why was the mayor of Brampton spending taxpayer money jet-setting across the globe. She even spent one-hour flights to Ottawa in first class seats. She stayed at lavish luxury hotels across Canada, in Europe and Asia and had Dubenofsky provide cover if anyone ever asked questions.

After councillors demanded the city manager come clean about how Fennell’s lavish private galas were being supported by city hall and the unwitting taxpayers, Dubenofsky condescended to them, claiming no money from city coffers was being used. Not long after she was given the heave-ho, it was revealed that tens of thousands of dollars had been spent each year to send senior city staff to the swanky events, while the public was kept in the dark and Fennell failed to explain where much of the money actually went.

It became clear to voters that while the former mayor masqueraded as royalty, flying on the public dime to Miami Beach, where “sister city” business was supposedly going on in the ocean-side locale where Fennell happened to own a condo, Brampton’s most pressing affairs were being ignored. The developers who were told by her to send outsized cheques in support of her private fundraising events, dictated the city’s crippling growth, while the mayor globe-trotted on the backs of residents and became obsessed with her own style of growth, expanding the ‘Fennell’ brand to guarantee a long life in public office (it appears that two of her followers now sitting on council are continuing that legacy).

As this entirely self-centred approach to governing went completely off the rails, the city’s future was ignored. Fennell and Dubenofsky ignored the regional planning for public transportation and to this day no decision has been made on an LRT. Fennell cancelled a major downtown redevelopment, only to later put it back on the table, but failed to get the two most significant phases done, in what was clearly a charged political process that divided council. Issues like a new university, recreating the withering city-centre and providing affordable housing were an after thought, and work to bring commercial investment hardly happened, while surrounding cities boomed.

Former mayor Susan Fennell

But Fennell was blissful in her ignorance, flying off to Florida or other destinations at every chance, as the developers built her city into a never-ending sea of sprawl. On one occasion, organizers at an east coast gathering of Atlantic municipal officials were puzzled by her brief appearance at the event. Any chance for a free getaway paid for by Brampton taxpayers.

Of course, their own taxes climbed beyond reach for many homeowners, as the lack of businesses being attracted here created a dangerous imbalance in the local tax base that saw residential rate payers covering almost 80 percent of the property-supported municipal tax base (healthy cities see as much as 70 percent contributed by the commercial sector).

Fennell seldom wasted on opportunity to blame higher levels of government, particularly those ruled by Liberals, for all her city’s woes. She simultaneously ignored the types of efforts other cities constantly initiated to secure provincial and federal funding for transit, other transportation funding, infrastructure, affordable housing, post-secondary education, innovation and public safety, while claiming the lack of results were the fault of Queen’s Park and Ottawa. While other mayors filled their meeting schedules with high-level talks in ministry offices, Fennell was too busy planning her private galas to grow her brand, between jetting off to overseas destinations and across North America, on the public dime.

During her tenure on the Peel Police Services board, while crime was a growing concern, she often focussed her time and energy not on public safety but on securing public funds through the board to buy thousands of dollars worth of tables for the swanky mayors’ events that were becoming increasingly popular among the black-tie crowd across the region.

Dubenofsky, meanwhile, made sure council could not track what Fennell was doing. She quietly removed reporting requirements that would reveal problems with municipal contracts, keeping councillors in the dark, she hid Fennell’s wasteful spending or helped justify it, as the top bureaucrat’s role became a hinderance, not a help to the elected officials tasked with representing and protecting the taxpayers.

The successor to the throne, Linda Jeffrey, another entitled leader, didn’t do much better. She fired John Corbett from the top job, clearly not fond of him because of his close ties with a former Jeffrey foe on council during her first go-round. Harry Schlange was to be the “agent of change”. But beyond his deft use of the axe to carve off dozens of senior staff, he proved incapable of managing complex, big city files. He watched Jeffrey turn council into a soap opera after she mutated the lingering debate over a route for a proposed LRT into a personal political score to settle. Her four years, creating a divided council at each other’s throats, was a wasted term, at a time when Brampton desperately needed leadership to get the country’s ninth largest city onto an equal footing with other big cities rushing into the future.

And now, council, more than nine-months after Brown dismissed Schlange, has finally decided to fill the role of the highest public servant in Brampton’s municipal government. That it took Brown and his council colleagues this long to even consider filling the top job, doesn’t bode well.

The city made the laughable claim that there were other pressing matters to deal with before finding a new boss. That’s like a stumbling company saying to shareholders, “Everything’s okay, we know things are collapsing around us, but we really DON’T need a leader to save us from ourselves.”

Brown dropped the ball, but he doesn’t want to admit it. He should have known how desperately Brampton needs a true professional, not a bobble-head, or a yes-person for the mayor, to do his bidding behind the scenes. The city has to find a person who can show council and staff what needs to be done.

Brown should have realized this when he was left dumbstruck over the stalled multimillion dollar Downtown Reimagined project. Right after taking office he and council had to pull the plug on the plan until staff could figure out if unknown sub-surface water channels might dramatically impact the work to refurbish the downtown core. Brown was almost speechless when told by staff that for almost two years they never bothered to look into the matter, despite widespread planning for the now postponed project. Large murals plastered in the city centre promoting the plan were even affixed to show residents what was happening. Except, for now, it’s not happening. But the giant orange posters are still hanging downtown. What a disaster. A gold-star CAO would have finished the remaking of the downtown and replacement of its dangerously crumbling infrastructure decades ago. It’s beyond irresponsible to have businesses and the public exposed to the threat of water and sewer mains that could burst any second. A real Chief would never have let this go ignored for so long.

Staff also botched the LRT planning, and failed to help with a puzzling motion from rookie Councillor Paul Vicente, a loyal Fennell and Jeffrey follower, to plow forward with an alignment that hasn’t even been assessed (thankfully he was called out by Brown before trying to push his, or Jeffrey’s, plan through). His attached-at-the-hip partner, and fellow Jeffrey-Fennell follower, Rowena Santos, wasted all kinds of time on a proposed election-sign ban that staff seemed clueless about, not aware that bylaws and legal conditions could have simply been checked to make sure rules are followed.

When The Pointer asked staff, following the release of a city report on its strategy for the federal election, if grant applications to secure infrastructure funding from Ottawa were all ready to go, with all the requirements met, the response was equal parts angering and deflating. “We’re not there yet.” That was the response. Really. Since the city report, other big municipalities across the country have been giddy with joy, announcing almost weekly the latest millions or hundreds of millions or billions that Ottawa has been doling out to them ahead of the October election, for housing and education grants, badly needed infrastructure and major transit projects. Meanwhile, Brampton gets peanuts.

A professional at the helm would have secured Brampton’s fair share.

Yes, Brampton Council once again dropped the ball, waiting a painfully long nine months before even initiating the process to find a new leader. It will be a full year before a replacement for Schlange is found. Let’s hope it’s a major improvement.

It’s clear Brown can outwork most people in a room or an election race. It’s also clear, from his book and what happened to him as the Ontario PC leader, that he has a lot to learn about leadership. Energy is great, he has it in turbo-charge levels. But he seems to be missing the key ingredient to real leadership – Wisdom. He’s too impulsive and has too much ambition to be wise.

That’s why Brampton needs a professional, a true sage counsel, to calmly and even-handedly steer council and the city into a prosperous future. Even long after Brown and the rest of council have moved on.

A real leader inside City Hall will change the city’s flagging fortunes.          

The selectors who will decide on the next Chief Administrative Officer should begin with some names and numbers.

Since 2005, Mississauga has had one CAO, Janice Baker. Over that same period, Brampton has had eight‎, including three interim office-holders.

Mississauga’s numbers suggest competency and continuity, while Brampton’s conjure up images of chaos and confusion.

More numbers: Mississauga is home to $9.2 billion in infrastructure assets, 60-plus Fortune 500 companies, 93 major corporate headquarters, and is financed by a healthy 65/35 split – commercial-industrial-residential – in its tax base.

Brampton is the exact opposite, a vassalage. It is forever playing catchup with its rich cousins to the south. Brown called out this mismatch of assets in his inaugural address, and vowed to do what Mississauga has already done.

To do that, Brown has installed a “Team Brampton” approach to politics – all the oars on council rowing in tandem to power the ship of state. No more wasteful spending that dogged the Fennell regime. No more backstabbing that led to zero legislation under Linda Jeffrey’s tenure. A massive reorganization of city hall staff was undertaken by the previous regime and is nearly done. But now, the key element is missing: a CAO.

Yes, finally, after an inexplicable nine months, Brown’s regime is getting around to picking a new head of staff, our a-political powerbroker.

Which begs two questions, one easy, the other hard:

What took them so long? What type of person is the city looking for to fill such a key role?

Does the city want a star and visionary or someone who will just keep the seat warm while the real powers that be, the politicos, continue to flail away at trying to turn this into a world class city?

First, more history – of the sordid kind. When the 14-year reign of Fennell was finally extinguished by voters in 2014, charges were made that Dubenofsky had misrepresented herself in 2016 court testimony for the $28.5 mllion Inzola lawsuit against the city over the controversial downtown redevelopment plan. She admitted on the witness stand at trial that much of her earlier testimony for the case had misrepresented the facts. Evidence showed that her behaviour with council throughout the process for the project was not even-handed and a-political and that she worked closely with Fennell. The case, which eventually went in the city’s favour (Inzola is appealing the decision) revealed how a bureaucrat’s behaviour can be an obstacle to the goal of council, to move the city forward, free from interference by staffers that are there simply to advise.

The moral of this story: CAO’s worth their salt must try to remain a-political – a lesson Pennachetti learned early on in the Ford regime.

Baker and her staffers did what needed to be done to expand the business interests of Mississauga, including readying the city for a new light rail transit line that will run straight up Hurontario and lead to the next phase in the city’s great expansion. In Brampton, the city couldn’t unite on a route, millions in funding were frittered away, and the promised provincial money was spent elsewhere.

While council burned, nobody manned the middle – to save the politicians from themselves.

Schlange, a former CAO of Niagara Region, was fired after being hired by Jeffrey to replace Corbett, who was also fired. Schlange’s replacements were Joe Pittari and Al Meneses, both placeholders, which sets the stage for the hiring of a new CAO.

City staff has been without leadership since before last Christmas, and a lot has happened since then – with major implications for all. Those include such key items as the review of regional government by Doug Ford’s ruling PCs, marijuana legalization, and KPMG’s service review of city departments and the 2019 budget process. The looming federal election in October should have been an opportunity for staff to leverage desperately needed swing seats in Brampton. With each day toward the vote, it appears the opportunity is being squandered.

The city still needs to challenge much of the ill-advised decion-making from the Ford regime at Queen’s Park which continues to gut a host of programs and other funding areas Brampton residents depend on. It has already left its boot-marks on the neck of this city by cutting $90 million for a now-cancelled downtown university campus, and leaving any solution to our “hallway healthcare” problem in limbo.

How can Brampton look to submit well-thought-out grant applications for specific funding streams and engage in timely lobbying during the upcoming election, without a pro’s pro in the CAO seat?

Who better to lead an advocacy campaign for better healthcare funding through #FairDealForBrampton than our top boss?

We need all the soldiers we can muster to battle Bill 108 that promises to bring more sprawl to a city already groaning from all the badly planned growth.

We need a professional to do a cost-benefit analysis of installing transformative 5G technology, which was slated to be completed July 10 but will not come forward till September. There was also a diversity and equity action plan that was due out in February, but seems to have been largely ignored. Even though the city loves expansion plans for Algoma University’s downtown campus and has approved $7.3 million toward it, a report on the implications won’t be coming until December. It was supposed to be presented June 12.

These would be done by now if a first-class CAO was in place.

Someone like Pennachetti, the gold standard, is who Brampton needs. A city is only as good as the staffers who serve it. A starry CAO holds steady the wheel that keeps the ship of state moving through choppy political waters.

Baker’s genius in Mississauga is that she had the good sense to surround herself with excellent commissioners, and a team of dedicated staffers. The story of Mississauga’s rise from a sprawling, gridlocked mess, to super-city status, was written by a mayor, council, CAO and staff working as one – not just mouthing the words but embracing unity.

During the dark period of the scandal-a-day Rob Ford regime, there was the stoic Pennachetti. When he left office in 2015, he spent some time with Toronto Life magazine to discuss his time overseeing a city under siege by its own mayor.

He was asked if he found it frustrating when a politician ignored his advice. He didn’t mince his words. The difficulty was Ford’s pushback – loud, and sometimes laced with unchristian language. One of his biggest boasts during campaigning for office was how he would save taxpayers a billion dollars. Pennachetti saw storm clouds gathering on the horizon. He told his boss that wouldn’t be feasible. When the magazine said his advice was couched, the superstar bureaucrat didn’t argue the point.

So why, he was asked, didn’t he bolt for the door and simply quit? Pennachetti said staffers are professionals, and his team was there to provide the public with their services. He said he learned how to live with the politics. In his world, the optimal word was “adjust.”

Like all underlings who are really the quiet leaders, Pennachetti said it was important that his staffers keep their integrity and accountability and not get “mired in politics” – even if his boss, Ford, was veering off the proverbial rails.

Pennachetti’s list of accomplishments was long, but the greatest was “working with the intergovernmental relations—most especially getting the funding for transit, which I basically have worked on since about 2004.”

The expansion of Union Station was born out of a complex agreement between three levels of government, VIA Rail, Heritage Canada, a private partnership for the retail sector and Metrolinx.

It makes one wonder what would have happened in Brampton in the late Fennell and early Jeffrey regimes if a determined pro like Pennachetti was in the CAO’s office to steer the city towards the solutions it truly needed.

Even Ford’s decent didn’t slow Toronto’s growth, and that’s because a gifted leader never failed in his duties to his staff and his community. The same took place in Mississauga – duty was put before politics.

Pennachetti was a civil servant for 13 years. He now works on problems faced by global cities looking into the future. He’s the kind of CAO we need here. Toronto Life said he kept “the city’s public service—all the non-political employees whose jobs the Ford administration was constantly threatening to eliminate—on-task and motivated throughout a chaotic and difficult period of time. Surprisingly, he was able to do this while still commanding near-universal respect from his political masters, both left- and right-leaning.”

The Pointer wishes council talked to him before it started its search.  While many of those who occupied the CAO position here were fine people, and good public servants, Brampton needed more. It needed great. It needed a superstar. It needed someone who didn’t put playing politics ahead of the public’s interest. We need a builder, someone to play the short and long game.

The next big hire in this city will be the most important in its history. We need a visionary, who looks at urbanologist Larry Beasley’s 2040 Vision and wants to turn it into a plan of action.

The problem with politicians is that they are tied to the electoral cycle.

Our next CAO shouldn’t fall victim to political machinations that serve other interests than those of the public.  

While Henry VIII revelled in his emerald crown and ermine robes, Cromwell was in his basement office, doing the dogged work that needed to get done.

Questions still remain about the recruitment process, and whether this council has what it takes to choose our next CAO.

Will it pick a political hack, or a long-time stooge with a politically padded resume but no real vision? Or will it seek a star-powered man who can sniff out the rotting odour of yesterday’s unrecollected sins and bring a grand vision of the future to this city?

Perhaps a woman might become Brampton’s modern-day Cromwell.

Maybe the selection committee should ask Jennifer Keesmaat if she’s free.

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