LIVING WATER SMART IN BRITISH COLUMBIA: “Elected officials ought to take great pains to hire the right people. And then take their advice. I really want elected officials to understand that if you do not have the right people working for you, then get the right people. If you do have the right people, let them do their work,” stated Mayor Richard Stewart, City of Coquitlam (May 2022)
Note to Reader:
The edition of Waterbucket eNews published on May 31, 2022 featured a conversational interview with Mayor Richard Stewart and City Manager Peter Steblin of the City of Coquitlam. With their clear vision of how to inspire and lead, they form an impressive political / administrative duo. Their sustained commitment has resulted in a “culture of appreciation” that aligns Council and Staff and keeps all eyes on the prize.
To read the complete story, download a PDF copy of “Living Water Smart in British Columbia: City of Coquitlam is a Beacon of Stability”. Excerpts follow below.
Balance, alignment, and appreciation – three words describe why Coquitlam is a “beacon of stability”
Beginning in January 2022 with the story about Council-inspired asset management innovation in the District of Oak Bay, the Partnership for Water Sustainability has presented a series of articles that have taken readers behind the scenes in the local government setting. These “story behind the story” articles have featured a continuum of perspectives, always shining the spotlight on champions who are doing the hard work of hope – whether inside or outside government.
In this edition, the spotlight shifts to the City of Coquitlam because it has emerged as a “beacon of stability” in the Metro Vancouver region. We feature a conversational interview with the Mayor, Richard Stewart, and the City Manager, Peter Steblin. With their clear vision of how to inspire and lead, they form an impressive political / administrative duo. In the interview, it was evident they genuinely like and respect each other.
Richard Stewart and Peter Steblin share a guiding philosophy that exemplifies doing good work, having fun doing it, and doing with it the goal of making a difference for the greater community good.
Alignment leads to decisions that the community appreciates
In this “story behind the Coquitlam story”, Mayor Richard Stewart and City Manager Peter Steblin reflect on their commitment, sustained over more than a decade, to create a “culture of appreciation” in Coquitlam. A guiding principle is that you fix things one piece at a time.
A philosophy of appreciation guides the actions of elected officials and staff. Moreover, the Coquitlam experience demonstrates what is achievable when elected officials and staff are in alignment and implement good ideas that work for the community. Mayor and Council make it a practice to thank staff for their hard work.
Mayor Stewart distils the essence of Coquitlam’s success in creating a positive culture:
“In the end, it comes down to the acceptance by council members that staff are the experts. We should not be looking to substitute our wisdom for theirs. Rather, ask the right questions. Make sure we are comfortable with the recommendations.”
Peter Steblin describes the process for moving from intended directions to approved recommendations:
“Part of what we as staff try to do is minimize the surprises. Aligning our efforts means we have workshops or committee meetings that yield ‘intended directions’. I always try to make it clear what we would recommend. But we leave enough room for Council to finetune the intended direction. Usually, we are aligned when we reach the decision point. This is a really good model.”
“The editorial philosophy for Waterbucket eNews is, quite simply, what is the story behind the story? As a matter of editorial policy, we are not interested in publishing ‘news release’ stories. We highlight this distinction because it is key to understanding why the Partnership views the Coquitlam story as an especially important one to share,” stated Kim Stephens, Waterbucket eNews Editor and Partnership Executive Director.
“The Partnership mission is to tell the stories about the good things that are happening in the local government setting. Our definition of ‘local government setting’ encompasses the stream stewardship sector because those folks are the ‘boots on the ground’.”
“The local government setting is populated with unsung and unappreciated heroes, both inside and outside government. Through Waterbucket eNews, the Partnership strives to give them a voice.”
Right People Plus Hard Work
“So, why we are featuring Mayor Richard Stewart and City Manager Peter Steblin in this edition? Well, we know the history going back several decades. Suffice to say, Coquitlam was not always a beacon of stability. This background knowledge provides us with an informed perspective on what this leadership duo has accomplished since 2008 to align elected and staff efforts,” continued Kim Stephens.
“Changing an organizational culture for the better takes hard work and time. By showcasing and celebrating the Coquitlam story, the Partnership hopes that other local governments will be inspired to reach out to Richard and Peter, learn from their Coquitlam experience, and ultimately emulate this success story. The following Peter Steblin quote describes what is at stake:
Reflections on creating a “culture of appreciation” within the City of Coquitlam: Extracts from an interview with Mayor Richard Stewart and City Manager Peter Steblin about the “story behind the story”
Balance. Alignment. Appreciation. Three words that capture so much. In the City of Coquitlam, they are foundation pieces for creating a “culture of collaboration” which is a stepping stone to a “culture of appreciation”. This applies to the relationship between the political and administrative wings. And it applies to the organization as a whole.
In a conversational interview, Mayor Richard Stewart and City Manager Peter Steblin describe how Staff gives good advice and Council makes the decisions in the City of Coquitlam. The operative phrase is that they have a trust-based relationship founded on balance, alignment and appreciation.
Extracts from the interview follow. These provide the flavour. We invite the reader to download the complete interview and be amazed. Richard Stewart and Peter Steblin are candid and transparent in sharing their wisdom.
What It Means to Be in Balance
“Over my career, I have worked in four cities, and observed many cities across the country. This experience provides me with context for concluding that we have something really good going on in the City of Coquitlam. I have never yet seen a relationship between the administration and Council that is so positive and healthy,” emphasized Peter Steblin.
“An airplane analogy is one way to describe the relationship. Think of one wing as political and the other as administration. If either wing is not functioning properly, the plane will crash. In Coquitlam, we are in balance. Council runs the show. We give good advice.”
What It Means to Be in Alignment
“Getting Council to a consensus is the goal. We are the only council in the Lower Mainland, I believe, that is operating at around 98% approval of staff recommendations,” stated Richard Stewart with pride.
“When staff makes a firm recommendation, we will debate it. We will try to figure out the nuances. Sometimes we will make minor amendments. But, by and large, it is a matter of staff and council being aligned.”
What Consensus Looks Like:
“As Mayor, it is my responsibility to ensure that my Council colleagues will be comfortable with what may be proposed by staff, and that we will be able to get to consensus on an issue…because I do not like 5-4 or 6-3 decisions. Votes are either 8-1 or 9-0.”
“I want us to work out the public policy details such that staff know they must get all 9 votes, not just 5. That does not mean someone on Council gets to have a veto. Rather, we aim to work things out. This gives everyone a voice at the Council table. Nobody’s input gets dismissed just because we do not need that person’s vote.”
“We make sure everyone is aligned. Ultimately, Council’s thoughts are reflected in the policies that come back from Staff. Elected officials ought to take great pains to hire the right people. And then take their advice.”
What a “Culture of Appreciation” Looks Like
“There are angry communities and there are appreciative communities, and I have worked in both. Coquitlam is an appreciative community and generally elects collaborative individuals to Council because the community is looking for positive things to do,” explained Peter Steblin.
“The community elects good people to Council. And councillors rely on staff to come up with ideas. Council supports those ideas and is willing to fund them. Staff carries them out. The community notices those ideas being implemented, and they are happy.”
“It is a cycle! The community become even more appreciative. If you keep that cycle going, there is no end to it. The cycle actually does work!”
Alignment of Roles and Responsibilities:
“My approach starts with a belief that the administration is there for its role, and the elected officials are there for a different role entirely. I get it that some (in other communities) do not believe in that division as strongly I do. But I firmly believe that the operational side of city business is nowhere near the purview of city councils,” summarized Richard Stewart.
“I truly believe that the goal is to get us in alignment so that staff are guiding us with their expertise, and that the policy decisions that we make are consistent with the staff recommendations and advice. I work with Council to make sure everyone understands that. And by and large, we have now reached that shared understanding.”
“We have great staff. In private, I always ask Council to thank staff for their work effort.”
TO LEARN MORE:
To read the complete story published on May 31st 2022, download a PDF copy of “Living Water Smart in British Columbia: City of Coquitlam is a Beacon of Stability”.
DOWNLOAD A PDF COPY: https://waterbucket.ca/wcp/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2022/05/PWSBC_Living-Water-Smart_beacon-of-stability_2022.pdf