Jutta Mason: Parks story
( display item 16)
Background and importance of staffing 18-Jan-2012 
A summer serial, continuing into the fall) , November 3, 2011, Chapter Sixteen
By: Jutta Mason
Recap: Dufferin Grove Park is doing things that don’t fit the city’s policies, says the current management of Parks, Forestry and Recreation (PFR). The way the park is run leaves the city “vulnerable and open to major risk factors.” So a new supervisor was placed there last May. One of her tasks was to dissect out the traditional activities from the many “programs that represent anomalies for PFR.”
That supervisor is being replaced with another new one on November 15. Her boss, the current manager, has just been switched to Scarborough, with the Scarborough manager coming downtown. The Dufferin Grove anomalies are still hanging on, into the rink season. Some of the Dufferin Grove part-time staff have left. Those still here are trying to prepare for the rink season now, with some difficulty. In this chapter I want to take up the staff’s story again from Chapter Six of my serial. I want to tell how these particular part-time recreation staff came to work at Dufferin Grove, and how the City’s staffing protocols are unmaking their work at the park.
Many of the community letters that were sent to Ward 18 Councillor Ana Bailao, when the changes began last May, pointed out that the park staff were not the usual kind of city workers.
July 28 2011: “I would say that one staff member at Dufferin Grove does the work, hour for hour, of two staff members at other recreation sites I’ve been to in Toronto.”
July 28 2011: “One of the reasons I like spending time at Dufferin Grove Park is the staff who are welcoming, care about and enjoy their work. I go to other parks and recreation centres in the neighbourhood and do not find the staff helpful or welcoming. Many staff at Dufferin Grove work there year after year and as a park user, you get to know them.”
July 8 2011: “I worked for many years as a management consultant…Dufferin Grove Park is – although it may not appear this way on the surface – actually a well-oiled machine. There are efficiencies and appropriate redundancies built into a system that allows all aspects of the park to run smoothly. So smoothly, in fact, that the community is often of the opinion that it runs itself, or perhaps is run by them.”
August 11 2011: “Not every park can boast such a successful relationship between City staff and the community. In fact, the evidence is that such relationships are quite rare.”
August 9 2011: “The staff are amazing, creative and energized – a model for park staff elsewhere in Toronto. It is one of the reasons I am raising my family in Toronto.”
July 28 2011: “Much of the reason Dufferin Grove Park is so wonderful is because the staff are part of the community, not an outside force as they are in too many of Toronto’s parks. In other parks the staff have an attitude of “us against them”…This attitude is fostered as a result of the organizational structure in place in P&R that doesn’t encourage staff to really get to know the community. Staff are silo-ed in their jobs, only allowed to do one function and not encouraged to get to know the community and become a part of it. Often they perform the same job in many parks within a district, never spending much time in any one park. On the other hand, the Dufferin Grove staff respond to pretty much any need of the community or park itself – and as a result they care about the park and people.”
August 18 2011: “Dufferin Grove has been a beacon of community building for the entire city for years, and the staff ‘on the ground’ are to be highly commended for their ability to allow what is truly important about making a great public space available for all.”
In the 18 years since I got involved at the park, well over a hundred part-time workers have taken a turn working at Dufferin Grove. Many have now moved on to other careers but still come back to say hello. Tino DeCastro, the long-time Ward 18 recreation supervisor there until he was removed in February 2010, encouraged community participation when summer or winter staff prospects were being interviewed. Every year, job applicants for Dufferin Grove got better. From Chapter Six of this serial:
The work was interesting, and – very importantly – the low wages were partly compensated by the flexibility of part-time work schedules. University students, both undergraduate and graduate, began to apply, as well as actors, dancers, cooks, yoga teachers, translators, and neighbourhood mothers of young children. The advantages of flexible hours, and the friendly and adventuresome culture of the Dufferin Grove work crew, were an incentive for them to apply for a City part-time worker’s job despite the low wages. Some of the staff returned to working at the park for many seasons, in between their other work or study commitments.
That meant that staff turnover came to be much lower than normal for city part-time workers. With more experienced staff, used to working closely with park users, the park programs became steadily more ambitious. The little food cart at the playground expanded into the community-built summer cob café. Connections with at-risk park youth became more trusting, even involving court visits. Tino recognized the range of the staff’s abilities, and so, to a degree, did Tino’s bosses. When staff suggested a weekly community supper to draw in more families, they were encouraged to try it. Staff learned how to write funding proposals and helped park friends get the grants needed for the two park kitchens. Staff worked with rink friends to set up a skate lending system that had the effect of multiplying the number of newcomer skaters. As the park got busier, staff learned how to monitor the city’s accounting system to make sure they knew how much the park was spending. Longer-term staff taught newer staff how to handle the cash that came in through the food donations, how to administer work orders so that repairs got done, how to deal with fights on the ice rink, how to follow up injuries, how to support needy kids through the park’s odd jobs program, and how to avoid being duped by thieves at the snack bar. “Each one teach one” was the principle.
One of the anomalies of Dufferin Grove was the way in which good part-time staff were hired when needed. When someone inquired about working at the park, a few of the longer-term part-time staff would invite them for a cup of coffee and a talk. If the park needed additional staff, because some staff had moved on or some work had expanded, and the first conversation had been promising, the interested person would be invited to come and volunteer for a few hours. Sometimes the pace was too fast, or the Friday Night Supper dishes were too overwhelming, and the new candidate went away, resolved to find something a little less arduous. Or if the senior staff noticed that an applicant seemed to find children really annoying or never took out his ear buds, such applicants would be encouraged to look for a job for which they were better suited. But when applicants were friendly, smart, and curious (and perhaps were park users already) the senior staff would start them off right away with some contract work for CELOS – fitting kids with loaner skates in winter, perhaps, or doing crafts by the wading pool in summer. A few hours of such CELOS contracts might turn into many hours during the main seasons in summer or winter. If the new workers enjoyed the pace and the people, and maybe even came up with some good ideas, they would be encouraged, after a few months, to fill out an application for a “city number.” Tino (the supervisor) would have a talk with them and get a report from the senior part-time staff. If he was satisfied, he would then sign off on the new applications. Along with a “city number,” there would be some first aid classes and workplace health and safety classes, and then the new workers would gradually fit themselves into the seasonal rhythm (of too much work alternating with not enough).
In May of this year, when the new supervisor took over the park, she let it be known that neither CELOS nor the park users were to have any more involvement in finding or trying out new part-time staff. Part of her job, the supervisor said, was to make sure that the city’s hiring protocol would be strictly adhered to. That meant that every applicant would go through the central Human Resources office intake and would then be assessed by a panel of two or three full-time community centre staff. It didn’t matter that the interviewers were not otherwise knowledgeable about Dufferin Grove. All new applicants would be given a set of identical, preset questions and their answers would be written down and graded. There was to be no “prompting” of answers, which also meant that no unscripted conversation with applicants would be allowed. Those applicants who got the most points, would get a job – for $10.25 an hour.
For her first three months, the new supervisor was convinced that no new staff were needed. So no one new would get a city number. The Dufferin Grove programs were able to run because CELOS continued to have park workers on contracts, using the donations collected through the park food programs. Finally the shortage of city staff to run programs became critical. Seven park workers had already applied centrally, having worked on a lot of CELOS contracts the previous winter. They were given interviews in the new format. Five were hired, but two others – both of them capable workers who were much needed to help with the crush of summer activities – were notified that they had failed the interview. They were to stop working at the park in any capacity.
This was pretty shocking. One of the “failed” candidates was immediately hired for a much better-paying job elsewhere. But the other was a youth who had volunteered at Dufferin Grove for years, and had gradually turned from a troubled kid into a loyal, skilful worker. She was a tireless kitchen helper, an inspiring shinny hockey player and rink guard in winter, good-humoured and savvy under pressure when there were crowds. The rigid interview format had picked up none of those attributes. She was part of the Dufferin Grove team – was she now to be sent away?
I asked the supervisor and her boss, didn’t the city have a stake in hiring more youth, especially those that might be called “at-risk”? We had another candidate for a part-time job as well, a young woman who lived in the neighbourhood, with a disability that would allow her to work only 2-3 hours at a time. She had wonderful local recommendations, and had impressed everybody when she came to the rink clubhouse for a chat. The staff were looking forward to working with her. I asked the supervisor’s boss, Kelvin Seow, how could this young woman get a city number under the new system? But Kelvin said, the city doesn’t do affirmative action. All new candidates are treated equally. “Marginalized” candidates (including youth and physically challenged people) would be given preference as a tie-breaker, but only if they got the same score as their competition, on a centrally-generated list of candidates. Hiring anyone outside of the standard interview process, even for a limited-hours part-time job at minimum wage, said Kelvin – merely because we already knew they were a good worker – would open Dufferin Grove to the charge of “cronyism.” If he agreed to it, he could be fired.
I said, “give me one example of a manager who was fired for hiring somebody without administering the standard format.” He said, sure. “Pam Coburn.”
She was the $145,000 a year director of Municipal Standards and Licensing, fired in 2005, for having an affair with her second-in-command, who had been promoted quickly in her department.
I said, “that’s got nothing to do with what we’re talking about.” He said, “tell that to the Integrity Commissioner.”
City of Toronto hiring protocols, said the manager, have been devised by the City’s Human Resources Division, with direction from City Council. They’re not negotiable. His job and the supervisor’s job, Kelvin said, is making sure there’s compliance with Council’s decisions.
I went home and googled “Human Resources.” Almost at the top was a piece by Sunday Times (London) by columnist Sathnam Sanghera, called “Human Resources Departments: what’s the point of them?” He wrote that he had read a pile of HR magazines, and had noticed that HR people may themselves be questioning their work.
October 5 2009: The fact is that, to judge from an article in September’s issue of Human Resources magazine, HR people themselves can’t see the point of most of what they do. The feature, published under the headline “HR over-manages staff so they no longer think for themselves” contained the following quotes from various senior HR people: “HR has totally engineered development to the point that we have stopped treating people as grown-ups. And we measure everything that moves a millimetre. It is ridiculous, we have to get back to common sense”; “I look at our policies and I think they are written for the tiny percentage of people that are badly behaved as opposed to assuming that everybody behaves in a particularly good way”; “We have got to crush the stifling hand of bureaucracy. We have got to push back at regulation ... If HR wants to make a difference it could scrap 90 per cent of the ridiculous policies it has.”
Strong objections! And they’re not the only self-critics. In Chapter Thirteen I wrote about the “game-changing” (or not!) 1992 book by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler, called Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is transforming the Public Sector. The authors had some pithy comments about HR too. “In adopting written tests scored to the third decimal point to hire our clerks and police officers and fire fighters, we built mediocrity into our work force..… In attempting to control virtually everything, we became so obsessed with dictating how things should be done – regulating the process, controlling the inputs – that we ignored the outcomes, the results.”
The outcomes of finding new park staff in the Dufferin Grove manner, as many park users pointed out in their letters to the city councillor, seemed to be rather good. But for now, community-City collaboration for hiring part-time staff for Dufferin Grove has been declared out of order. Management says they’re only carrying out the direction of Council. In its effect on the park, compliance with the interview protocol results in a kind of lottery, turning up those people who happen to be good at answering one-size-fits-all interview riddles. I’ll send this chapter to Bruce Anderson, the city’s HR director, and see if he has some comments.
At the end of the day, though, all fingers point toward Council. Belinda Cole, the legal researcher for CELOS, recently went to a meeting about the City of Toronto Act, at the Munk Centre’s School for Municipal Finance and Governance. She said that a former City Integrity Commissioner told a story about a councillor who was worried that he would be in conflict of interest if he gave kids in his ward some tickets to a Toronto Marlies’ hockey game. The commissioner told him he was right, he would be breaking the law. The councillor fumed, “whose idea was that?” “Yours,” said the commissioner. “That’s the by-law passed by City Council.”
In the next chapter, I’ll continue the story of unintended bad effects of regulation, unmaking Dufferin Grove.
The dictionary page
In the last nine chapters of this serial I’ve been using page six to list the words of a new vocabulary that has grown up within the City bureaucracy. These words accompany the “functional model” used for the two most recent restructurings of Parks, Forestry and Recreation (PFR). I’ve been describing words whose meanings are altered and other words which are almost never used in ordinary talk. Such words can act as sticks to whack people with. There are so many of these “plastic words” that although I used up the whole of Chapter Seven for the dictionary, I only got to the beginning of the “F” words. Since then I’ve been adding one dictionary page for every chapter. In a few of those chapters I’ve deviated from that formula to explain terms like “deputations” and “standing committees of Council,” like the Parks and Environment Committee, or to offer some terms that clarify the plastic words in the other chapters. That will happen a bit more from now on. This week’s definitions relate to one of the City’s three accountability offices.
Integrity Commissioner: The City got an Integrity Office in 2004. The new office was a response to the city’s “Computer Scandal,” which involved untendered contracts, love affairs, and also – most sensationally -- gifts of all-expense-paid hockey games, and perhaps a bribe, for the hard-working but unpopular city councillor who was budget chief at the time. So the City hired an Integrity Commissioner to monitor the behaviour of city councillors and city board members. They’re supposed to comply with the City’s Code of Conduct, which is described like this on the city’s website: The Code of Conduct deals with a broad range of inappropriate conduct by elected officials and appointees: improper receipt of gifts and benefits; misuse and improper securing of confidential information; inappropriate use of City property, services and other resources, including using City facilities for campaign purposes; acting as a paid agent in the conduct of City business; allowing employment prospects to influence the way in which a Councillor performs her or his role; misbehaviour at Council meetings; mistreatment of staff; improper use of influence; inappropriate relationships with lobbyists; discreditable behaviour towards other Councillors, staff and members of the public; and, more generally, failing to follow Council policies.
Paradoxical counterproductivity: A clunky term coined by CELOS’ teacher Ivan Illich, to describe unintended bad effects when people get ambitious, and try and fix the world on too large of a scale. In trying to avoid any more multimillion-dollar scandals like the computer contract (which was followed by an even more expensive public inquiry into the obvious), City Council passed bylaws and set up oversight which ended up frightening management staff into unmaking Dufferin Grove (and many other public spaces). The effects of bylaws can radiate far beyond their boundaries – so that the recreation manager comes to believe that the Integrity Commissioner, who monitors councillors, will come after staff as well. More on that in Chapter Seventeen.
The Money Story
Trickle-down expenses: When City Council gets worried about accountability, costs go up. At times mistrust can be more expensive than the problem it’s supposed to address. For example: Parks, Forestry and Recreation employs thousands of part-time staff to do most of the front-line work. This past summer, they hired 647 new part-time recreation staff, to replace others who had left. The winter will be similar. If Human Resources requires each of those staff to be hired through an interview panel consisting of at least two full-time “community recreation programmer” staff (who earn over $30 an hour plus benefits), that not only costs a lot but also takes up most of the time these staff have. And that’s only one of a flood of compliance-related activities assigned to the full-time program staff. Small wonder that the traditional activities of recreation staff are so diminished, as I described in Chapter One:
The fact is – as this little history shows – most of the traditional activities in Toronto’s playgrounds were stopped some time ago. Where are the plentiful in-house sports leagues and athletic meets? Toronto’s recreation staff no longer run any house leagues or tournaments. Where are the staff-run festivals and folk dancing competitions? None are left. And the cross-city treasure-hunt with roasted potatoes over a campfire? Long gone. The pick-up football games organized by the play leaders, or the storytelling sessions? No longer part of the city's “approved organizational standards.”
Is city council’s movement toward a constant increase in policies and compliance monitoring one of the reasons why PFR management has eliminated most of the traditional staff-run activities in Toronto’s parks? That’s a question that needs to be asked across the city. Finding the answers should be easier now that Council has passed a new User fee Policy. The policy requires a complete accounting of “Direct costs / expenditures attributed to the delivery of the service; for example salaries (wages and benefits), materials, supplies and purchase of services. Indirect costs/ expenditures that cannot be identified and charged directly to a specific program but are related to the resources dedicated to support it; for example support staff within a Cluster, costs that are administered centrally on behalf of the different divisions and insurance costs.”
Over the next months, CELOS will try to gain that level of detail about the costs of unmaking Dufferin Grove (and some other parks as well).
Fall Story (2011) is published by the Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS), http://www.celos.ca.
Illustrations by Jane LowBeer