Q&A: Joe Pennachetti, the bureaucrat who kept the city running under Rob Ford
During Rob Ford’s four years as mayor, there were times when city hall seemed like a never-ending, all-out brawl. Even when things were at their worst, though, there was one person who usually managed to stay above the fray: Joe Pennachetti, Toronto’s city manager and top bureaucrat. He was responsible for keeping 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. Pennachetti retired on Friday after nearly seven years on the job (he was appointed under David Miller’s administration, in 2008). Before he went, we spoke to him about how and why he kept calm during all the craziness.
I hear you have an identical twin brother…
Oh, I thought he was identical.
No. I mean, we look more than just fraternal. With fraternal you can often tell quickly. Now, with age and my pudginess, it’s a little easier.
So you couldn’t just slide him into a council meeting and have him take heat in your place…
I can tell a story, and I’m sure mayor Mel [Lastman] wouldn’t mind. Mayor Mel met my brother in a local arena, and of course he thought it was me. It happens a lot. Mayor Mel, he came to me and he said, “I met your brother. I think we should pull one over on council.” I said, “Mr. Mayor, I hear you, but I don’t think my brother would be into it, and I’m just glad you met him,” and blah, blah, blah.
In my research, I was only able to find one prior instance of you sitting down for an interview about yourself. Why don’t you like to talk about yourself in public?
I do not see it as the role of the city manager to be out there with strong opinions, one way or the other. The role of the city manager is to run the day-to-day operations. That’s paramount.
You’re a civil servant, not a politician. But I think some readers may not necessarily grasp the difference between the two. How would you explain your role in relation to council?
I’ll bump into someone on the street and they’ll call me a councillor, because they see me on TV, in the council chamber. Then I explain: the mayor directs the council. He’s the chair of the board of directors. I am the chief administrative officer, taking direction from the mayor and council. It’s as simple as that.
So, you have enormous influence over the mayor and city council. But you don’t have executive authority. Do you ever find it frustrating when politicians ignore your advice?
The most difficult time was the last term of council. I won’t mince words. There are always differences of opinion. I think the bigger issue is when that direction gets too strong. And that was the greatest difficulty with the previous administration, at times.
And when you say “that direction,” you mean direction of staff by city council?
Yes, direction of staff by city council, or, you know, individual councillors. I mean, it happens. That’s part of our business. Generally speaking, it works. But there are hiccups. Those hiccups oftentimes may get into the press, and then you see how things work. The last administration you saw how things work daily, if not hourly.
Do you regret not having taken a more active public role in debunking Rob Ford’s nonsense?
You know, I still remember when he started to say he could save a billion dollars, during the election campaign, and I just winced. And my recollection is, I did transmit some message to their campaign office that said something like, “I don’t believe that would be feasible.” And I think you know that I’m on record finally—maybe late, but I did make that statement back in 2013.
I remember the statement you’re talking about. You cast doubt on Ford’s claim that he’d saved the city a billion dollars, but I remember you doing it in a way that was somewhat couched.
It’s the technical stuff. There’s no denying that there were cost savings, of hundreds of millions of dollars. He rounds up from about $700 million. I can’t argue that. What he doesn’t say is that we’ve been saving $200 or $300 million a year since amalgamation.
So I tried, behind the scenes, to say to him, “Don’t use the term ‘tax savings.’ It’s not right. It’s expenditure savings.” But the average guy doesn’t understand the difference. It doesn’t matter what you say.
So, what was Rob Ford’s reaction to being told not to use the term “tax savings”?
I really don’t want to comment on Rob and Doug, period. Let me think of something that I could say on that.
The bottom line is, Mayor Ford really did not roll up his sleeves and look at the details of programs and services. He had a high-level target. And that’s fair enough: a mayor can have a high-level target to get to the tax rate that he wants. I do respect Doug Ford for at least rolling up his sleeves to understand most of the programs. He understood some of the difficulties to meet that tax target. The problem is that you can’t just make a general statement and try to educate the public by saying, “I cut a billion dollars over my four years.” It was misleading, and I tried to correct it.
So can you now, with retirement looming, unequivocally say that Rob Ford did not save Toronto one billion dollars?
Unequivocally, he did not save tax dollars of a billion dollars. It was $350 million that we saved. I’ll say that.
Very shortly after Rob Ford was elected, in 2011, a handful of senior city staffers left the city, including a couple of your own deputies.
Wasn’t it two? Richard Butts and Sue Corke?
No, no. Richard had nothing to do with the mayor. Sue Corke, yes, left almost immediately. But Richard went to Halifax.
Why you didn’t follow any of those staffers out the door?
I’ll just say this. When you say a handful, there was one deputy city manager. There was no other general manager that was ever pushed out the door. Yes, there were a few that, on their own, decided that they were going to leave, including Sue. But I could count on one hand those that left. And that’s what I’m proud of. I remember speaking to the extended senior management team right after the election and telling them, “We’re professionals. Our job is to provide services. There’s going to be a lot of politics—we know that—in the first year or so. That’s what we live with in our world, and we have to adjust.”
So you were never tempted to take an early retirement, or go get a job in the private sector, or just otherwise sit out the Ford administration?
I had only been on the job as city manager for a year and a half with the previous administration. I wanted to carry on and have a term of council as city manager. I was clear to the mayor in that regard.
At first there were discussions, more from their end, of whether or not I’d be staying. I don’t think they’d disagree that I was effectively on probation for the first budget. That’s the way they put it. And I suppose I passed that probation. But also, I had a number of senior staff come to me and say, “Joe, this is going to be a difficult transition. We would really like you to stay on.” And that was probably the main reason why I stayed.
So are you going to take any credit for being just the right guy for this job during the Ford administration?
I will take credit for leading a team that held its own, in a professional manner. I know that sounds bureaucratic, and it is.
It’s a little bureaucratic, yeah.
I will take credit for ensuring that staff’s integrity and accountability was not mired in politics. To me, that’s the job of the city manager. Was I stretched during those four years? Yes. And especially during the last couple years. And, were there difficult periods behind closed doors, when I was standing up strongly for staff? Yes. That’s my job.
You have a literal, physical long list of accomplishments. You printed it out before I got here and now it’s right in front of me on this desk. Is there a particular one of these that you would most want to be remembered for?
The biggest thing that I’m proud of? It’s all the growth of working with the intergovernmental relations—most especially getting the funding for transit, which I basically have worked on since about 2004. Union Station is the one that I’m most proud of, because you have no idea the complexity of the agreement on that piece: three levels of government, VIA Rail, Heritage Canada, a private partnership for the retail, and Metrolinx.
Do we have hiccups? Yes, we have hiccups. With who, though? Not with the other levels of government. I’ll say one thing I’m frustrated with: contractors throughout the world are working governments and maximizing their revenues. And we just have the biggest headaches dealing with some contractors that I believe don’t want to be partners. And I’m being gentle.
Are you going to have trouble adjusting to civilian life?
Everybody questions me about that, especially my staff.
Well, you brought PowerPoint slides to your own farewell speech.
Haha. I will not do that on May 14, when I have my final farewell. It will be an adjustment, but I do want to keep busy. I’m looking at a few things now that will keep me busy part-time, and I’ll probably serve on some boards.