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INTERVIEW: Victor Kumar, Rossland's new CAO

Rossland’s new CAO Victor Kumar has been on the job now since December 1st. This week the Telegraph caught up with the city's new manager to learn more about him and his plans, hopes and aspirations for his time in Rossland.
 
Born in the Fijian Islands in the 1950s, Kumar worked his first full time job for three years in labour and immigration with the Fijian national government. He then moved to Canada in 1974 where he att,ended university in Victoria as well as at UBC, gaining degrees in public sector management and Certified General Accountant accreditation along with a Bachelor of Commerce degree. Following his education he spent ten years working in the private sector in Vancouver with the Fraser Valley Milk Producers Association and CAE Morris, a retail aircraft company.
 
His public sector life began in 1981 when he moved to Trail where he worked for the municipal government, variously as an accountant, CFO and assistant city manager. Moving up the valley, he spent nine years as Nelson’s city manager before holding that same position in Prince Rupert for three years and most recently Grand Forks for five years before coming on board as CAO in Rossland.

 
How have the first couple weeks on the new job been?
 
Well, it’s been normal stuff like any other local government, getting into the issues. A lot of the same issues as other communities have. Each municipality has different challenges. The key theme, however, seems to be that of being short of money. It’s not the shortage of money in itself but the perception that taxes are always high. Everyone says residential taxes are high. Rossland does not have the industrial tax base. I’ve had that in Grand Forks and Prince Rupert and in Trail it’s huge. Nelson does not have it but I was successful in extending the boundary and took all of the dams that were there; I was the first one that brought the dams into the city of Nelson. That became a huge tax base for them. They are probably one of the richest municipalities. Prince Rupert, while I was there, was practically broke. They were in debt and spent their taxes that were then not collectable so it caused a lot of changes. Before I left, I acquired them a big cable company and consolidated it into a utility company that runs telephone and cable company and internet from Houston BC to Prince Rupert. That gave them a substantial revenue other than property taxes. We have to look at revenues from other sources. It’s nice to have a legacy of other revenues to be left.
 
What do you see looking forward as your biggest challenge in Rossland?
 
The biggest challenge is getting into a revenue source other than property taxes. We have a fair amount of opportunities available. We have a nice grade from here down to Trail. There are a lot of streams running. We can look at the sewer system that runs down the hill is capable of heat extraction and energy generation. There is opportunity there; we just have to explore it and hopefully create some new revenue sources for the city.
 
Development is an issue here. We are a resort community that brings some pressures. We have a lot of new residents, I call them, and transients as well and visitors from different perspectives in the community. As I travel around the province I find a different sense of values all over the place. I believe Nelson and Rossland are about the same on values. In different ways, yes, but the same values, I think, whereas Prince Rupert and Grand Forks had very different value systems. Up north, it’s a different value system than in the West Kootenays.
 
On the flip side, what aspects of the job in Rossland are you most looking forward to?

I would like to leave on behalf of council some sort of a legacy for the community. Not from me, but from the council. Hopefully we can put Rossland into a better spot than when we started here.  I have this council until 2010, so hopefully then council can say, yes, we advanced the community [in a way that] was not detrimental to the overall value of the community. Either revenue generation-related or climate change-related or development-related, we want to see an advancement or legacy in place. That will be the key measurement of success to any council and city that you can measure. Maybe you create or foster values or put infrastructure in place. Every community I have been into has seen those types of things put in place before I left or the council of the day walked away.
 
How would you describe your management style or philosophy in running a city?
 
I’m much more people-oriented and much more participatory. I want to make sure that democracy works. It’s a process that you have to take into account. This is a process-oriented local government. You have to pay particular attention to how the process works so that everybody has their say. We can’t listen to everybody’s views but at least a reasonable balance of the community. You have extreme views on both sides so you have to look at the big picture and find the balance to make sure the democracy works. You don’t want to stifle it. The key job of city manager is to make sure that council is on track on that basis.
 
One of the big issues in Rossland in recent years that seemed to be a root of some of the discontent in town seemed to be either a reality or a perception of poor communication between the community at large and city hall. How or do you plan on dealing with that during your tenure?
 
Every community has those kinds of things. Here an issue comes forefront and gives a different perception of the council in office and the council that comes in. When you compare the two councils there is usually not much of a difference. Some councils come in with one objective in mind because the others were perceived as  not doing the job, but when they get in the whole thing changes. They realize the realities of life as a councillor. We are governed by a couple of legislations so most of the authorities are outlined. They are not in a position to change much. There are a few documents in terms of documents that the public should always look at when the city calls for a public hearing. For this community, the OCP is the latest that passed in 2008. That is a governing document, once you’ve gone through that document I think it’s very difficult for any council to say they want to go against it without going back to the public and asking to do it again.
The next aspect of the OCP is the zoning bylaw should be ready in the next couple of months and then we’ll run that through the public process. Once you have that you have these set positions on development in the community so it’s very hard to change those without going back to the public so there will always be that problem of, yes, I think that this area was not included, but not the whole community was included in that document. Once the development starts, you can’t say, 'I didn’t want that over there and this over there'. That OCP planning document is in place now and we let that govern our decisions.
 
Do you have any particular tools or plans to increase communication from city hall or dialogue between city hall and the community?
 
The city has a newsletter going out; we will increase the frequency of that and increase communication with yourself (The Telegraph). Not me exactly but I prefer the members of council, they are in a better position to do that. I’m not the type to give statements and these things; I prefer members of council to liaise with the public. They are the ones that get elected and at the end of the day are accountable for their decisions to the public. So I’ll make sure that they are well-informed and that there is communication between ourselves the staff and the members of council. That we are moving in the same direction and not all over the place.
 
One thing I learned this week in contacting city staff for information on a few stories is they mentioned a new policy whereby they can’t speak freely to the media without your consent. Can you clarify that policy?
 
I do have a system of having a central spokesperson for the organization. I think to have discipline in the organization you have to have a contact person. That will be me and you have to have that, or the mayor. The two of us in the senior positions. Any large organization or small,  you have to have some form of communication that comes to a central place and then gets delivered so there is no confusion to what is the position of council and the position of the city. That is being done. It’s not designed to muzzle anybody; it’s simply a procedural matter. It exists in all large companies. I’m no different than anyone else in local government or organization where not every staff member speaks for the group. If you look at it, large municipalities have communication officers that massage the information and send it over to the press. We don’t have that; ours is more open, I would say, than elsewhere. We don’t want to have a communications officer--that just causes more trouble. We want to be up front on what happens. It would be nice to have a cable system so people can watch what is happening in the chambers so we are looking at that. That is something to look forward to in the future as a communications tool that is popular in other communities. We will work with the Telegraph as well and come up with some kind of arrangement to increase communications. If you can help with that we welcome it.
 
Can you explain some of your reasoning behind the officer/delegation bylaws passed on December 14th that seem to give the CAO more power to make decisions without involving council, the people's representatives?
 
I don’t think it gives me any greater decision making powers than I already had in the previous communities I was in. It allows for what I call a delegation bylaw and officers bylaws that are the key bylaws for the CAO. There was a delegation bylaw and officer’s bylaw in place from the past CAO. When you come in you don’t operate on somebody else’s delegation or officers bylaws. I’m new and it was agreed with council before I took the job so it was in the terms and conditions of my employment that the council of the day when I entered the picture would deal with those items first on the agenda.
 
There seemed to be some friction there when you introduced that bylaw at council last week?
 
It was only, I think, as a result of the golf course. I’m not taking any powers of council whatsoever away. The only part that allows me to do anything is because of the external auditor’s requirement that when council passes bylaws, financial bylaws, things like budget and all of those things. If we don’t’ have a delegation bylaw it’s unlikely I can even approve an invoice. Even if we want to buy anything in the community we have to check with council. You can see how that system would come to a halt without this.
 
One of the fears was things like the golf course issue might not come to council and you could just decide it on your own.
 
No, that is not the case.  The information is all included in the section that is delegated. The development section is only one part of the community plan that the community has already approved. If the community is unhappy with that they have to recognize that they approved it. It’s the pages, I think, on pages 31 to 36 of the OCP. That is the plan that is already in place and approved in 2008 so that is the delegated power given to me, to implement that plan. I have to be strictly in line with what was approved in that plan. I’m not in a position to go against that document whatsoever. I’m sure you’ll pick that up over the course of my employment here that there will always be controversies over those sections but there is nothing I can do about that. Those are the rules of the game that before I came here the community had already agreed to.  

That section on development has already been in place. It’s a similar bylaw as in Nelson, Grand Forks and Prince Rupert. Some of them have far more extensive powers, but I didn’t go for that. I said, 'this is the section already approved and I have the power to implement financial bylaws that are simply financial plans, purchasing powers and such'. It’s day to day things. I would not be able to run the municipality without that. That also has restrictions on it. It doesn't mean carte blanche to go out and do everything. There are limits on those powers that are given by a policy of council. I’m not able to go and sign a million dollar cheque; it just won’t happen--or even a hundred thousand. I can, but those things are governed by the purchasing policy we have, so some things have to go to council. For example, the arena roof. That will come back to council. I have the delegation to do certain things with that but in the interest of the public I will bring that back to council so they are aware of what is happening. That’s what I mean by trying to make the democracy work and not stifle it. The stifling part would be now that I have delegation powers I go out and do whatever I want to do and leave the rest of the democracy in action. That would be a cause of discontent and conflict in the organization, so I keep it open. There are no secrets in this organization. Other than personnel issues, which are strictly governed by the Freedom of Information Act. Other than that, everything else is wide open; there is no need to hide anything.
 
Anything else you’d like to add or say to the community?
 
No, I think you covered it very well. I just would like to say that I hope I can be as successful here as I have been in other communities in the past, and I look forward to the challenge.