Jim Puffalt reflects on four years in North Battleford

Everybody has a Story

It’s tough to leave a community that has become home for Jim Puffalt and his family.

But that is exactly what Puffalt will be doing next month as he moves on to become the city manager in Moose Jaw.

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The new job came about unexpectedly. He started receiving phone calls from headhunters about the position starting in January.

“If an opportunity presents itself, you’re going to talk to people who are calling and looking for you,” Puffalt said. “It’s a great opportunity in my line of business.”

It is the latest in a long series of career steps for Puffalt as a municipal administrator.

It was a career that Puffalt fell into. When he graduated his two-year diploma program – in, of all places, Moose Jaw – there weren’t a lot of opportunities in Saskatchewan at the time.

“You never really thought of municipal business as being a career choice.”

But Puffalt soon learned about positions open in municipal administration in towns and rural municipalities. He applied for a town administrator position in Elrose and got the job. There was little time for a transitional period.

“I had like two hours with the town administrator in Elrose, and then he was gone,” said Puffalt. “And then I was in charge, and there was nobody to talk to except council.”

Puffalt had to learn on the job. He credits the mayor and council for mentoring him during his time there. He spoke of Elrose as being a place where he learned first-hand about customer service, something that has carried him “all the way through.”

“Elrose was like a one-person office. I did everything. I did customer service, I typed. In the olden days I typed on a typewriter.”

He took the minutes, did the taxes and the accounting, and all the other tasks in dealing directly with the public.  

His career has seen him gain more educational qualifications – he got the Superior-A certificate in municipal administration, did a four-year course through the University of Manitoba and is now doing an MBA through University of Canada West – and has seen him move on to other communities.

After Elrose, Puffalt ended up working in Wilkie, not far away from North Battleford, and actually interviewed for a North Battleford position at one point around that time.

“I remember coming up here going ‘yeah, it would be kind of cool to work in North Battleford,’” Puffalt recalled.

He moved to Dauphin and Estevan before finally landing in North Battleford to replace Jim Toye as city manager in early 2014.

It is the nature of his business, Puffalt says, to move around. Once you get the job as a municipal administrator, there is nowhere else to go in your own community. The next step is usually to a bigger municipality with bigger budgets and responsibilities.

“If you have that intent and have that talent, you are always looking for opportunities to expand your career and go into bigger places,” Puffalt said.

The role of a city manager is an important one at City Hall. It is the top-ranking official in the city administration.

While is it is the mayor and council who are elected to lead the city and to vote on resolutions and bylaws, it is the city manager who actually runs the city. 

Puffalt agrees that a good analogy is to a store manager’s role, where the manager runs the store, but it’s the store owner who the manager must report to. He suggests the job is also similar to a deputy minister in the civil service, who must answer to the elected officials. 

“I really have two roles,” Puffalt explains. “The first role is I run the day-to-day for council.”

It is the city manager who is responsible for providing the services the public expects from a municipal government such as water, sewer, trash collection, policing, roads and sidewalks.

But the other part of the job is being the chief adviser to council on decisions, providing them with information so they can make a decision.

“Council will accept or not accept our recommendation. Council is the boss,” says Puffalt.

In the end, what council decides is what is done, and council is accountable to the public. Ultimately, Puffalt works for the citizens of the city.  

When he took on his role in North Battleford, the early lessons Puffalt learned about customer service stuck with him.

“We should try and find ways to help people, not hinder or be bureaucratic and get in the way of things,” Puffalt said.

One initiative Puffalt carried out at City Hall soon after arriving was the customer service review. That led to the wholesale restructuring of entire city departments.

The idea was not only for staff to be able to provide better customer service externally to the public, but also internally as well to one another.

“Internally, we have to treat each other with the same type of customer service level,” said Puffalt.

Puffalt arrived during a time when the city of North Battleford was reeling from criminal activity. Public meetings had been held the previous fall, and there was a desire for much more to be done to address the issue.    

Developing a community safety strategy became an immediate major priority for Puffalt, as he learned in his first meetings with council on arrival.

He remembers the provincial minister was due to show up in three weeks and the city needed to have something to present to them on community safety.

“I was going, whoa!” said Puffalt, “because, that’s a huge subject matter and it’s not something you come up with overnight.”

It took a “ton of research” to come up with a response, he said.

The results of their efforts included the hire of Herb Sutton as community safety coordinator, the Eyes that Care initiative, the development of two-tiered policing with enhanced-duties Community Safety Officers, and other efforts to get at the root causes of crime in the city.

Puffalt cited the need for the city to be proactive in dealing with the issue, and to take a co-ordinated approach with resources to back it up.   

“The people that live here are a municipal responsibility, and nobody else was seeming to do something, so we had to step up and do something,” said Puffalt.

Puffalt doesn’t expect the city’s community safety efforts to be dismantled after he leaves.

“When you look at the issues we are facing on community safety, I don’t know how you can’t do what we’re doing.”

Puffalt also worked intensively on downtown revitalization efforts, and the overall efforts to improve the look of the city through the use of CPTED principles – Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design.

Puffalt has spoken often about “broken window syndrome” – the idea that if problems aren’t addressed right away, the look of the community will deteriorate even more.

“It’s important that we don’t let broken window syndrome take a hold on things.”

The downtown revitalization efforts began before his arrival, but during his time at City Hall efforts got under way to implement the Downtown Master Plan adopted in 2017. Work on 101st Street took place last year to address the sidewalks and street amenities, as well as undergrounds, and more is happening in 2018 and future years. 

“We had to show and lead by example, that we were serious about our downtown, that we wanted it to revive and be a vibrant place again. I think we are well on our way towards that.”

Other initiatives during Puffalt’s time as city manager included the Underground Pipes and Asphalt Replacement program, UPAR, introduced to address the infrastructure deficit facing the city.

“We needed to ramp up the program to try and get ahead of the game,” Puffalt said.

Another initiative under Puffalt has been the regional opportunities plan, with efforts towards developing partnerships with surrounding municipalites.

Stemming from that effort has been the partnership between the city and the Battlefords Agency Tribal Chiefs with the Community Economic Development Initiative.

As part of that effort, earlier this month saw the launch of the Joint Indigenous Employment Strategy which saw BATC send eight work placements to City Hall to gain work experience and hopefully lead to the next generation of city employees.  

“It’s something that we should do, because it’s the right thing to do, but there are also practical applications with it as well,” said Puffalt.

At times during his tenure, a few curveballs have been thrown Puffalt’s way. One was the Husky oil spill into the North Saskatchewan River in 2016, directly impacting North Battleford’s water supply.

While responding to that incident was a struggle, Puffalt credits Husky with accepting responsibility for the spill and working with the community to address the issue.

The other curveball was the 2017 provincial budget and the cuts to municipal revenue, which forced the city to re-do its own budget. Having to deal with that budget shortfall meant the city was in almost constant budget mode during 2017, Puffalt recalls.  

He credits the efforts of city staff for getting through those tough times.

“You’ve got enough to do day-to-day and then add something major like that, it’s really hard. But again, that’s what we’re here for. That’s why a city has good qualified staff.”  

As Puffalt leaves, the major item for the next city manager to deal with will be the Civic Centre replacement.

Even on that issue, much progress has been made already. A meeting with user groups is planned for later this month, and a meeting with architects is planned for a preliminary study.

“We’ll have preliminary stuff we’ll be able to show the community,” said Puffalt.

From there, the city can move forward figuring out funding sources and fundraising, and a location.

Just because a new city manager will come into North Battleford does not mean it will be the end of initiatives that have come in during Puffalt’s time in the city manager’s office.

A strategic plan is in place; also, there is in place “a very committed and involved council that really believes in a lot of the work that we’re doing, and they’re the ones that are going to make decisions.”

Now, Puffalt moves closer to an area of the province where he was raised. He grew up in Broadview and has family in Moose Jaw as well.

It’s tough for Puffalt and his family to leave North Battleford, but there will still be a Puffalt family presence in the area, as his son Nathan continues to run his marketing business from the city.

He expects to continue to have a presence going back-and-forth from his new location.        

“I really enjoyed it, honestly, here,” said Puffalt. “It’s just been a tremendous time. Council’s been great to work with, the staff’s been great to work with, the community’s been great. And it’s tough to leave, because there are the things you’ll miss, the people, more than anything else.” 

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