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Retiring city manager hopeful for London's future

by Sean Meyer, Municipal World
in Leadership
November, 2023

Lynne Livingstone has some 34 years of experience in public service, including the past 16 at the City of London. But her professional career reached its pinnacle three years ago when she was named London’s new city manager.

Unfortunately, she was on the job for all of two weeks before the world as everyone knew it came to a screeching halt due to COVID-19. The pandemic changed everything around how Livingstone had planned to approach her new position. But if nothing else, she also learned a great deal after almost immediately shifting her priorities.

“The biggest lesson, right now in particular, is you can’t predict anything. There’s strategic direction that you’re trying to move in,” Livingstone said. “But also, when you’re in these roles – and I’d say particularly the last few years – we didn’t anticipate the health and homelessness crisis to the degree that we’re in at all. I don’t think anyone did.

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“And so it’s OK, you’re going to get those things. The question then is how do you respond?”

Support for Local Government

This summer, Livingstone announced she would be retiring at the end of the year. That decision was not made in the spur of the moment. In fact, Livingstone said she had intended to leave sooner. But due to the important work the city is doing around health and homelessness, she decided to continue “to a certain place where it had a footing.”

By the end of the year, Livingstone said, she believes the city will have reached that point. And so, with three-plus decades of public service behind her – including the first half of her career spent at progressively more senior roles with the Province of Ontario – she said 2023 was the right time to say goodbye.

While she has several months still ahead of her, Livingstone remains a passionate supporter of local government. She worked the first half of her career at the province. The decision to move to London, she said, was a fortunate choice for her career. But over the years, things have changed. Perhaps the biggest difference is the complexity of issues that local governments are facing every day.

Mental health, opioid addictions, the homelessness crisis, pandemic recovery, and many more are creating challenges Livingstone said were not imagined in the past.

“There have always been issues, but not like what we’re seeing today. And even way before I was part of any municipality, municipalities were about roads, the hard services, recreation, those kinds of things,” Livingstone said. “But as we’ve marched along in the 2000s, we’ve really moved into much more complicated issues. When I think back for the last three to five years, the pace at which things are changing and the issues are coming forward is also different.”

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Social Media Challenges

Something that has changed significantly in that three- to five-year timeframe is the proliferation of anti-government social media commentary. The explosion in online trolling of politicians and political staffers alike has pushed some to leave the municipal sector – or just not consider it a career path at all.

As London’s top city official, and a woman, Livingstone has been the target of more than her share of negative commentary. But Livingstone does not even look at it. Livingstone said that kind of negative social media commentary is not good for her mental health. It also provides “little to no value” in how she does her job.

Livingstone said the city uses social media on a constant basis to keep the public informed. But as a forum for people who know nothing about her or the work that she does, she simply has no time to worry about any of it.

“I see the mainstream media, I understand it, and we get lots of feedback,” Livingstone said. “I’m not saying I don’t want to hear that. I do. But not when it’s very personal.

“You don’t get to be me in 34 years (of public service) and not have dealt with misogynist comments and actions. You don’t get here without that. But I can make a choice about what I subject myself to. I’ve got other things to put my time and emotional energy into.”

Value of Public Service

As difficult as public service can be, Livingstone remains a champion of putting one’s energy into shaping a better tomorrow.

Given that her father was a high school teacher and her mother worked in the not-for-profit sector, giving back is something that comes naturally to Livingstone. It is the world she grew up in and one she remains draw toward.

Livingstone said she has learned that public service “is not always appreciated,” but that through it, and by working with others, great things are possible.

It is that possibility that gives Livingstone hope that the city can turn the page on problems such as homelessness, opioid addiction, and pandemic recovery. The hope, she said, is that when people come together to address an issue, positive change is possible.

Livingstone said London has seen first-hand these kinds of success stories. Whether it was around children and youth, an age friendly community, or strengthening neighbourhoods. This then brings her to the challenge of health and homelessness as has been reflected in London’s Whole of Community Response.

“Look where we’ve already come from,” Livingstone said. “A sector that would barely speak with each other, let alone the city. We’re now working together to deliver on an agreed upon strategy. And we have hope because it is based on the best that we know.

“What I’ve seen over and over again is when we collaborate, when we work together, that is where we can make a difference and have positive change. Those are the things that give me hope.”

Ready for a New Future

While she is hopeful for the future of her city, Livingstone does allow herself to look ahead at what comes next for herself. She has not made any big plans yet, but Livingstone said – for her – retirement is about “just a little time and space.”

For one, she wants to be able to spend more time with her kids. For many years, that time was more about only being available at specific times, which is problematic for someone whose job has her perpetually preoccupied.

Livingstone said he wants to be “more present” with not only her children, but her husband as well. And speaking of her husband, she also said there are some travel plans that need to be figured out sometime soon. But just because she is heading into retirement, people should not assume she will not be around.

“Work is really important, but there’s also life and family and friends,” Livingstone said. “And so that’ll be some of the initial focus. And then we’ll see.

“I am retiring. But that doesn’t mean there might be some interesting things that I’d be willing to help with or want to get engaged in. But initially, it’s about a little bit of a break.”  MW

Municipal World Executive and Essentials Plus Members: You might also be interested in Sean’s other article: Local government champions look ahead to new experiences.

Sean Meyer is Digital Content Editor for Municipal World.

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