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Retiring Yellowknife city manager eager for new opportunities

by Sean Meyer, Municipal World
in Governance, Leadership
January, 2024

Sheila Bassi-Kellett has been involved in local government – in one capacity or another – for the past 25 years. But while she has loved every minute of it, 2023 was the year that made it clear she was ready to try something new.

Bassi-Kellett has been Yellowknife’s city manager for nearly seven years. She informed city staff late last year that she would be walking away from the role by the end of March 2024.

“I always said when I came into this job that I would do it until it wasn’t fun. I’ve loved the work. But honestly, 2023 was the icing on the cake with a lot of the really big issues coming at us,” Bassi-Kellett said. “I’ve just gotten to the point where I’m done with it. There are other things I want to do that I haven’t had the chance.”

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Sheila Bassi-Kellett and her dog Chester. Photo: Sheila Bassi-Kellett

Bassi-Kellett has lived in the Northwest Territories since the 1980s. She previously served as the deputy minister of human resources in the territorial government and senior administrator in the Hamlet of Tulita before taking over in Yellowknife in March 2017.

Since taking on the role, Bassi-Kellett has faced all the typical obstacles facing senior leadership in a northern city of more than 20,000 people. But when looking at 2023, she isn’t exaggerating about how tough the challenges were.

Her plate included the ongoing recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, a five-week strike by unionized city workers, and the unprecedented three-week evacuation of Yellowknife due to wildfires.

But it was a rare vacation back in October that helped open her eyes to the need for change. Bassi-Kellett was on vacation with her husband and that gave her the opportunity to do some thinking. The need for this bit of introspection was highlighted by her husband remarking, “Hey, nice to see you. Haven’t seen you much this year.”

At that point, things came into focus.

“It’s that scope of everything from the very small and immediate things that people feel impact their quality of life. Right up to what are we going to say about the ceasefire in Gaza. The thing about this is you really live this job,” Bassi-Kellett said. “It’s at the grocery store. It’s on dog walks. It’s at social events with friends. You live this job. And I think every city manager would attest to that across the country. Across the world. It was just the right time.”

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With her quarter century of experience, Bassi-Kellett has key insights into local government today.

Bassi-Kellett is quick to proclaim her love for both the autonomy and the differences that the city has from the territorial or federal governments. The immediacy of the impact on people’s lives being what she appreciates most.

And while that’s always been the case, she is quick to acknowledge municipalities are facing major challenges. Her hope is that elected leaders and public servants can wrap their collective minds around these problems and make “some significant progress” on dealing with them.

Bassi-Kellett points to issues such as the impacts of climate change on municipal infrastructure, which “cannot be understated,” and the post-COVID demands that are placed on municipal supply chains. Another concern is how the labor market is impacting not just municipalities, but their critical partners as well.

“Across the board, the expense and the cost and the integrity of municipal infrastructure. And of course then the impact on municipal financing, it cannot be overstated that this is a massive issue for us to be dealing with,” Bassi-Kellett said. “We love things like the gas tax. I think it’s the Community Capacity Building Fund now. Love that. We’d love to see that doubled over the next little while. We’ve seen studies that have been done pre-COVID that speak to the advantages of investing in the municipal level, that there is an economic value to doing so.”

Challenging Political Climate

Bassi-Kellett has seen firsthand how much the role of local government has changed in the past quarter century.

Perhaps nothing speaks to the biggest change like a news article Bassi-Kellett read from Nelson, New Zealand. The story was about how that municipality put out a message out saying it was “super tired” of people slamming council and staff for the decisions that were being made. It’s a hard job, Bass-Kellett said, to run a municipality and provide the core services that people rely on.

Much of the reason that municipalities exist, she added, is because there hasn’t been a private business case for providing those services. Swimming pools are not money makers. Providing water and sewer services are not money makers. But social media has provided free license for people to say things in the comfort of their own home that they would not say if they were meeting people in real life.

“That’s too bad. And there seems to be this general malaise of people being angry and frustrated with the state of the world at many levels, and that manifests itself in some unpleasant things on social media,” Bassi-Kellett said. “Some of those things become personal and that’s too bad. Hopefully, we all wake up from this and realize that there is room in civil society for discussions on things and to have those questions. But you don’t have to make it personal. You don’t have to make it into an attack.”

Wicked Problems, Hopeful Solutions

Another issue that has grown over her career are the so-called wicked problems. These issues include everything from homelessness and climate change to mental health and opioid addiction.

Bassi-Kellett said that if these issues were easy to solve, municipalities would just have to focus their staff on addressing them. But they are not easily fixable. And the issues that percolate up to the CAO and city manager level are going to be more of the wicked problems. And she is quick to add, the complexity is not getting easier.

But despite these seemingly unfixable problems, Bassi-Kellett is hopeful solutions can be found. After all, local governments can’t be running around saying, as she puts it, “Oh Chicken Little, the sky is falling. Everything is Terrible. Everything is awful. Run for your lives.”

Even so, Yellowknife’s wildfire experiences in 2023, as terrible as they were, showed the path to finding solutions. During the wildfires, Bassi-Kellett said, private sector contractors came together. These are people that are often competing against each other for government contracts. They agreed to a standard and modest rate to work collaboratively in protecting the city.

“We saw the most amazing collaboration happen during our wildfire response this year. I can’t even say how amazing it was that the community came together,” she said. “When I see things like that happen, it gives me hope and faith that we can collaborate and together we can do anything. We saw that this [past] summer. We have to stop bickering with each other. We can’t work in silos. We have to do this together.”

What Comes Next

Bassi-Kellett will be leaving the city come March. But that said, she bristles at the word retirement. Actually, she doubts retirement is something she could even handle – “I think I’d go bonkers.”

There are many things she wants to do with her life, but hasn’t had a chance. She did spend four years as a consultant, which she may look at “doing a little bit more” in the future. Knowing herself as well as she does, Bassi-Kellett said she just can’t stay away from municipal governance.

The local level is “so compelling, so complicated, so many cool things to deal with,” she said. Even between now and her last day, she continues to love the fact she rarely knows what issue is on the other end of the phone when it rings.

So, if there’s any way she can contribute to supporting others who are doing that work to finding solutions, then she will be happy to do that.

But there will also be a little more time for herself – and her husband.

“It’ll be a little bit more time spent making my feeble artwork that I do. Spending a little bit more time traveling. A little more time on my sailboat. Walking my dogs. Just doing those things that I’ve often had to say to my husband, ‘Ooh, count me out tonight,’” she said. “If there’s anything I can contribute, I look forward to doing it. I’ve had some ideas and things that I want to do that are for the community, but then there’s some things for me as well. So, I’m looking forward to it.”  MW

✯ Municipal World Executive and Essentials Plus Members: You might also be interested in Sean’s other article: Retiring city manager hopeful for London’s future.

Sean Meyer is Digital Content Editor for Municipal World.

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