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Steve Kanellakos resigns as city manager, issues preemptive defence of city staff ahead of LRT inquiry report

Steve Kanellakos has resigned as Ottawa's city manager after over three decades in the municipal public service.
Steve Kanellakos has resigned as Ottawa's city manager after over three decades in the municipal public service. Photo by Errol McGihon /Postmedia

Veteran city manager Steve Kanellakos resigned his post at city hall on Monday.

It’s an abrupt departure that follows decades of work in the municipal bureaucracy, and one that Kanellakos says he’s deemed appropriate ahead of the release of the findings of the provincial inquiry into Ottawa’s LRT system.

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In a letter to all city employees, released to the media, Kanellakos said he informed the mayor Monday that it would be his last day in the role he’s held since 2016. His exit was entirely of his own choosing, Kanellakos wrote.

“I’m sure there will be speculation about the reasons for my departure at this time. This decision is mine and mine alone. No one asked me to leave.”

Kanellakos’s departure comes two days before the first regular meeting of the new city council, as well as the release of the final report by the commission leading the inquiry, initiated by the province, into the first, problem-plagued phase of Ottawa’s LRT system.

I’ve always deeply believed in leadership accountability. As city manager, I am ultimately accountable for the performance of the organization. I have always deeply believed that my role is to have your backs and that it is my duty to accept ultimate responsibility for our performance,” Kanellakos wrote to staff, going on to note the LRT report’s upcoming release.

While he didn’t have advance knowledge of what it would find or recommend, Kanellakos said, “I do believe, based on the line of questioning and approach taken by the Commission, that the report will be critical of the City of Ottawa and City staff.

“Despite this, I know that City staff did their best under very difficult circumstances to ensure that the light rail system would meet all of our expectations.”

Kanellakos returned to Ottawa to take the city manager’s job in 2016, after roughly a year away in the same role at the City of Vaughan. Prior to leaving for the GTA job, Kanellakos held deputy city manager roles between 2004 and 2015.  

In his departure letter, he stated his belief “that this is the time to do the right thing and allow the organization to find a new leader who can deal with implementing the recommendations from the inquiry unfettered from the long complex history of the project or the findings of the commission report.”

Kanellakos was among those who testified before the LRT commission during televised public hearings that stretched from mid-June to early July, as part of its probe into the circumstances that led to the derailments and breakdowns along the Confederation Line. 

As city manager, Kanellakos’s authority extended to making decisions on the project, including negotiating, approving, executing, delivering, amending or extending the agreement. 

In his departure letter, Kanellakos reflected on the numerous crises staff have navigated over his seven years in the top municipal job as well as their “remarkable achievements.” 

“The people who work at the City of Ottawa are the reason I got up every day to come to work. For me it’s always been about serving our people so that they could provide the best possible service to our residents. My respect and admiration for all of you is endless.

“Thank you for the support you have given me over so many years. I’m deeply grateful for that gift. After almost 38 years of service, it’s time for me to be a friend to me.

I’m going for a long walk….”

A graduate of Carleton University, twice over, with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in public administration, Kanellakos got his start as director of the former city of Gloucester’s police service in 1989. He then became director-general of the Ottawa-Carleton Regional Police Service in 1995 and moved into the role of general manager of emergency and protective services at the City of Ottawa in 2000. He’s remained part of the city’s leadership, apart from his Vaughan sojourn, ever since.