Thunder Bay’s city manager says a Maclean’s magazine report on the best-run cities in Canada has some merit, but the information should be taken with a grain of salt.

Tim Commisso said Friday that while the survey, which ranked Thunder Bay 23rd best-run city of 31 Canadian municipalities, might gain credibility if it continues on an annual basis, he would like to sit down with its creators to ensure the data collected compares apples to apples. The ranking sandwiches the city between St. John’s, Nfld. and Halifax. Commisso, who had not analyzed the entire report when he met with Dougall Media reporters Friday afternoon, said the first alarm bell went off when he noticed some of the country’s largest centres were missing. “Mississauga, Brampton and Kitchener, they’re excluded from the survey,” he said. “As a survey of best-run municipalities, it excludes some fairly significant and well-known communities.”

The survey, conducted by Halifax-based Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, ranked the cities in seven categories, each of which was ranked on a number of sub-categories: governance and finance, taxation, safety and protection, transportation, environmental health, economic development and recreation and culture. The survey’s creators then gave each city an efficiency and effectiveness grade in each category. The combined rankings gave each city an overall grade.

“We do have concerns,” Commisso said about the way the survey was conducted. At no point in time did data collectors, who gathered and averaged statistics collected between 2005 to 2007, contact the city and ask for direct input. Results might have been different if that input had been sought this time around, Commisso said, pointing to civil servant staffing numbers, ranked as part of the governance and finance category.

According to Maclean’s, Thunder Bay has the most civil servants per capita in the country. Not so fast, Commisso said, who guessed the numbers were taken from the city’s annual financial information return submitted to the province. “It really just extracted the totals off our FIR, without really looking at how the numbers break down. In the case of Thunder Bay, we’re a city that’s multi-faceted. We provide services across all different areas, including water, waste-water, district social services, emergency medical services and certainly police and fire are major areas for us.

“In the case of other municipalities, and I’ve had the opportunity to look at five other Ontario municipalities, the way they show those staffing levels is really a mixed bag.” Commisso points to Guelph, which he said doesn’t count its police or library employees as civil servants and doesn’t provide EMS services or homes for the aged, all contrary to practices in Thunder Bay. “Really, when you look at that you’re talking a difference of hundreds of positions, trying to compare them. I think the reality of it is that Thunder Bay reports all of its staffing positions on its FIR as municipalities. That’s accurate, that’s consistent. But when you try to compare that with other cities … it’s not comparable,” Commisso said.

Commisso said city officials are committed to being a well-run community, but because Thunder Bay is an isolated municipality and essentially the hub of Northwestern Ontario, it has more expectations forced upon it and it affects the way the city does its business. “To compare Thunder Bay with urban centres that are part of larger urban centres is not really fair,” he said.

Maclean’s editors, in introducing the survey, say the overall results are not as important as the debate they hope to spark. “We aim not merely to start some good barroom arguments, but to help voters hold their representatives to better account and indeed to help city governments themselves. For without a yardstick to measure their performance, either against other cities or against their own past record, how can they hope to know whether they are succeeding?”

Despite his misgivings, Commisso said city officials would fully analyze the report to see just how accurate it might be and may or may not come to council with a report at a future date.