CAOs: Mene mene, tekel upharsin

Leaders in the ShadowsThe title, as you well know, dear reader, comes from the writing on the wall in Daniel 5, translated as, “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.” Those words came to me as I read David Siegel’s recent book on Canadian municipal CAOs, Leaders in the Shadows.  It’s subtitled, “The Leadership Qualities of Municipal Chief Administrative Officers.” Interesting stuff for any municipal politician engaged in the recruitment of a CAO.*

Siegel suggests CAOs lead from the shadows because, in part, “…a CAO whose name is in the media frequently is probably in some kind of trouble.” I also suggest that such a CAO may also be so I-centric that he or she feels the need to subordinate the politicians and community to be in the forefront of attention; to be in the media simply for the egotistical delight of seeing his or her name in print. Such a CAO is not a good leader.

Siegel looks at general ideas of leadership within the complex and often byzantine context of Canadian municipal governance, and provides five case studies of successful CAOs from around the country. He examines their careers in depth, their personal attributes, and looks at their leadership skills in leading down (to staff), up (council) and out (community and peers).

That three-way balancing act is crucial to Siegel’s analysis. Good CAOs manage to engage all levels and all directions simultaneously. Staff and council, of course, have more direct interaction with the CAO, thus more opportunities to engage (therefore more opportunities to lead down and up).

I would put leading out under the microscope more because I believe it requires much more effort, more passion, more dedication and more professionalism to be involved in the community outside the office. To actively go out of the town hall doors and engage businesses, groups, to be involved in events, to walk the streets and speak to residents. That’s where a truly great leader would shine, in my estimation. Conversely, any CAO who doesn’t do at least minimal and regular external engagement is not, in my eyes, a leader, merely a manager.

A CAO who isolates himself or herself in the office and does not engage the community would, I believe, be more of a liability to the administration than an asset.

Siegel identifies a municipal CAO with good leadership skills as having “…the ability to move the municipality forward by interacting in a mutually influential way with and motivating council, external stakeholders and organizational subordinates.” This extends a more general definition from Joseph Rost’s book, Leadership for the Twenty-First Century. The key words here are interacting and motivating; not bossing, not ordering, not demanding.

He notes that good leaders “…minimize their personal ambition and emphasize ambition for their organization” (p256). His exemplars, he further notes, were not I-centric, but during interviews deflected discussions away from their own accomplishments to those of their subordinates and their organizations. I expect they were comfortable working in mutually-beneficial partnership situations (like we had with our own Collus/Powerstream partner until this term) and with staff as valued members of the organization, rather than attempting to destroy any relationship for ideological or personal reasons.

The five CAOs were chosen as role models in different categories and styles of management: the generalist, the task-oriented leader, the relationship-oriented leader, the partnership-building leader and what he calls the “I think I’m a better employee…” leader. In truth, all of the CAOs chosen show some degree of strength in every category. Conversely, I would expect there are those around who have none of these skills but have risen through the ranks by sheer ability to outlast everyone else. One can never lose sight of the Peter Principle in which “managers rise to the level of their incompetence.”

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The Crow and the Eagles

Fat CrowOnce upon a time, the crafty old crow was huffing and puffing as he flapped his way up into his nest. Although the nest was barely halfway up the tree, the crow could barely fly that high with his stubby, fat little wings and his round belly full of the delicious clams his pet doves brought to him every day.

This nest is too high! he said to himself. I’ll have to get my doves to move it to a lower branch. No bird should have to fly so high to get to its nest. It’s an insult to all birds to have to nest above the ground.

But as he settled into his nest, enjoying the soft, downy feathers the doves plucked from their own chests to line his nest, he happened to glance up. Up, way, up, there in the sky so high they appeared as mere dots, eagles soared. Soared high and free.

I hate eagles, the crow muttered to himself. No bird should be able to fly higher than I can fly. These eagles are an insult to my integrity. I have a responsibility to all birds to bring them low.

So he called for his forest friends, the rat, the weasel and the fox.

To the weasel, he said, “My pet doves admire the eagles. They like they way the eagles soar free up there among the clouds. I need you to frighten them. Make them afraid of the eagles, make them learn to hate these free birds. Tell them how the eagles are disrespecting them by flying so high. Tell them that only birds intent on evil fly up in the clouds.”

And the weasel ran off to find the doves and warn them about the eagles and spread dissension and fear.

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Undermining the Mayor, and Theft

There are several changes to Collingwood’s procedural bylaw proposed. They will come up for voting on Monday night. Most are dry procedural stuff that will likely improve or smooth the normally byzantine process.

But one section in particular troubles me: 4.3: allowing the CAO to call special meetings of council by himself:

Special Meetings of Council
The Mayor and/or CAO may, at any time, summon a Special Meeting of Council on twenty-four (24) hours written notice to the Members. Upon receipt of a written petition, hard copy or digitally, from a majority of the Members, the Clerk shall summon a Special Meeting on twenty-four (24) hours written notice to all Members and the media for the purpose and at the time mentioned in the petition. The only business to be dealt with at a Special Meeting is that which is listed in the notice of the Meeting. Special Meetings may be open or closed as provided in the Municipal Act, 2001.

This strikes me as just a cheap way to undermine the mayor’s authority. As I’ve been told, the mayor has already vetoed staff attempts to call special meetings this term. Now council is being asked to give the CAO permission to do it on his own without the mayor’s approval.

If approved, it just shows how the cabal is working against the interests of the community and our democracy. It opens the door to all sorts of future abuses of power.

WHY should any bureaucrat have that authority over elected officials? No restrictions, no explanations are provided, it’s just giving the CAO more, unbridled power. This is a violation of the whole democratic ideal.

Since when do staff get to tell democratically elected representatives what to do? When Collingwood Council gives them that power.

Its a travesty and an abuse of power to allow this to happen. It is the opposite of every notion of accountability. No one who cares about openness and transparency could possibly vote for this change.

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Debunking the Collus Myths

Debunked!I was recently told a member of town council is publicly making two incorrect statements that seriously need to be debunked:

  1. Collus is 100% owned by the town (not 50%), and
  2. Collingwood only received $8 million for the sale of its share.

Yes, I realize that these are contradictory statements (why would someone pay you for something they never bought?), but a member of the public alleges they were told to him by a council member this week. That sort of foolishness cannot go unchallenged. So let’s correct those mistakes, shall we?

Let’s get into the wayback machine to go back to 2011; the year of a provincial election when all three parties were making promises to reduce the number of electrical distribution agencies (LDCs) in the province. As noted in the EB in January, 2012,

About 15 years ago, there were 320 local electrical distribution companies; today, there are about 80, and the town’s consultant on the process, John Rockx of KPMG, has said on several occasions, the province has concerns about the continued success of many of those operations.

(First, take a moment to read an article in the Canadian Business Journal about Collus, which tells you how well respected in the province our utility was in 2011, and what its stated goals were.)

Start with number one. You can read the application to the OEB for the sale here: written in March 2012 by Scott Stoll of the town’s then legal firm, Aird & Berlis, which oversaw the whole process. Now some history…

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The Crow and the Pond

Fat CrowOne day, the crafty old crow was sitting in his nest while his pack of pet doves brought him breakfast and plucked out their own chest feathers to make sure his nest was soft and warm. He happened to glance down to the forest floor and saw a large pond at which deer and other animals were drinking. The water was clear and inviting.

“That’s a mighty big pond,” the old crow thought to himself. “I’d like to bathe in it. I’d like to drink from its clear waters. But not with so many other animals around. I want it all to myself. And if I can’t have it, no one should have it.”

At the far side, beavers were busy shoring up the dam they had made to create the pond so all the forest animals could drink from it.

“Beavers,” muttered the crow. “I hate beavers. They’re always doing things for other animals. Always making this and that, fixing things, helping others. They’re everyone’s friend. Can’t stand beavers.”

Then he looked at the deer around the pond. “Don’t like those deer, either. They’re too friendly with the beavers. Can’t have that in my forest. Beavers and deer should never be close like that. It’s unnatural. I’ll have to put an end to that pretty damned quick.”

So the crow called his friend, the fox, and said to him, “Foxie, this isn’t right. Those beavers are damaging the forest. They’re making a mess. And they must be doing it for some nefarious reason. Am I right? It’s not right to let them build things like this. I need you to stop them. Dig something up. Do it and I’ll tell you where the doves nest and lay their tasty eggs.”

And with that, the fox ran into the woods and returned with the carcass of a dead squirrel that had been buried for several months. That night, when all the animals were asleep, the fox placed the smelly, dead squirrel on a rock beside the pond. When morning rose and the animals came again to drink, but drew back when they saw the dead squirrel.

“See this poor dead squirrel?” The fox shouted at them. “The beavers killed it. They were hiding its body and using it to poison the water. But I found it and brought it here to warn you. You better leave here now or you’ll get sick. Or worse. Maybe they’ll kill you next!”

The beavers, hearing the fox, tried to protest, and tell the animals they were innocent, but the old crow flew overhead and cawed so loudly he drowned out their protests. The animals only heard the fox, only saw the carcass. Many of them got scared and ran away.

“But where will we go?” asked the deer. “We’ve used this pond all our lives. We are friends with the beavers. We work well together. Surely they won’t harm us!”

The crow flew down to the ground and paraded in front of them. “Nonsense. The beavers are plotting against you. I have heard their whispering. You aren’t safe around them. I know a place where you will be safe from these vicious beavers. And you’ll have all the fresh water you can drink. Just follow me.”

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Why We Deserve a Permanent CAO

interim CAO
Collingwood’s interim CAO

First, a little history. Back in the spring of 2012, Collingwood Council terminated the contract with Kim Wingrove, the CAO, according to the terms in the agreement. In her place, council appointed the CEO of Collus, Ed Houghton, as interim CAO. In addition to his other duties, Houghton took the job without any compensation.

In January, 2013, council began the process of recruiting a new, permanent CAO. Houghton, an effective leader who was widely respected by staff and council, stepped down shortly afterwards. A consultant was found to begin the recruitment process.

In July, 2013, on a recommendation from the town’s then legal firm, council approved hiring John Brown, a retired former CAO, for a limited period of two months. As the media of the day reported,

Brown will only be CAO while the town searches for someone to take over the position permanently, but Mayor Sandra Cooper said it was pertinent the town have someone in the job.

In subsequent discussions, council agreed that it would be unfair to any incoming council, regardless of who was elected, to hire a permanent, full-time CAO so close to the next election. A new council, it was argued, should have the opportunity to choose its own CAO. Out of respect for a future council, the former council decided to keep the interim CAO in place so the new council could choose its own, new, permanent CAO.

But that, it seems, was a foolish gesture, soon hijacked by the new council.

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The non-story of the year: the Elvis contract

Face palmThe “big” news in the Collingwood Connection this week is the release of the contract between the town and Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE). Now we all know that Elvis tribute artists can’t engage in pie-eating contests.*

The shame, the shame.

The community reacted with… a loud snore. Really? This is NEWS? Who the frig cares?

Why not cover something exciting, something really relevant? Like the contract for the paint for fire hydrants? Or the contract for aviation fuel? Why not get into the nitty gritty of the photocopier contracts? All of them are at least as important and worthy of your front page coverage.

And yet the paper went to extraordinary lengths – and expense – to get a copy.

I know, I know: local news isn’t always exciting, but making a big deal about obtaining this is like a bunch of five-year-olds showing everyone their boo-boo. Aww did widdle oo get a hurtie? Let me kiss it and make it better…

The contract revealed…. nothing of importance. Really: absolutely nothing worth reporting. Pie-eating notwithstanding. But it still got into print and online. Gotta fill those pages with something, right?

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When is a tax increase not a tax increase?

Shell gameWhen blockheads don’t get what a levy is. This month, Collingwood Council voted for a tax increase that, through the admin’s sleight of hand, the bobbleheads believed wasn’t a tax increase. It was just the old shell game.

According to a story in the Connection (which also didn’t get it), headlined “No tax hike, but assessment increase will add to Collingwood residents’ tax bills”:

(Council) have also agreed to add a 0.75-per-cent capital levy, which will generate about $210,000 for the capital asset management plan.

A levy IS a tax increase. That’s why it’s called a TAX LEVY. Trying to call it by another name doesn’t hide the fact that it all comes out of the taxpayer’s pocket. It IS a tax hike because that’s where it appears: on your TAX bill. We don’t have a separate “levy” bill. We don’t send levy collectors house to house. It’s all dumped on our municipal property taxes. A levy IS a tax!

And Collingwood was reported to be one of the most-overtaxed municipalities in the province according to two of the CAO’s many consultants’ reports in the past 18 months. Wasn’t council paying attention when they were presented?

But hey, money grows on trees, right? Taxes, schmaxes. It’s only money. Your money. But now it’s their money. And they gave themselves a raise out of it, too.

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But wait, it gets worse…

If you're not outraged, you're not paying attentionBy now you know the worst thing that has happened during this term of council: last night, Dep. Mayor Saunderson made a notice of motion to extend the interim CAO’s contract for another year. Yes, the same interim CAO who was originally hired to fill in only until the town hired a permanent CAO. Last year.

It appears several councillors have been conniving in secret AGAIN to extend the CAO’s contact, just as they did last year. Perhaps it was discussed at the secret meeting at a Thornbury restaurant, last December.

No wonder the recruitment process for a new CAO was delayed. It was supposed to start in January, then inexplicably got delayed until March. The recruitment expenses were even included in last week’s budget. April Fool!

Now we know why: councillors have again been doing their sly backroom deals to extend the current “interim” CAO’s contract for a second time. And the Dep. Mayor didn’t even show the basic, professional courtesy to tell the mayor he intended to make a notice of motion. Process and protocol are for losers, right?

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Time for Closure

OPPThirty-six months ago a small group of disgruntled, angry residents, some with burning ambition to take a seat on council themselves, allegedly complained to the OPP about decisions made by some members of the previous council. Decisions they didn’t like.

They chose to act in secret, through anonymity and stealth, rather than through open, democratic and public processes.

Using biased media, gossipers with their own agendas, sycophant bloggers, protests, ambitious candidates mouthing righteous platitudes, and virulent social media campaigning, they alleged corruption by local public officials.

The OPP must have been mortified at having to investigate a clearly politically-motivated, baseless complaint.

But the law is the law, and the OPP is required to investigate any complaint. The police talked to people. They examined bank accounts, businesses. They interviewed town staff and collected records. In 36 months, nothing has been uncovered to incriminate anyone. Nothing.

In the last 36 months, the police never once confirmed publicly that corruption was the subject of any investigation here. In fact, the police have never confirmed who or what was under investigation, although they did admit they were investigating something. Any other claims about individuals or items under investigation are simply lies.

That something might have been the complainants themselves: under investigation for malicious intentions to do criminal mischief. For costing the taxpayer hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of dollars to pursue their personal agendas. Taxpayers paid dearly for their schadenfreude.

By now you, too, understand this was just dirty politics. By now you know there was never anything behind the allegations aside from maliciousness, spite and envy. They tarnished the good reputation of this town without the smallest twinge of guilt.

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Sloppy Reporting and Secret Agendas

Bad journalismOne really doesn’t actually expect sterling journalism, good, investigative reporting or excellent editing from a community newspaper, but we do expect factual accuracy. And we expect reporters and editors to do at least the basics of their jobs.

Some parallel stories in the local papers show just how inaccurate – and sloppy – local reporting and editing can be. And how this is letting council get away with its secret agendas unreported.

The first story, in the Connection, is headlined, Collingwood calling on Collus Powerstream to divulge salaries of executives, employees. It opens:

Salaries paid to executives and employees of Collus Powerstream may soon be divulged, after Collingwood council passed a motion, Wednesday, asking for the information.

Well, it ain’t necessarily so – Collus is a private corporation and it may require costly legal action to divulge more than just salary ranges. But, as you’ll read below, they won’t be “divulged” to the public, just to council. And you’re okay spending tax dollars on an essentially pointless quest that will (allegedly) be kept secret?

But why should employees earning under $100K be forced to divulge their salaries? The province’s ‘sunshine’ law doesn’t require it (only municipal salary ranges below that are ever released). Why do some people think they are above provincial law?

Collingwood Council passed a shareholders’ directive on Wednesday, requesting a host of information from Collus Powerstream as part of the development of a new shared services agreement.

Okay, first it’s a shareholder’s directive, singular, since the town has only one share and it belongs to the community as a whole, not to multiple shareholders. It’s only plural when both shareholders pass it.

Why didn’t the reporter ask the simple question: what have salaries to do with shared services? In fact, they are irrelevant to the shared service agreement. It’s supposed to be about services, after all. But don’t let facts get in the way.

Why didn’t the reporter ask why none of this was ever raised in public before, or what public interest was being protected by all this secrecy? Why didn’t the reporter ask if it’s proper procedure to demand such information outside a formal shareholders’ meeting (yes, plural because there are two)? Or ask whether it’s wise to engage in a pissing match with your partner through the media?

(Does such a ‘directive’ requires both parties to agree, if so, the reporter might have asked, what happens if the other refuses?)

Why didn’t an editor send the reporter back out to finish the job? Asking why is a key part of any story. There are five Ws that must be answered to complete every good story: who, what, where, when and why. Just because council said so, or the CAO demanded it, isn’t the answer to why. Good reporters dig deeper. Good editors make sure they do.

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Aesop is Still Relevant

A MONKEY perched upon a lofty tree saw some Fishermen casting their nets into a river, and narrowly watched their proceedings. The Fishermen after a while gave up fishing, and on going home to dinner left their nets upon the bank. The Monkey, who is the most imitative of animals, descended from the treetop and endeavored to do as they had done. Having handled the net, he threw it into the river, but became tangled in the meshes and drowned. With his last breath he said to himself, “I am rightly served; for what business had I who had never handled a net to try and catch fish?’
This fable shows that by meddling in affairs one doesn’t understand, not only does one gain nothing, but one also does oneself harm.

Aesop's FablesNo, I’m not writing fables for council now, although you’d think it was tailor made for the current group at the table. Most of them, anyway. It comes from a website dedicated to fables (www.aesopfables.com), but the moral at the end comes from a recently-acquired Aesop: The Complete Fables, translated by Olivia and Robert Temple (Penguin Books, 1998). In the book, it’s fable number 304.*

The site offers many more, but I don’t know how many are actually Aesop’s originally, or later additions. Collaters and editors, especially during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, were apparently somewhat liberal when building their collections and included much extraneous material. Which isn’t necessarily bad, because it also preserved material which might have otherwise been lost.**

The introduction to that book taught me that most of what I thought I knew about Aesop and his famous fables was wrong. And that many of the stories what I had thought were his weren’t – they were plagiarized from other authors or other traditions. And even those that were Aesop’s had often been rewritten and bowdlerized for Victorian sensibilities. Yet one can recognize the iconic fables within the originals.

What surprised me most is that the originals are bawdier, and often more violent (there’s a lot of death) and sometimes misogynistic. Despite what happened to them in later years, they weren’t meant for children.

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