A good relationship between a municipal council and their town’s CAO is crucial to smooth, effective and efficient governance. The CAO is the liaison between council and staff, responsible for directing staff to implement council’s direction and overseeing internal personnel issues. If the relationship is rocky, then governance and Council’s interactions with staff – and therefore the entire public’s interests – all suffer.
To fill this role well, a CAO has to be scrupulously objective and neutral, calm and wise – not push any one person’s or side’s agenda, and certainly not promote his or her own, act Solomon-like with both council and staff, and never be a bully.
The CAO has to balance staff needs and goals with council’s and manage competing demands equitably, all balanced on the teeter-totter of taxation. Councillors, however, not the CAO or other staff, should drive the strategic process, and the initiatives, but the CAO has to steer this boat through the competing shoals of wants and needs. A good CAO can do all of this and still remain calm.
There’s always a learning curve for any new council members: they have to learn to work with staff, and they depend heavily on the CAO to make it a smooth process. Councils inherit staff and few ever have the opportunity to set up the relationship their way. There’s also a learning curve for staff to get to know what the new council wants and expects. It can often be prickly if a new council is elected with different goals or agendas from a previous one, forcing staff to make changes in direction.
It can be more difficult for everyone if departments heads or administrative staff like the CAO are replaced mid or late term. There is seldom enough time for both sides to gel fully and build constructive relationships.
Last term, Collingwood council made a deeply ethical decision mid-term when the contract with the former CAO ended: not to impose its choice of a permanent CAO on a new council. Regardless of who might be elected, the decision was made to allow the new council to make its own choice.
It would have been easy last term to hire a new CAO and make the new council work with that choice. But that was seen as ethically inappropriate, at least by most of the former council.