Councils and Their CAO


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.

What was decided, instead, was to hire an interim CAO, with a short-term contract. This would fill an administrative need, yet still allow the new council a year to get accustomed to its roles and responsibilities while searching for a new CAO. This new, permanent CAO would then have at least three years to work with the new council and both would have sufficient time to learn to work with one another.

That’s why I was distressed to read this new council has decided to extend the interim CAO’s term, and give themselves and staff a year less time to search for and work with a new CAO – and a year less time for any new CAO to learn how to work with council. A year less time to build a constructive, strong relationship.

It struck me as a lazy way out (the EB’s uninformed editorial notwithstanding*). It suggests this council is not confident at the table and requires another year to prepare itself.

Regardless of who is in any interim role, a full-time, permanent CAO would be expected to have a stronger vested interest in the long-term greater good of the community, something one would not expect of an interim person. No matter how good an interim person might be, that person is merely a bandage over something that needs to be properly dealt with.

Re-applying the bandage is not a solution. It’s an excuse.

I  have also read emails that lead me to believe some members of council were engaged in private discussions about extending his contract with the interim CAO long before the matter came to the table. I suspect, because the emails refer to “we,” that some of them discussed this among themselves in secret – and by email – not in the open, in a transparent public process. But we’ve already learned not to expect openness and accountability from this council, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Neither ethics nor long-term thinking are their strong suit.

The result is a muddled, hurried, and poorly considered decision driven by back-room conversations and personal agendas. How open and accountable is that?


* The EB’s cloying editorial on Feb. 25, praising council for extending the CAO’s contract, was written by someone who was not present last term, and is not informed about why that council chose its direction. Quoting from a former councillor known to be ideologically hostile to pretty much everything seven other members did or voted on last term regardless of the issue clearly shows poor editorial judgment, and strikes me as egregiously biased. The mayor speaks for council, not an ex-councillor.

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Ian Chadwick
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