Roughly 30 residents of the Municipality of Meaford attended a community-organized debate held on Thursday, April 5 at the Meaford Golf Club, focused on whether Meaford should fill the now vacant CAO position.
Organizers of the debate recruited two speakers: former councillor Lynda Stephens, who argued in favour of the need for a CAO, and current Deputy Mayor Harley Greenfield, who argued against the need for a stand-alone CAO position on the municipal management team.
In February Meaford CAO Denyse Morrissey tendered her resignation and moved on to a new municipality, and council decided to defer the decision on hiring a new CAO until after the October municipal election. In the interim, council approved a plan that included the Director of Development and Environmental Services, Rob Armstrong, assuming the role of acting CAO, while other members of the senior management team assumed some additional responsibilities as a result of the temporary departmental realignment.
Meaford resident David Long, who spearheaded the debate initiative along with a small team of volunteers, set the tone for the event in his opening remarks.
“This evening there will be no shouting, booing, throwing things, it's supposed to be informative, entertaining, and fun,” Long told the audience.
Arguing in favour of the need for a CAO, Lynda Stephens told the audience that the position is important to the effective operation of any municipality.
“My view is that we need to be focused on a good governance model or a business model which does include a CAO,” Stephens told the audience. “I feel that we need to separate the politics from the administration.”
Deputy Mayor Harley Greenfield, on the other hand, suggested that while Meaford has had a history of employing a CAO over the 18 years since amalgamation, that doesn't necessarily mean that one is required.
“The Municipal Act, section 29, states that a municipality may appoint a CAO, not must. The municipality must appoint a clerk and a treasurer,' Greenfield told the audience.
Greenfield noted that in 1989 there were 170 municipal CAOs across Canada, while today virtually all municipalities in Ontario have a full-time CAO or a member of senior management staff charged with the additional duties of a CAO.
“Eighty percent of CAOs in Ontario are over the age of 50, 40 percent are over 55. Supported by generous salaries and a very good retirement pension plan, very few of them work past 60,” Greenfield told the audience. “CAOs are in demand, they're like real estate in the GTA.”
Greenfield noted the salaries of CAOs in neighbouring municipalities range from $124,000 to $175,000 per year. Meaford's recently departed CAO earned roughly $150,000 per year.
“Just for comparison, Bill Walker, our local MPP, makes $116,550,” Greenfield noted.
While Greenfield argued that there are several options for providing the conduit between council and the administration of the municipality, including combined positions such as a Clerk-CAO or Treasurer-CAO as is done in several smaller communities, Stephens stressed the importance of having a single position at the top of the administrative organizational chart to manage all department heads, and to serve as the staff link to council.
“The (municipal management) team is made up of individuals. They are a team, they need a head or a leader. Who do they turn to for issues within the team? How do they prioritize themselves and their departments? When you add responsibilities to them that they aren't trained for, it sets them up for burnout,” Stephens suggested. “They need to focus on their own departments, their special needs and wants, and we need our employees healthy. My problem is that when you do set them up with too many responsibilities outside of their department, something is going to fall through the cracks.”
The recently departed CAO had pulled double duty as Director of Parks, Recreation and Culture after council opted to not fill that position after the departure of that director last year, and Meaford's Treasurer took on the role of Director of Operations, which includes responsibility for the maintenance of roads, bridges, and other infrastructure after that position was eliminated in 2015.
In addition to hearing from the speakers, those who attended had an opportunity to ask questions and to share their views on the topic. Polling of the audience at the end of the meeting indicated that those in attendance overwhelmingly supported Meaford assigning the CAO responsibilities to an existing member of the management team as opposed to hiring a stand-alone CAO.
The only councillor to attend the debate, Steven Bartley, seemed to agree with the general feeling of the audience.
“My wife and I have run a business for many years, and we were joint CAOs. If you don't have somebody at the top calling the shots, it's not going to work,” Bartley offered. “What we've done here in the municipality, we haven't delayed the hiring of a CAO because we're scared to. What we've put in place is we've got a joint Planner-CAO. We did not hire a Parks and Rec Director, in fact we've gotten three off the Sunshine List this term, we went from six on the Sunshine List to three. We will save $240,000 per year by not hiring a Parks and Rec Director and having the Planner be the CAO.”
Bartley said the current arrangement can be viewed as a six month trial.
“The three people that are in charge feel they can do it without a CAO,” Bartley suggested, adding that the newly appointed Acting CAO is also confident in being able to manage his own department as well as the responsibilities of the CAO. “We think he can do it, he thinks he can do it, and we're going to pocket some money.”
Editor's Note: The author of this article was asked to act as an independent moderator of this debate.