Thursday, June 13, 2024

As Council Grapples With CAO Question, My Opinion Hasn’t Changed Much

Stephen Vance, Editor

Now that Meaford’s council has settled in after October’s municipal election and they have reached a new milestone – the approval of their first budget – council is about to tackle an issue that they have been putting off until now: whether or not to fill the vacant Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) position on the municipal staff roster.

Long-time readers of this paper will know that I have written about the need for – or rather, the lack of a need for – a CAO a number of times over the years, and while my position on the issue has evolved a little over the years, I am still very much of the opinion that this municipality doesn’t need a dedicated full-time CAO position. Rather, I think that adding the CAO responsibilities to an existing director makes much more sense for this municipality.

Over the ten years that I have covered Meaford’s council, there have been periods when Meaford has had a full-time CAO, times when we’ve had interim or acting CAOs, and other times when we have had none at all. From my perspective, as someone who is immersed in municipal and council issues, and who has a front row seat (well, back row really, but you know what I mean) during council meetings, the best that this municipality has run in those ten years, hands down, has been the last 12 months when we’ve had an Acting CAO/Director of Development & Environmental Services. And if Mr. Armstrong, who currently holds that position, is willing to drop the ‘acting’ and have CAO officially added to his title, I think that is a good solution for Meaford.

Our local politicians often talk about what is ‘right-sized’ for Meaford, and in all the years I have argued against the CAO position, that has been my point; I have never been convinced that a stand-alone CAO position is ‘right sized’ for a small rural municipality.

As I wrote last year:

Keep in mind that my thoughts on the CAO position have nothing to do with people, nothing to do with individuals, but rather it is about the position itself and whether smaller municipalities like Meaford even require a CAO. There’s no requirement by the province for municipalities to employ a CAO. The only required positions in the Municipal Act are a Clerk and a Treasurer, and we’ve currently got those. Certainly in larger municipalities with staff complements in the hundreds, or thousands, there is value in having a highly paid top dog to keep department heads on their game, but in smaller communities with fewer than 100 employees I don’t see the value.

I still feel very much the same, though I have been convinced that those on council who suggest that there does need to be a director at the top of the organizational chart that is accountable to council, and also accountable for municipal staff are correct. But I am even more convinced after the fine job that Armstrong has done over the past year that a dual position is right-sized for Meaford.

While my position on the issue has little to do with money, it is certainly a factor. I recall the horror expressed by some many years ago after Meaford hired a CAO and residents learned that the salary was in the neighbourhood of $118,000. Just a few years later the next CAO was being paid more than $150,000 – that’s a tough sell in a small rural town where the majority of residents would be thrilled to earn half that amount of money in a year. But the reality is that even $150,000 is just a pittance when compared to the overall municipal budget of more than $30 million per year. So what the position is paid in dollars has not been a concern of mine, but the optics of it in a small town where a lot of folks are either on fixed incomes or low wages don’t play well.

So cost aside, I still think that Meaford is best to assign the CAO title and responsibilities to one of its existing directors, and this past year has proven just how well that can work. In the past 12 months we’ve seen an enormous amount of infrastructure work undertaken with much more to come, we’ve seen the library project come together, we’ve had a municipal election, and we’ve just approved this year’s budget, and at no stage did I hear anyone express the need to have a full-time CAO. Mr. Armstrong has shown that the municipality can be run responsibly and efficiently with an existing director taking on the CAO’s responsibilities, and it’s my view that we should take that same approach going forward – it just seems right-sized for Meaford.

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