Sunday, June 16, 2024

Library Board’s Unconventional Appointment Raises Eyebrows

Like others, I was taken by surprise with the news of the Meaford Library Board’s decision to appoint municipal CAO Rob Armstrong as CEO for the library.

In Ontario per the Public Libraries Act (PLA), it is not local councils who make the decisions regarding library operations, it is the Library Board that holds that responsibility. So though I have already heard some suggest that Council is playing fast and loose with the PLA, this unconventional decision was not driven by Council at all.

I admit, I am torn on this decision.

On the one hand, it makes me uncomfortable in that our libraries should be at arm’s length from council, and by appointing the only municipal staffer that council actually hires, the only member of staff that actually reports to council as Library CEO, for me is not ideal.

On the other hand, from a financial perspective, I can appreciate the decision. Library CEOs don’t come cheap, but then most highly trained individuals don’t work for peanuts, and for the Library Board to be able to fill the vacancy with a part-time CEO makes financial sense. Particularly in small towns I think we need to do some re-thinking about how things are done, as costs are ever increasing and pressures on municipal budgets, primarily due to infrastructure funding gaps, are many.

Last week I had a sidewalk chat with Rob Armstrong, Meaford’s CAO, and I asked him about this appointment, and how he envisions it working. Armstrong assured me that he gains nothing from this appointment, there is no extra pay, no bonuses. So why is he doing it? Armstrong is a true local, and he expressed to me that he was simply happy to help, happy to offer his services. He also told me that he could back out at any time if it doesn’t work well.

That Armstrong is a reliable, honest, and hard-working member of the municipal team perhaps makes this move more palatable, but it doesn’t change the optics, and from an optics perspective, this decision could backfire.

As noted in the agreement drafted by the Library Board:

The parties acknowledge that the joint services to be provided by the CAO in fulfilling the role of CEO will provide a benefit to the Board and the operation of the library through the acquired knowledge, expertise and experience of the CAO in providing administrative functions to the Municipality. The parties agree that the CEO shall allocate approximately 10% of the time typically spent working in the role of CAO or approximately 7 hours biweekly to fulfilling the role of CEO for the Board. The time that is to be spent in either role shall be permitted to be flexible in order to balance the work requirements of both the Board and the Municipality and to maximize the value and effectiveness of the joint service role to each party to the extent possible.

It would not be unfair to ask how our CAO can give up 10 percent of his time. Our CAO is the highest paid employee of the municipality, and for many, the thought of such a highly paid position having 10 percent of their time free for other endeavours could be a legitimate concern.

Worth noting is that Armstrong won’t actually be working out of the library, and he won’t be involved in the day to day management of the library; that responsibility has been assigned to long-time library employee Lynne Fascinato who will manage the library going forward. Armstrong’s role will be undertaken from a top level view, and he will not be burdened with the minutia of daily library operations.

Again, per the agreement drafted by the Library Board:

The Board agrees that the primary responsibilities of the CEO are for the administration, planning and organization of library services in accordance with policies established by the Board. The CEO serves as the Board’s representative to the community, to professional organizations and to government agencies. The Parties agree that, when dealing with any matters related to the library, including at Council meetings, and when reporting to the Board, the CEO is representing the interests of the Board and not the interests of the Municipality. The parties agree that, should a conflict of interest arise between the Board and the Municipality, the Director of Community Services/Clerk shall assume the role as CAO in the reporting to the Council of the Municipality and shall represent the Municipality’s position to the Board where necessary.

I along with others will be watching this arrangement closely. I am all for outside the box thinking, and I appreciate the need for small towns to come up with some unconventional solutions at times, so I am willing to see how this will work, though I confess I have my doubts about it working very well.


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