The key to successful staff, politician relations

TC Media
Published on August 31, 2013
A copy of the provincial councillors’ handbook is shown.
— Star photo by Frank Gale

The behind-the-scenes work of a municipality’s staff and administration is often overlooked when candidates offer themselves for office.

How new municipal politicians interact and work with the town’s or city’s workers, however, is a large part of getting the work done.

The Western Star decided to go straight to the managers, present and past, to get their thoughts on work with councils.

Staff, council rely on each other: Dolter

By Gary Kean

Star Staff Writer

CORNER BROOK  Mike Dolter says the relationship between an elected municipal council and that city or town’s hired staff is a symbiotic one.

Next month, the chief administrative officer for the City of Corner Brook will begin working with the fourth edition of city council since he was hired in 2005.

He said it is crucial that everyone understands the intricacies of the council-staff relationship.

“It’s really important for council to support the staff in their efforts to get things done and bring ideas forward,” said Dolter. “Equally, it’s important for the staff to be prepared to work through and help support the vision of the council.”

Realities, like fiscal responsibility, can step in-between a council’s vision and the work staff can carry out. The role of the staff is to come up with the best information possible so that council can make the best decisions. Once those decisions are made, it is staff’s duty to implement them.

“There may be some disagreements along the way but, once council says ‘This is the way we want to go,’ then we support that 100 per cent,” said Dolter.

As CAO, it is Dolter’s duty to ensure council’s direction is carried out by the staff who answer to him. The burden gets shifted back to council when critical issues have to be decided on along the way.

Managers like Dolter are also conduits of change when it comes to identifying where and how municipal policies and guidelines can be improved.

In terms of continuity from one council to the next, Dolter said it is not his job to teach rookie council members how to be politicians. What often happens, he said, is the experienced councillors tend to mentor the greener ones.

What management does do is bring the new council up to date on what has been happening and what is expected of them in the council-staff relationship.

The staff is always available to answer any questions anyone on council may have on any given day during their term of office.

“We try to give them an answer as quickly as we can, depending on how complex the question is,” said Dolter.

Managers must work within act, says Campbell

By Frank Gale

Star Staff Writer

STEPHENVILLE  As the municipal election approaches, Mike Campbell, Stephenville town manager, said the key to a successful relationship between town staff and elected officials is respect and appreciation of their roles and the responsibility of the group as a whole.

“This has to come from within,” Campbell said.

In terms of how he sees his role as a town manager between council and himself, he said his duties are outlined in the Municipalities Act and there is no discretion on them.

The manager is also responsible for the administration and implementation of council policy, also with no discretion, he said.

Campbell said that takes care of the regulatory material and beyond that the manager keeps the council up to date on the business activity within the town office, such as the town’s financial position at any given time, the condition of the town’s infrastructure, progress reports on approved capital purchases and infrastructure projects, identifying economic development opportunities and making recommendations to council on a wide range of issues.

“In a nutshell, town managers ensure the town office is administered in compliance with the Municipalities Act and council policy and we are accountable for the efficient operation of all town resources,” he said.  

Campbell said even though town councils change every four years, the continuity of services is accomplished by working within the framework of the Municipalities Act and by applying the policy of council consistently, and without discretion.

“This can be challenging at times, but it’s where our authority lies,” he said.

Trust important: former town manager

By Diane Crocker

Star Staff Writer

STEADY BROOK  Rob Gosse says the role of a municipal council is to set policy and the role of staff is to manage the community according to that policy.

Gosse, the former manager of the Town of Steady Brook, said in the relationship between the two, it’s important to separate policy from administration. Once the roles are clear then Gosse said each side has to put trust in the other to carry out their respective roles.

“It starts with trusting the experience that the staff and the management have,” he said. “The people that are hired are hired because of their knowledge and expertise, and they learn that over time.”

He said when it comes to the running of the community, whether it’s the chief administrative officer of a city,  town manager or department head, most decisions that are made are done for a reason.

“That’s where the knowledge of the staff comes in,” he said.

He also said it’s important to look at the facts in making decisions; otherwise you’ll run into problems.

“If you make decisions from the facts rather than from your opinion — or from what the resident wants or from what the individual councillor wants — usually you’re going to make the right decision.”

If the roles are not clearly defined and the trust is not there, then Gosse, who left the town amid some legal controversy after eight years last May, said this can lead to tension. Gosse said he’s known a lot of administrators over the years, and stress is very common among them and part of the reason he left his role as town manager.

“A lot of tension and stress comes from councillors, not all, but some councillors not understanding their role,” he said. “They come in and they want to micro-manage the staff and micro-manage the business.”

Gosse said there needs to be an education process to foster a great working relationship and establish boundaries. Something he used to do with new councillors was set up orientation sessions to explain how things are done, what is expected, the legislation, finances and budgets.

“I think that has to be done in every community,” he said. “They need to set up an orientation with the senior management and start off on the right foot.”

It’s all about communication, says Deer Lake town manager

By Paul Hutchings

Star Staff Writer

DEER LAKE Like with any job, the role of a town administrator is all about communication, says Maxine Hayden.

The current Deer Lake town manager has had to deal with several different councils and members of the public a lot in her 30-plus years with the Town of Deer Lake. She’s been town manager since 2009, stepping up from the town clerk’s position, and she says she’s learned a thing or two about municipal politics.

“Communication between town workers and elected officials is key,” she said.

“You have to know what staff should be doing and let employees do the job they were hired to do and carry out their day-to-day duties.”

Hayden has seen some bad days. Things happen in western Newfoundland’s unpredictable weather and in the dead of winter, when water lines either freeze or break and equipment breaks down, calls come in. Co-ordinating a response time properly and quickly is crucial.

“If someone has a flooded basement and it’s filling up, five minutes can seem like an hour (to a homeowner),” she said.

“There are no after-hours here; it’s something we’re always thinking of.”

With the municipal election coming up Sept. 24, Hayden said there may be some changes to council but fundamentally everything will remain the same.

That’s because of the Municipalities Act that states the town budget has to be balanced, revenue still needs to be collected and regulations still need to be enforced.

At the end of the day, she said, her orders come from council, current term or future term.

“If there are regrets, I have to move forward,” she said. “I answer to council. If they give me an order, whether I agree or not, it’s what I have to do.”