Rapport, clear direction key to municipal administration: retired CAO

Cory Hurley cory.hurley@tc.tc
Published on June 14, 2014
Former Mount Pearl CAO said he always wanted his councils to let him know if he was not living up to their expectations.
TC Media file photo

There is a fine line in dealing with the delicate intricacies of the chief administrative officer (CAO) or municipal manager position, says Gerard Lewis.

The retired Mount Pearl chief administrative officer knows all too well the sensitivities of the job. He spent 23 years at the helm of Mount Pearl’s staff. After retiring three years ago, he is now a consultant for professional administrators and councils.

Corner Brook recently fired its chief administrative officer, Mike Dolter, and is reviewing what direction it will take with the position. Corner Brook Mayor Charles Pender said the termination was done on a “without cause basis,” and council wanted to go in a new direction and needed the change in that position to do so.

Lewis said the ability for a council to oust a manager or director was not something on his mind during his tenure, but he acknowledged it could be for some. When there was a change in council, which he experienced numerous times over his tenure, it may have crossed his mind, he admitted.

“If you are confident in your own capability of doing the job, and develop a good relationship and a good rapport with your council, it doesn’t really come into account at all,” Lewis said.

The former CAO said he always wanted his councils to let him know if he was not living up to their expectations. If that occurs, a plan must be created to correct it.

“That rapport is the key to being a successful administrator,” he said. “You must know their expectations of you, and you must have some sort of performance evaluation system.”

If years pass without a resolve to such a situation, it will be too late, according to Lewis. Another key is the relationship between a CAO and staff.

“That is the dilemma that is the bane of any administrator’s existence, having a good relationship with your staff.”

It is vital council understands staff reports to the CAO, said Lewis, and there is not an interaction with council.

“Council has only one employee, and that is the chief administrative officer,” he said.

The staff answers to the CAO, he said, and if this protocol is broken, it doesn’t reflect well on those involved.

“It undermines the CAO, and provides a major conflict,” he said.

It is commonplace for a new council to come into a town or city with a new plan or direction. When it is a council of seven, all with their own priorities, the direction can be quite convoluted, according to Lewis.

It is important to review the previous council’s plan, and then prioritize their own objectives and establish a new strategic plan, he said.

A new plan routinely involves a change in upper management, said Lewis. He said it is common throughout the country; it also recently happened with former St. John’s CAO Bob Smart. A person should not take it personally, he said, and they are regularly hired by other towns or cities for the same position.

“Every municipality recognizes there could be changes with new councils,” he said. “You build up a reputation of what you did, and how well you did, for the success of the community.”

There is also a public perception of the CAO, which Lewis says is often misunderstood. Generally, he said a CAO does not receive credit when things go right, and is often blamed for when it is wrong.

“If you can’t exist under that sort of framework, look for a new career,” he said. “It’s easy to say, especially now that I can sit back and reflect on my life as a municipal administrator.”

However, Lewis said the career offers many rewards.

“You have an opportunity to make a change in the lives of everyday people,” he said. “There is a great deal of satisfaction looking back on that and saying you helped make this community better than it was.”

Derrick Bragg, president of the Professional Municipal Administrators, said it is unfortunate when administrators are faced with such situations. He said it is particularly concerning how these roles are misinterpreted by the public.

“We, the administrators, are not the decision makers,” the town manager of Greenspond stated via email. “We are the employees who are governed and guided by the elected officials. We advise them, and provide them with required information, but, at the end of the day, our role is to make sure their decisions are implemented.”

Bragg said it is commonplace for a new council to disagree with the direction of an outgoing council.

The provincial president also said the recruitment and retention of municipal staff is increasingly difficult from a national standpoint. However, he said there are still opportunities.

“While I’m still confident that seasoned administrators will find gainful employment elsewhere, it will mean leaving the municipality they have worked so hard to helped build.”