Rotation at the top of municipalities

More than 25 per cent of towns in B.C. look for CAOs in 2015

The corner office might as well have a revolving door.

In October of this year, Parksville’s chief administrative officer Fred Manson announced his retirement.

Later that month, the City of Nanaimo accepted the resignation of its top employee, Ted Swabey, who took the CAO’s job in Maple Ridge.

A couple weeks after that, Regional District of Nanaimo CAO Paul Thorkelsson told his elected bosses he was leaving to take the same title in Saanich.

Lantzville town hall, by any measure, has been a mess the last year or two, with town councillors resigning, nasty memos surfacing, by-elections and yes, the resignation of its CAO Twyla Graff in April.

In a seven-month period this year, all the corner offices at town, city and regional district halls in a 30-kilometre radius became vacant.

What is up with that?

Allison Habkirk teaches local government courses at the University of Victoria and Capilano College. A city planner by training, Habkirk also has experience on the political side: she has served as both a councillor and mayor in Central Saanich. She also works with municipalities on their strategic planning.

Habkirk says it’s normal in a year to see communities trying to fill about 25 of the 162 CAO positions in B.C. This year, it’s more than 40, or roughly 25 per cent of all the CAO positions in the province.

“This suggests, post election (Nov. 2014), there is conflict between the CAO and the newly-elected councils,” says Habkirk.

She says there are at least two factors that are contributing to all this turnover: elected officials digging more into the day-to-day operations of municipal staff; and the emergence of social media as a forum for harsh critiques.

For roughly 100 years, says Habkirk, Canada has operated under a municipal governance system that could be called the council-manager system. Council was said to have one employee, the CAO. It was up to that CAO — under policy direction from council — to manage the rest of the city’s employees and affairs.

“It was a model that was developed to separate the politician from the administration and operations — there was a lot of corruption,” says Habkirk.

That model seems to be changing in many B.C. municipalities, she says.

“In the recent past there have been challenges to that system; councils want to be in the mix,” says Habkirk. “I’m not sure why that is. It’s kind of a dangerous development in my view and it creates a lot of conflict.”

Habkirk also says the advent of social media — there are many blogs and Facebook pages dedicated to goings-on at city halls — has made the life of managers more difficult.

“There’s a level of vitriol that didn’t exist 10-15 years ago and I think that puts a lot of pressure on civil servants,” she says, adding that CAOs don’t feel they can get into back-and-forths on social media with critics — because of their codes of conduct and because they really can’t win.

Manson, the retiring Parksville CAO, agrees, and he goes a bit further. He believes there has been a culture change, partly fuelled by social media and the ability to be anonymous with one’s comments.

“When you were in a line-up in a theatre, no one would butt in front of you,” says Manson. “People were respectful; they might even open the door for you. (On social media), there’s no direct interaction. People can be rude and disrespectful and there’s no accountability.”

Manson says this culture change has put a lot of pressure on people in the public eye, including politicians and CAOs.

“And it’s going to continue to get worse,” he says. “There has to be some push back.”

Just Posted

The Parksville Civic and Technology Centre at 100 Jensen Ave. (PQB News file photo)
Parksville 2020 annual report now ready for public feedback

Documents can be viewed online; comments or questions to be submitted before noon on July 5, 2021

FILE – Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, takes part in an event on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, July 7, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Indigenous Peoples Day must be a ‘call to action’, says Assembly of First Nations chief

Discovery of children at Kamloops residential school site must lead to change, Perry Bellegarde says

A Lotto 6/49 ticket purchased in Parksville for the June 19, 2021 draw is a $3M winner. (Submitted photo)
Winning Lotto 6/49 ticket worth $3M purchased in Parksville

Lottery prize winners have 52 weeks to claim jackpot

The border crossing into the United States is seen during the COVID-19 pandemic in Lacolle, Que. on February 12, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
VIDEO: Border quarantine to soon lift for fully vaccinated Canadians

Eligible travellers must still take multiple COVID-19 tests

Chilliwack secondary school’s principal is apologizing after a quote equating graduation with the end of slavery in the U.S. was included in the 2020-2021 yearbook. (Screenshot from submitted SnapChat)
B.C. student’s yearbook quote equates grad to end of slavery; principal cites editing error

Black former student ‘disgusted’ as CSS principal apologizes for what is called an editing error

Skeena MLA Ellis Ross. (Photo by Peter Versteege)
BC Liberal leadership candidate condemns ‘senseless violence’ of Okanagan church fires

Skeena MLA Ellis Ross says reconciliation isn’t about revenge for past tragedies

A coroner’s inquest will be taking place at the Capitol Theatre in Port Alberni for the next week. (ELENA RARDON / ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS)
Teen B.C. mom who died following police custody recalled as ‘friend to many’

Police sent Jocelyn George to hospital after intoxication had gone ‘beyond the realm’ of normal detox

FILE - In this Nov. 29, 2020, file photo, Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib leaves the field after an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons in Atlanta. Nassib on Monday, June 21, 2021, became the first active NFL player to come out as gay. Nassib announced the news on Instagram, saying he was not doing it for the attention but because “I just think that representation and visibility are so important.” (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)
Nassib becomes first active NFL player to come out as gay

More than a dozen NFL players have come out as gay after their careers were over

Penticton Indian Band Chief Greg Gabriel speaks to the Sacred Hearts Catholic Church burning down early Monday morning, June 21, 2021. (Monique Tamminga Western News)
Penticton band chief condemns suspicious burning of 2 Catholic churches

Both Catholic church fires are deemed suspicious, says RCMP

COVID-19 daily cases reported to B.C. public health, seven-day moving average to June 17, 2021. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infections drop to 90 on Sunday, 45 Monday

Pandemic spread dwindles as 77% of adults receive vaccine

Emergency vehicles are parked outside of the Wintergreen Apartments on Fourth Avenue. (SUSAN QUINN / Alberni Valley News)
Port Alberni RCMP investigate stabbing on Fourth Avenue

Two men were found with ‘significant’ injuries near Wintergreen Apartments

By protesting uninvited in First Nations’ territories, conservationists are acting in a neocolonial or paternalistic manner, says Huu-ay-aht Chief Robert Dennis. Photo by Heather Thomson
A closer look: do Vancouver Island First Nations support the war in the woods?

First Nations/environmentalist old growth alliance uneasy, if it exists at all

Most Read