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.”

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