Municipal elections are being held between October and December in Ontario, British Columbia, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Prince Edward Island, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. If you ask any municipal Chief Administrative Office (CAO) across Canada what period of time they least look forward to, they would in an instant reply, “Immediately following the next election.”
CAOs are not noted for their penchant for risk-taking but rather for their quiet, conservative, selfless style, which generally allows them to function comfortably below the radar known as a “term of office.” Most are not looking for the headlines; most understand that their egos have to be subservient to those of their political masters; and most realize that any election can produce startling results with unintended consequences.
A professional CAO is keen to fulfill his/her role as a competent administrator and policy advisor. This requires the development of a relationship with his/her Council which is grounded in mutual respect, not only for the personal attributes of each other but also for the skill set necessary to get one another “to the dance.” That is, every CAO will admire the perseverance reflected by his/her Council members in getting through a campaign and garnering enough votes to be elected. Similarly, the CAO expects that the members of Council will respect and even admire the professionalism of their senior management.
Why the stress?
So why the stress around an election? Well, there are numerous answers to that question. The stress might be due to:
• The potential for change: an election can result in a whole new Council, a Council with few returning members, a Council with mostly returning members but one well-known local disturber, and so on. The potential results are numerous and mostly ones which cause an immediate reach for Zantac.
• The need to “school” new members: how does a CAO school the members of Council? The short answer is “very carefully.” It is difficult for any employee to tell their boss how to do their job, or better yet, which job is theirs and which aspects are mine, so stay out.
• The need to create new plans, new vision, new policies, new budgets, new communications techniques, new meeting procedures, new protocols on how to utilize staff, how to respond to requests from the public, etc.
• The need to say goodbye to departing Council members while recognizing that they may return in a subsequent election. This is best handled with great caution and discretion. Being seen with the departing Mayor who just lost a hotly contested campaign to the incumbent has all the potential of an unwelcomed, unplanned career change.
• The need to monitor the behaviour of new Council members to ensure they respect their roles. This requires the vigilance of the entire administrative team and the quick and forceful response of the CAO should matters go sideways. While some new members of Council “get it,” many communities elect those who would have rather become administrators. They see that as their giftedness and avidly look for opportunities to “help” their new found administrative “friends” do their jobs. Given the tilted playing field that exists between a Council and its administration, pushing back is done delicately and often to less effect than intended. Without the will (and steel backbone) needed by the CAO for such a task, the misdirected Council member may soon become a major “pain” and inject him/herself into the administration to such an extent that an appeal to the Mayor or the full Council is the only recourse. A CAO takes on that challenge with all the enthusiasm of one meeting Mike Tyson in a dark alley.
Critical need for orientation
I have spoken on this topic across Canada for decades and I actually think the message is getting home. Any right-thinking CAO realizes that the only logical way to reduce the potential for major role problems is to begin at the beginning: that is, to properly plan for a thorough orientation which focuses on Council’s governance roles rather than on the apparently more exciting, interesting roles of an administrator.
There are right ways to approach this and colossal missteps. Focusing the sessions around what the administrators do might look inspiring but will only attract members of Council into the world of administrators and not into their legislated role as governors. While the challenges are considerably different, CAOs need to focus any such orientation session on “what does a Council do and why is that needed and important?” This requires careful pre-planning, including the need to think through “who do we use to sell this message?”
I would argue (and not for self-serving reasons) that any such session on governance ought to be led by someone external to the administration who is well-versed in what a Council is expected to do. These roles of a Mayor and Councillor need to be presented with great clarity and hopefully sufficient forcefulness. The language needs to be that which a member of Council will understand and the prophet ought to be someone who the Council will respect. Regional seminars are useful as they welcome in neighbouring community Council members and thus the likelihood of any feeling “picked on” is reduced. Plus, the price is more likely to be readily absorbed into the municipal budget.
Staying the course
This ought not to be the stressful time that it often is. There are some ways by which any election stress can be minimized while recognizing that any best laid plans can quickly go astray. An experienced, professional CAO will:
• Stay out of the election. Avoid close contact with elected officials during the election campaign; refrain from putting election signs on your personal property; encourage your staff to follow suit.
• Do not attend the election forums regardless of how exciting they might be. Ask the neighbours for their assessment; do not unwittingly become the meat in the sandwich.
• Plan for a full course meal of orientation activities immediately following the election. Organize this properly; seek advice of experienced others.
• Schedule the orientation well before the election and let all candidates know when this will be held. Request each to set the dates aside.
• Ensure that management meetings are on topic and not forums for bashing “useless, trigger-happy, unusual candidates” who may soon become the boss.
• Call the Mayor on election night and invite him/her to a meeting as early as convenient. If the Mayor has no available dates, dust off the resume!
Transitions can be a very stressful time – and will be – if some careful, proactive steps are not taken. Making a transition from one Council to the next should be seamless and painless. It will not, however, be without stress.