How do city managers and elected officials lead municipal public services, and how do they relate to each other? We spoke with the Chief Administrative Officers of Toronto and Vancouver, and with a former mayor.
Steve Kent is an exemplar of the new professional. He was elected Deputy Mayor of the city of Mount Pearl, Newfoundland at age 19, and mayor at age 25. He served as mayor from 2003 to 2007, when he was elected Member of the House of Assembly for Mount Pearl North.
The Leadership Relationship
The relationship between the mayor and CAO is a critical partnership. We have an obligation toward one another to keep each other informed of what’s going on, at both the political and administrative level. I saw myself as an advisor to the CAO, and I believe he saw himself as an advisor to me. The CAO reports to council, much like a university president or corporate CEO reports to the board. The working relationship between mayor and CAO is very close. We had a real responsibility to one another if we were going to be effective in our respective roles. We needed to meet regularly and to keep each other informed of what was happening and what issues were emerging, and to counsel one another on how to manage the relationship between council and staff. I saw us as gatekeepers – I would help the CAO and, in turn, he would help staff in managing the relationship with council and help council get its message to staff. We strategized around how to make sure those communications were working well, how we were going to approach certain issues with senior management or with council.
Our community is the right size (25,000) to allow for that type of direct interaction to happen. But as communities grow, there’s a need to adapt that model. Mount Pearl is currently going through an organizational review, which will result in some structural changes, but the direct relationship between senior staff and council will remain important.
It’s important that council understands its role. There is a tendency for politicians to want to interfere with the day-to-day operations. However, where you have an effective, professional management group, it’s important to work together to ensure that roles are respected and to ensure that council isn’t delving into day-to-day operations. We have to have confidence that our staff will carry out the duties that we’ve given them.
It’s very much about respect and trust. There has to be an open line of communication between the mayor and CAO if council–staff relationships are going to work effectively, and the mayor and CAO have to be comfortable enough to disagree with one another and debate issues with one another. That’s healthy, and that’s an important part of the process.
We often found ourselves in the shadow of the capital city. Communicating our role as a city within a greater urban area, and our contribution to the region is important – especially when you view the alarming trend across the country over the last decade in terms of amalgamation. Amalgamations in major urban centres in this country have not worked. In every case, taxes have gone up and service levels have gone down. Business people often make the assumption that there’s going to be economies of scale and efficiency and urge everybody into one mega city. But while there might be some element of truth to that in the private sector, it’s not necessarily true within government.
In contrast, one of the best examples of municipal cooperation anywhere in the country is here in the northeast Avalon Region, where communities are sharing services when it makes sense to do so – for instance, public transit and waste management. But municipal government is the government that’s closest to people. Bigger is not always better. Municipalities can work together for the betterment of the region without losing their individual autonomy.
Aging infrastructure: Thirty years ago, we were a young town with new infrastructure. As we get older, we have to put plans in place to upgrade our infrastructure. A good relationship between the provincial government and the municipal government is absolutely critical. The Newfoundland and Labrador government in the last year has made the biggest municipal infrastructure announcement in our history, and over the past five years has really made it a priority to catch up on the infrastructure deficit.
Beginning before my term, we created some stability through a major restructuring of the city’s debt. We needed to get our fiscal house in order to free up dollars for infrastructure. Previously, each year the money for capital work was being borrowed so the debt was simply increasing. We made a commitment to restructure our debt and get it paid down and free up money within each year’s operating budget to do capital work so that it wasn’t simply a question of how much are we going to borrow.
Social factors: There’s been a demographic shift. Once a very young family community, Mount Pearl now has a considerable seniors population and we had to get our heads around how to better meet their needs. We engaged consultants from around the country and developed a master plan that charts the course for the next decade. We engaged the community to develop new programs.
Community safety: In a growing urban region with a booming economy, we expanded our municipal enforcement division and built a stronger partnership with the provincial police force. We think more about community safety and crime prevention: establishing a citizens’ crime prevention committee; engaging youth in decision-making and getting them involved in the direction of the community; hiring post-secondary students to work directly with police patrolling our parks, playgrounds and paths; and partnering with the provincial police to construct a new facility.
Was being young a problem?