In the wake of the news late last week that Meaford CAO Denyse Morrissey had tendered her resignation, a few readers got in touch to remind me of an editorial I wrote in August of 2015 in which I suggested that the CAO was entering the three to five year window when we could very well expect her to move on to other challenges as so many CAOs seem to do. In that same editorial I also suggested that this municipality could do without a CAO at all, and I still feel that way.
“If history is any indication, we have just entered the window of time when Meaford's CAO is likely to say goodbye and head off to greener pastures. To be clear, there are no rumours that our CAO is planning to leave, there have been no rumblings, no whispers, I'm just talking about history – and not just in Meaford,” I wrote in August of 2015. “Our current CAO has been with the Municipality for three years now. From the research I've done over the years, municipal CAOs in Ontario seem to stay with a municipality for three to five years before heading off to their next municipality where they will collect a larger pay cheque than they had been receiving from their previous employer. Loyalty is not part of the CAO culture. Longevity is just a myth they have read about.”
And now the CAO has indeed resigned and she has taken the CAO position in Shelburne, so in the coming weeks council will grapple with what to do about filling the only position that they hire directly, but the question still remains, should they hire anyone at all?
Keep in mind that my thoughts on the CAO position have nothing to do with people, nothing to do with individuals, but rather it is about the position itself and whether smaller municipalities like Meaford even require a CAO. There's no requirement by the province for municipalities to employ a CAO. The only required positions in the Municipal Act are a Clerk and Treasurer, and we've currently got those. Certainly in larger municipalities with staff complements in the hundreds, or thousands, there is value in having a highly paid top dog to keep department heads on their game, but in smaller communities with fewer than 100 employees I don't see the value.
“In the years that I have been covering Meaford's council I have become more and more convinced that of all the staff positions, the position of CAO brings the least value, at the greatest expense, and while it is a position that might be useful in larger municipalities like Kitchener or Guelph, for a small town like Meaford, having a CAO is somewhat akin to brick walls on an outhouse – it might look a little better, but it doesn't improve or expand the basic functions of an outhouse,” I wrote in 2015. “I've come to believe that the position itself is somewhat toxic – particularly for small towns. You see, not only do the salaries for CAOs continue to rise with each CAO departure from one municipality, and the hiring at the next, the salaries of senior staff have to be impacted. Let's face it, if the current CAO is earning $151,000 per year, it makes it tough to try and hire a senior manager for just $75,000.”
When I started covering Meaford council in 2009 this municipality didn't have a CAO, and we hadn't had one for nearly two years and yet the sky didn't fall. Interestingly, prior to finally filling the vacant CAO position in 2009 this municipality didn't have any staff members on the provincial 'Sunshine List' of government employees earning $100,000 per year or more – these days we've got a half dozen, with the CAO topping the list with an annual salary of roughly $150,000. Don't get me wrong, I don't begrudge anyone earning six figure salaries, but in a small municipality, as the list of high earners grows it becomes more of a burden on ratepayers, and we have to ask ourselves if we are getting value for the money we're spending.
When our current CAO was hired we had been six months without a CAO after the previous one had resigned and moved on. When he left, the previous CAO was earning $118,000 per year. The current CAO is earning more than $150,000 – we can only imagine what the next CAO will demand in remuneration.
“For six whole months Meaford had no CAO, and the municipality didn't fall apart, the ground didn't crumble beneath our feet, and council didn't spontaneously combust due to not having a CAO to boss them around,” I wrote in that 2015 editorial, and I believe the same would be true today should council opt not to fill the CAO position and instead empower the capable department heads already employed by the municipality.
We have a qualified and capable senior staff – when the current CAO says goodbye, I suggest that Meaford say goodbye to the position of CAO. I suspect that nobody will notice.