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If you live in a small community, you have no illusion of where you live or of your identity. Yet if you move outside your small community you may become bewildered as you realize that your town and others like it are part of the makeup of the forgotten. Media reports and stories and perhaps even the attention of academia would suggest that the vast majority of research and focus is centered on large cities and urban centers. Recent stories and events in Ontario have centered on the financial, administrative, policy and political struggles of the ‘large.’ At the same time, very little attention is given to smaller communities as they struggle to maintain identity and dignity. Therefore, imagine if you will, trying to manage such a community as the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) or Town Manager.
Ontario is comprised of 444 municipalities of which 189 (42.5%) maintain a population of 5,000 residents or less. If the population number is increased to 10,000 the number of municipalities increases to 270 (60.8%). All of these communities have their similarities and differences. Some are closer in proximity to larger urban areas while others are remote, some are single-industry towns while others may depend on the commercial and industrial base of their neighbours; no two are exactly alike. Managing such a community requires a mixed bag of skills and knowledge developed through a combination of education, training, experience, dedication and political acuity. Leadership in these communities is not easy and at times can come at great personal cost.
My experience in managing small communities in the more remote parts of Ontario – Ignace and now Wawa, with a short stop in Muskoka Lakes – can be described as being of “two solitudes.” The requirements and actions with respect to leadership and management actions locally may greatly differ to the actions and type of leadership outside of the community whether that is within a larger region or provincially.
Locally, a CAO managing a small community wears far more than “one hat.” Circumstances may dictate that the CAO needs to be an expert on the management of the local water and sewer system, maintain sufficient financial knowledge to ensure the fiscal sustainability of the municipal corporation, and understand the myriad of complex provincial legislation, all while trying to resolve why there has been an increase in dogs running at large in the community. Additionally, the CAO of a smaller community may find him or herself at odds with the Mayor or a councillor due to a disagreement with a related ratepayer or having to deal with a micro-managing member of council who misunderstands the relationships between governing and administration. These examples are provided to show that small communities are comprised of many over-lapping relationships that can quickly create contemptuous situations for even the most skilled CAO resulting in defamatory letters and other unwarranted comments. Social media can exponentially increase the effect of such contempt.
But, it’s not all bad. While there are always a few “bad apples,” managing a small community provides a wonderful sense of place and allows a CAO to deal with some very dedicated local politicians who are eager to share their knowledge and experience while trying to make the community a better place. Such communities are driven by dedicated volunteers who welcome assistance from the CAO to understand how they can best work towards making their initiative successful.
It is in this context that the CAO can show great value and leadership in applying his or her skills for the express purpose of what I call “continuous improvement” specific to the local community and its future. There is perhaps no better feeling than seeing a project completed, a new policy or by-law adopted, or the annual budget balanced.
There is however another world outside any small community. While any CAO may have struggles or success locally, there awaits the challenges of the larger world. In Ontario, municipalities are ‘creatures’ of the province. In other words, for the most part, they must govern themselves according to the provincial legislation.
Frustration and difficulties arise for any CAO within the regional or provincial realm when trying to decipher and explain to mayor and council the latest change in legislation and how that change may apply to the community. Far too often such legislation is written in a “one-size fits all” scenario frustrating many while appeasing few. There may also be local circumstances where a CAO may be required to brief the local council on how to approach and lobby a Minister or senior bureaucrat on an issue. This may require the preparation of a briefing document that requires a great amount of research which is then followed up with an attempt to arrange a meeting between council and a Minister – a difficult task. Yet, far too often, smaller communities are faced with a lack of response from the office of a Minister while larger communities appear to approach various ministries on an open door policy basis.
Trying to manage a small community in the current provincial fiscal environment requires an excellent understanding of the local circumstances but also a unique understanding of the provincial paradigm and a measure of political acuity. Even then, success is far from guaranteed. Many smaller communities have seen funds from both the provincial and federal levels of government drastically reduced while those same funds seem to have increased for the larger urban centers. At the same time, smaller communities are suffering from population and assessment loss, infrastructure deficits, reduced economic activity, responsibility and cost downloading from senior governments and a myriad of other issues while trying to prevent what could amount to insolvency. Within this context, it is the CAO that is expected to show the necessary leadership to maintain local dignity and cohesion while trying to wade through the political quagmire at the provincial level.
Lastly, it’s always something new. The small community CAO never knows what skill might be needed; today it might require being the town clerk and tomorrow the skills of a treasurer and next week a land use planner or mediator. At the end of the day, there is one thing that I know for sure; nothing could tempt me from giving up such a wonderful career. The skills I have gained and the experiences over the years have taken me to Ireland, Japan, and across North America on behalf of the municipal sector and my employer. I have served on boards such as the Association of Municipalities of Ontario and the Rural Ontario Municipal Association, and am currently the proud President of the Association of Municipal Managers, Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario, all while serving as the CAO of a smaller community.
Even for the smallest of communities, every accomplishment and every success starts with that initial decision to try; it’s the difference between leaders and observers.
Originally from East Gwillimbury CHRIS WRAY recently returned to the Municipality of Wawa as CAO/Clerk-Treasurer after spending 18 months as the CAO for the Township of Muskoka Lakes. Chris had been the CAO/Clerk-Treasurer in Wawa from 1999 to 2012 arriving from Ignace, Ontario where he was the CAO/Clerk-Treasurer from 1996 – 1999. Chris has served on many Boards including the Association of Municipal Managers, Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario (AMCTO) (where he is now the President), the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO), and the Rural Ontario Municipal Association (ROMA).