Council not yet warming up to new chief administrator
Nearly six months into the tenure of their new chief administrative officer, some on council aren’t yet sure what to make of Merlin Dewing. An unspecified discomfort with the newish chief administrator dragged out a meeting last Wednesday that might have concluded much earlier were it not for the misgivings of some sitting around the council table.
Council and the CAO became entangled mostly over worries councillors were being cut out of decision making. Dewing insisted he was simply seeking an opportunity to show council ways it might improve its process. But it soon became apparent that some on council worried the CAO might be “pulling a fast one.”
Dewing is certainly a man in a hurry. He isn’t fussed about rolling up his sleeves, challenging long-entrenched habits and provoking hard reactions— either among staff, council or the general public. His career as an administrator is punctuated by exits elicited by a change of council. Unlike many in his position, he isn’t motivated to curry favour or win over a block of support for his initiatives.
This makes him an unpredictable quantity for some on council—unsure whether they can keep their senior administrator on a short enough leash.
These concerns became evident early on Wednesday as a committee of council began working through a list of suggestions to cut costs and shed some County assets.
Dewing explained that the intent of one suggestion—recommending the delegation of some routine decision making from council to staff—was aimed at streamlining services to residents and those doing business with the County.
“I think council was elected to make routine decisions,” countered Dianne O’Brien, councillor for Ameliasburgh.
Athol’s Jamie Forrester wanted to know who would define “routine.” Hillier Councillor Alec Lunn said he was uncomfortable with the suggestion.
Dewing reminded council that he was merely asking if council wanted to look at alternatives.
“There is a best practice out there in Ontario,” said Dewing. “The only question you have to answer today is, do you want to hear it?”
A majority of council agreed they would like to hear it. The unease remained, however.
When Dewing suggested that council met too frequently, Picton Councillor Brian Marisett told Dewing he was moving too fast.
“Ratepayers are saying slow down,” Marisett told Dewing. “They are struck with fear.”
That isn’t the message Sophiasburgh Councillor Kevin Gale is hearing.
“The electorate is telling us to look at staffing costs,” said Gale. “We’ve got to look beyond what we are doing now.”
Dianne O’Brien agreed with Marisett that the suggestions proposed by Dewing were striking fear into the community.
“Your suggestions are threatening,” said O’Brien. “They shouldn’t be tied to the budget process. They should be put on hold.” But Dewing repeated that his intention was to enable the municipality to run more efficiently and in doing so create cost savings.
“This isn’t about power seeking,” replied Dewing. “The only question is: do you want to look into ways to be more efficient? You don’t have to accept them—but unless you look at them you won’t be making your decision on an informed basis.”
North Marysburgh Councillor Robert Quaiff concurred.
“We can’t be fearful until we have the information,” said Quaiff. Then he pointed to the seven senior staff arrayed before the council table. “What is the hourly rate of the people we have sitting right here all afternoon?”
Dewing was philosophical.
“One day you will want to do this,” said the CAO. “When that day comes I will point back to this sunny day in March to remind you we could have gotten started much sooner.”