Two councillors have resigned from the CAO selection committee, but with most of their discussions having taken place in closed session, their reasons aren’t entirely clear.
The surprise is that Couns. Clare Cameron and Gary Burroughs have both been passionate and outspoken about the importance of hiring the very best candidate for the job, and the need to strictly adhere to the proper process.
Both have referenced several times in earlier discussions the ombudsman report released late in 2019 about the hiring of the former regional chief administrator, which he denounced as an “inside job,” tainted with improper disclosure of information to the successful candidate. They both also endorsed then, and have referenced since, the recommendations that stemmed from the investigation, intended to improve hiring practices in the future.
Cameron read a statement to council at Monday’s meeting about her resignation, part of which said, referring to the provincial watchdog’s report, “This document clearly describes the missteps that occurred in hiring a CAO at Niagara Region in recent years, and I have considered its contents and recommendations very seriously since publication. The belief that this report has unique importance for all elected officials across Niagara led to my moving adoption of its recommendations for the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake in December last year. I feel very strongly that even the slightest spectre of personal, political or other third-party influence creeping into any aspect of the CAO hiring process could undermine the quality of final recruitment, and significantly erode the public’s trust in this organization.”
She went on to say she would be more comfortable participating in the CAO recruitment as a member of council, and hoped that council deliberations could take place, whenever possible, during an open, therefore public, meeting, rather than in closed session.
“Before council is asked to provide advice or recommendations to the selection committee, I hope to receive written minutes of the committee’s meetings in order to inform and aid effective decision-making,” she said.
Cameron’s statement was made just before council went into a closed session Monday. Burroughs had asked for a discussion of the makeup of the selection committee in public, which was intended to occur during the closed session, and a vote was taken about whether it should be public or not. Couns. Wendy Cheropita, John Wiens, Burroughs, Cameron, and Lord Mayor Betty Disero voted in favour of the committee membership discussion taking in place in public.
Disero said the selection committee meetings had been going along well, until they reached an issue where there was disagreement between members who were split in their opinions. Even after a closed session with council, Disero said, it couldn’t be resolved, and the two resigned.
Disero alluded to a concern over whether staff involved in the work of the selection committee had signed the required document agreeing not to disclose any information about the selection discussions, and said that document had been signed. “I’m not sure why there was still a feeling that the ombudsman’s concerns had not been followed. That’s remained a contention,” she added.
Burroughs did not speak about his reasons for resigning Monday night, but he told The Local that for him, it’s an issue of process.
As someone who has been involved with political selection committees and hirings in the past, both at the regional and municipal level, he believes strongly in following the proper process, and in this case, he is not sure that it is, he said.
“I believe this is one of the most important things we’re going to do in this term,” he said, referring to the hiring of. CAO, and adding that although he didn’t want to speak for Cameron, he believes she feels the same.
Since last January, when Cameron passed the motion that the Town would follow the recommendations of the ombudsman, which included signed privacy documents, and proceed with caution during the search to replace former CAO Holly Dowd, Burroughs has also stressed the importance of “not just talking about doing it, but making sure we are doing it.”
Although Disero has said the process is being followed, “I haven’t seen it,” he says.
He signed off on the privacy document himself, but he wanted to see a list of everybody who has access to the search information and evidence they too have signed off.
“The process is so important,” he says, referencing the regional “inside job,” when he sat on regional council, and was unaware of what was going on behind the scenes.
“As long as we follow the process, we’re good.”
“I wish them all the best,” he says of the current selection committee members. “This is where it’s going to get difficult.”
Earlier in September, selection committee members were provided a list of candidates by the consultant working with them, and members were expected to provide a shortened list for interviews. Disero said then she expected a CAO would be chosen by the end of the year.
Left on the committee are Lord Mayor Betty Disero and Coun. Erwin Wiens. After Wiens was given an opportunity to also resign, which he declined, three more councillors, Sandra O’Connor, Allan Bisback and Wendy Cheropita, were appointed at Monday’s council meeting.
Coun. Clare Cameron’s statement in full:
This statement confirms that I have resigned from the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s CAO Selection Committee, effective September 21, 2020.
The Chief Administrative Officer’s role is incredibly important to our community, and the selection of someone for this role is a critical decision that I sincerely looked forward to participating in as an elected official.
The hiring of a CAO requires the utmost care under any circumstances, particularly in the public sector, and now even more so given the November 29, 2019 Ontario Ombudsman’s Report “Inside Job.” This document clearly describes the missteps that occurred in hiring a CAO at Niagara Region in recent years, and I have considered its contents and recommendations very seriously since publication. The belief that this report has unique importance for all elected officials across Niagara led to my moving adoption of its recommendations for the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake in December last year.
I feel very strongly that even the slightest spectre of personal, political or other third-party influence creeping into any aspect of the CAO hiring process could undermine the quality of final recruitment and significantly erode the public’s trust in this organization.
Given these convictions, I am most comfortable at this time to participate in next steps for CAO recruitment as a member of Council, rather than as a member of the CAO Selection Committee. I also look forward to seeing the Selection Committee’s work, and any related Council deliberations, occur in open session wherever possible, unless it is absolutely necessary to deliberate in camera under the Municipal Act. Before Council is asked to provide advice or recommendations to the Selection Committee, I hope to receive written minutes of the Committee’s meetings in order to inform and aid effective decision-making.
Further, given this Council’s commitment to supporting diversity in all its forms, I wish to encourage the CAO Selection Committee to utilize a blind evaluation of applicants that would remove names from future candidate lists until the start of interviews, and therefore help to ensure the utmost fairness of evaluation at this stage on the basis of merit and experience over any other factor.
The Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake deserves only the utmost quality of open, genuine, innovative and collaborative leadership at all levels, and that includes finding the very best possible candidate to be our next CAO. I trust that the work of the CAO Selection Committee will continue in that spirit.