Role of Mayor and Council

For the Town of Rocky Mountain House to be an efficient organization, it is important for everyone to understand their role.

Council members are responsible for setting the overall direction and service levels of the municipality, in accordance with the Municipal Government Act. The CAO has a duty to execute Council's decisions. 

Council adopted the following Role Statements on March 7, 2023.

A municipality functions at its best when these roles are adhered to and everybody understands their function in the organization. By following proper governance and administrative procedures, the Town of Rocky Mountain House will continue to make great strides for our community. 

According to the Municipal Government Act, the Mayor has the same responsibilities of all members of Council as well as performing the leadership roles of the Council. Thus, in addition to those roles set out in the Act (see role description for a Councillor), the Mayor (according to Section 154 (1)) as

"A chief elected official, in addition to performing the duties of a councillor, must

  1. preside when in attendance at a council meeting unless a bylaw provides that another councillor or other person is to preside, and
  2. perform any other duty imposed on a chief elected official by this or any other enactment or bylaw."

It is important that these roles be clearly understood. The legislation does not encourage or allow the Mayor to act independently. The Mayor is expected to be a leader and yet function as “one of” not “apart from”. The Mayor will always be viewed by the public as the face and voice of Council but must never allow that public persona to be used in an imperial or directive fashion

Importance of the Mayor’s Position

The foregoing commentary does not mean that the Mayor does not have a very important role to play.  The Mayor is central to what is commonly referred to as “tone at the top”. Much of how the community views its Council is a reflection of how it sees its Mayor. Is the Mayor on top of things or seemingly disinterested? Is the Mayor decisive or does he/she seem to waffle? Is the Mayor respectful of other Council members and trying to build a team or does the Mayor operate in a high-handed manner seemingly without caring about the need to lead a team? Is the Mayor a person of high integrity or someone that believes that the rules and legislation were meant for everyone else? 

The Mayor’s style should be one which enables each member of Council to see their own worth to the collective whole. 

The Mayor is the leader of the Council team despite the fact that their team may not see things as one but rather whose members speak out separately on the key issues. Where Council members disagree on key issues, the challenge of the Mayor is to listen carefully to what each is saying and try to identify common ground in their arguments. The Mayor seeks consensus while understanding that in its absence democracy rules.

That is, regardless of the Mayor’s efforts the Council might be split on this or that issue. That is how it may remain and thus the Mayor has to lead from whatever decision of Council has been approved by resolution. Such consensus building is not simple nor is it not without considerable time and effort. And, ironically, it might be without positive result.

What most Mayors understand is that a healthy Council has everyone at the table, informed and involved. That is, there is no effort to exclude those who might disagree and who therefore might be considered as “not part of the team”. This latter expression presumes that everyone must be on the same page to have a good Council or to be a good Councillor. That is of course nonsense.

          Leader of All

The duty of the Mayor in such circumstances is to work with all members and not single out some as being on his “side” and the others as relegated to the sidelines because they do not support the Mayor. Such a style of leadership (which we realize has been witnessed in various communities across Canada) is divisive to the core and results in enmity not collegiality. Playing silly, immature games while purposely dividing the Council and then not really caring as long as the Mayor controls the majority view is behaviour unbecoming a chief elected official. How one leads the team in such a circumstance is difficult to fathom. The Mayor recognizes that on any given topic, some of his colleagues may choose to have a different opinion. That being so does not inhibit a mature and thoughtful Mayor from ensuring that all members are equally and concurrently informed and all given the opportunity to express their differences to the views of the Mayor. When that is so it eliminates any possibility of the Mayor acting in a deliberate fashion to shut out the voices of those he would expect to be opposed.

          Concurrently Informed

The Mayor ought to be focusing on how to ensure that all of Council is concurrently informed. That would be the respectful thing to do and would reflect the fact that the Mayor sees all of Council as their colleagues and as equals. One way in which this process can be manipulated in the Mayor’s favour is by the Mayor holding onto valuable information and not sharing the same with her Council colleagues. This is generally done knowingly and with the purpose of making the rest of Council dependent on the Mayor for her judgment as to what course of action to follow.

          Community Conscience

We generally expect the Mayor to be the conscience of the community: to act in such a way as to place the interests of others before any evidence of self-interest. The Mayor needs to conscientiously set aside any professional or personal obligations or commitments that are not in the best interests of the community and act as one of rather than the only one. The Mayor’s business interests should be made known to the CAO and Clerk (Director of Legislative Services) and any issue that subsequently arises in Chambers which impacts on those interests should be quickly identified so that the Mayor can be excused from any discussion on or voting on these issues. 

If acting as expected and anticipated by legislation, the Mayor respects the fact that she is but one voice representing Council’s “face” to the public. The Mayor has one vote, not a majority. The Mayor can encourage a Council to act in a certain way but cannot coerce it to do so nor can the Mayor act unilaterally. The Mayor can say what she thinks Council’s views on a matter will be, but a Mayor cannot categorically state what it will be; nor can a Mayor make any commitment to an action (or, for example, to fund a project or hire any employee) before the Council as a whole has made a decision. 

The Mayor’s voice has much more volume than that held by her colleagues. That is, when the Mayor speaks her voice carries weight beyond that of any other member of Council. The Mayor has the vote of the citizenry behind her and they see her as “their” leader and spokesperson. That is a role and perspective which ought not to be treated lightly. 

          Informal Power

The Mayor’s power is informal, but it can still be very persuasive. The Mayor may only have one vote on each matter, but the office carries with it more prestige and “power” than the vote would signify. Whenever the Mayor speaks, the community presumes that she is uttering the will of the Council. This is both a power and an obligation: a power in that her voice carries more influence than the individual voices of her colleagues; an obligation in that the Mayor must be very careful not to go beyond the parameters of her office and presume that because she speaks, others must fall in line. The Mayor, regardless of how committed to a particular course of action, needs to ensure that all members of Council understand the implications of that course and are willing to endorse the leadership being offered by the Mayor. 

It needs to be understood that the ability of the Mayor to be influential on Council is highly dependent on the willingness of the rest of Council to follow the lead of the Mayor. While each Mayor is entitled and indeed expected to hold her own views on most issues, the challenge for a Mayor is to be able to rightfully claim that she reflects the will of the majority of Council. The most logical way to ensure that this is the case is to develop a policy framework on the key issues such that each member knows where the Council stands on that topic with sufficient confidence so as to express those views publicly without fear of contradiction.


The role of the Mayor is instrumental to how well a Council functions. It cannot be seen as a separate function with powers held only to the Mayor without consideration to the rest of Council. The Mayor is the primary linkage to the CAO and thus that relationship has to be sound and built on mutual trust and respect. Similarly, all of Council needs to know that the Mayor is keen to see all be successful and of course, the way to do that is to work as a collegial team.

©George B Cuff & Associates Ltd.

Legislated Requirements

The legislation spelling out the requirement of a municipal Councillor is focused on the following section:

Section 153 states that “Councillors have the following duties:

  1. to consider the welfare and interests of the municipality as a whole and to bring to Council’s attention anything that would promote the welfare or interests of the municipality;
  2. to participate generally in developing and evaluating the policies and programs of the municipality;
  3. to participate in council meetings and council committee meetings and meetings of other bodies to which they are appointed by council;
  4. to obtain information about the operation or administration of the municipality from the chief administrative officer or a person designated by the chief administrative officer
  5. to keep in confidence matters discussed in private at a council or council committee meeting until discussed at a meeting held in public;
  6. to perform any other duty or function imposed on councillors by this or any other enactment or by the council."

The Community as a Whole 

The legislation points to the requirement that Councillors make decisions based on what they consider to be central to the well-being of the Town. That is to say, regardless of where their support was presumed to be in the community (i.e. the Chamber of Commerce, sports groups, service clubs, the churches), they are not elected to simply represent a particular area or segment of the population. Councillors have an obligation to consider issues from a “community as a whole” point of view. Equal weight should be accorded to the opinions and input gathered from all quarters of the Town. Otherwise, the question could be asked “Who speaks for the municipality as a whole?” 

This is not an easy matter to judge. Seldom does a Council conduct a survey on issues which are ongoing to the Town or even topical at the moment. For the most part, Councillors are asked to determine issues based on their sense of what the community thinks on that particular matter. Thus, Councillors are wise to maintain a cross-section of friends supplemented of course by any family members living locally as their source of “are we doing the right thing?” 

Participation in Policies and Programs

Council members are expected to take an interest in and provide leadership to the development of new or revised policies or programs. Although the actual drafting of new policies should begin with the administration, Council’s role is far more engaged than we often lead a Council to believe. A Council is expected to lead. A Council is elected based on its connectedness to the people. A Council should not rely on its administration to have all the ideas. The role of a Council is not simply that of “responding to or solely evaluating” but of leading. 

Council needs to provide leadership to what it sees as the needs and aspirations of its residents and determine what resources can legitimately be provided through the budget to fund those services/programs. Councillors should also learn to ask administration the right questions which get at user satisfaction and degree of participation. “Are we hitting the right target audiences?”

Participation in Council and Committee Meetings

The requirement to participate in meetings of Council or a committee of Council does not mean that all members must participate equally in terms of “airtime”. It does, however, imply that a member of Council ought to be prepared to speak to matters of concern and to seek the opinions and wisdom of others. 

Each should also have access to a “meeting protocol” that outlines the rules of meeting. Such rules might be contained in the Procedural Bylaw that establishes the dates, purpose and times of meeting, as well as the roles of a committee(s). If such a document does not specify the role of individual members, then that should be made available through a committee charter or similar document that provides the needed clarification. 

It is important to remember that a member of Council who has been appointed to a committee (or board) by the Council (unless specified otherwise by the appointment bylaw) is expected to serve in a liaison role and not as an advocate. The latter role should be presumed to be that of the chair of each committee and board and not the role of an appointed member of Council. This does not stop a member of Council from asking pertinent questions or from voting providing that the initial letter provided to community committees spells out the role, obligations and freedom to vote their conscience when the matter gets to a meeting of Council. 

Members appointed to boards which are regulated through other legislation typically have their own rules governing the participation of all members. In some instances (e.g. Heartland Housing) all members are expected to speak to and vote what they perceive to be in the best interests of that board. Their views, of course, will be guided by their principal role as a Councillor but their minds must still be open to voting “in the best interests” of that agency.

Importance of Seeking Information from the CAO

Council has an obligation to rely upon its chief administrative officer (CAO) in terms of understanding the background to issues and determining what course of action the administration feels should be taken. While a member of Council may receive input and advice from a number of sources in the community relative to an issue, it would be unwise (and to some extent undermining) not to expect the most professional and well-researched advice to come from the administration hired by and responsible to Council. 

Councils should expect their CAO to have developed a reporting system that ensures that the best possible administrative advice is made available to Council, and that such information:

  • is well-researched and comprehensive
  • has been checked out thoroughly
  • is apolitical
  • is within the legal parameters available to Council; and
  • has been vetted against current policy.

Normally, Councillors should expect to receive first rate, comprehensive and balanced reports from their management and signed off by their CAO. If Council by a majority vote believes that an additional look at the report on the issue is warranted, then a referral motion should be made. If management then reviews their information sources on the issue and finds nothing noteworthy to add, the same or very similar report should be placed once again on the agenda.

Need to Keep Confidential Matters Confidentially

This requirement of members of Council is based on the notion that there will be times that information comes to the attention of a Council that needs to be held on a confidential basis. Much of the business of any municipality is deemed to be public. That is, there should be few restrictions placed on members of the public accessing the information on a co-equal basis to members of the Council. On the other hand, there will be certain issues that are of a confidential nature and that for whatever reason (as identified by the CAO or senior staff) should be placed on a restricted “for their eyes only” designation. Such issues may deal with personnel matters, legal issues which warrant “solicitor-client” confidentiality, the sale or purchase of municipal land, or other information that either the MGA or FOIPP legislation identifies as legitimately confidential.

The key is to err on the side of being as open to the eye of the public as possible. The public expects the business of the Town to be open and transparent.

Other Generic Responsibilities

Much of what a Council member does is developed “on the fly” in response to the circumstances and local conditions. There are, however, other duties that are more generic across Canada and are generally accepted responsibilities which fit as “good governance” principles and actions. 

          Represent Others

Every elected official holds their position at the discretion of the electors. No one is entitled to office, regardless of how long they have served or how successfully. They retain the support of their residents through hard work, continual focus on local issues and ongoing contact with a broad cross-section of the people who make up their community. While Council members may have few mechanisms available to them to discern the will of the public, they can listen to the voices around them and seek out individual comment wherever possible. Being in front of the key issues helps as does seeking feedback through whatever means appear to be balanced and comprehensive. 

Remembering that citizens are the target audience and not the staff nor other members of Council is absolutely central to successful citizen representation. This requires encouragement to the public to become involved in the political process and to ensure that there are avenues available for useful and timely input by the public. It does not require finding ways by which the public becomes involved in all issues or even a majority of them. Rather, an elected official should be concerned with the removal of any apparent barriers to public participation that do not seem to be reasonable or necessary. 

          Governing Collegially

Council meetings can produce friction in the debate over key issues or divisive matters. In some instances, it is difficult to discern the “right” approach to resolving a matter whereas in others, a debate can result in voices escalating (as though volume proves who is right) and at times, comments can be made which are deemed to be either personal or demeaning.

Being on a Council “team” does not mean that everyone thinks the same or always gets along. A hockey team does not feature everyone playing the same position; six players with distinctive roles are required. Similarly, governing collegially or as a team should not be taken to infer that everyone will vote the same or argue the same. Given that each comes from different families, different genders and faiths, different schooling and academic strengths, simply results in a mosaic of interests and qualities which are applied to the issues on the Council agendas. Some may be very financially focused; another will likely be more concerned about adequate programs for the disadvantaged; one or two may see the need for better or more facilities while still someone else values the trails system and wants to see it expanded. 

Being a collegial body stems from maturity; being able to listen to the other make their point without somehow fearing that yours will be lost or trampled by one’s passionate response to setting priorities. Collegiality is born out of respect and can be built.

          Set the Direction for the Community

This is the one feature that is often accorded the least degree of attention and yet the one that holds the most promise for anyone hopeful of making a real impact as a member of Council. Council members are charged with setting the course and allocating the necessary resources to get the job done. Unfortunately and all too frequently, a Council quickly moves into a role of reviewing a draft budget (generally guided to that stage by the prior Council) and discussing and deciding upon issues that have either been left over from the prior term or that are specific to that day. While these are important challenges, their value will seem remote if Council does not step back and determine where it plans to take the community and the issues that it sees as the top priorities over the next few years. Being on a Council is not about carrying forward the status quo. If that were true, why would anyone want to change the make-up of any Council? No-the real challenge is to chart a new course and set out the markers that will assure Council that substantive progress is being made.

Direction-setting can appear to be tedious but if pursued with diligence and some degree of patience, will see significant returns to any Council. 

          Monitoring Progress on Goals/Priorities

While setting the new path is an essential first step, a wise Council understands that it must keep its eye on the ball in order to assure itself that the administration is working diligently at tackling the priorities it has received from Council. Otherwise, the agenda that this new Council has established may not occupy centre stage as other interesting and perhaps seemingly more immediate issues might take precedence.

To monitor performance of the administration through casual observation, attendance at meetings, community feedback and to communicate such feedback to the CAO on an ongoing basis is a very valuable role. Further, a Council is now legislated to provide regular performance feedback to its CAO which should also include a segment of performance criteria relative to how well the CAO has helped the new Council move forward on its agenda. 

The CAO should be tasked with developing a useful and readily explainable outline of Council’s goals and priorities and then regularly provide Council with an update. This will ensure that attention is being paid to what Council saw as its priorities. Not doing so will result in both Council and administration dropping their focus on the key issues and moving on to those which seem more interesting at the moment.

          Building Consensus

If a Council is to succeed at more than simply ratifying decisions already made by its administration, there has to be a genuine commitment by at least a majority of the members to work together as a leadership body in order to provide direction and policy-based decision-making to the community and to the organization. While it would be ideal if all members of a Council were perceived to be working diligently at achieving consensus, the fact of the matter is that individual Councillors may believe that only their position ought to prevail and thus they are not prepared to find areas of flexibility or compromise. Rather, such members stake out “their” ground and then attempt to cajole, coerce or convince others of the sanctity of their position. While they may be successful from time to time, more often than not, others simply decline to be moved into more extreme positions and move rather towards the centre ground. 

Consensus-building is not solely the mandate of the Mayor. Each member of Council can play a useful role by seeking understanding as opposed to simply support; clarity as opposed to the search for others who “are on my side”. Giving up a little on an issue is often rewarding rather than losing the ground in its entirety.  

          Representing Council Interests

Communicating out to the public is a challenge. It can be difficult to access the public through available channels; or it can be frustrating in not having sufficient access to community groups as a member of Council.

A challenge not often anticipated by those running for office is the requirement placed on elected representatives to actually represent the views of the Council to the larger community and, in certain circumstances, to advisory boards and committees. Where a Councillor is asked to represent the Mayor at a function, there is a clear expectation that the known position of the Council (i.e. its policy) will be that which is conveyed by the Councillor. This duty has caused a number of problems when the Councillor who may be known for their outspoken views speaks to a position that is entirely contrary to that of the Council. This is both inappropriate and immature but, unfortunately, a very real possibility whenever members of Council see themselves as free agents and thus fully entitled to speak their own minds and not the will of the Council.

As a representative of Council on an advisory ABC (agency, board or committee) where the legislation does not necessitate the Councillor to act only in the best interests of that particular ABC, there is an underlying expectation that the will of Council will be communicated by its representative (if the will of Council is known prior to an issue being debated or discussed by the agency).

          Maintaining the Town’s Best Interests

Organizations like human organisms must take those steps that help it retain its health and vitality. In all instances, a member of Council needs to be aware of what actions contribute to the municipality’s well-being and those actions that might bring it into disrespect. While very positive and useful decisions may be recommended by the CAO on most issues, there may be some that a Council simply does not believe are either warranted or currently in the best interests of the Town. Determining an alternate course of action is always an option provided that what is finally approved by the Council is, in the opinion of the Council, the appropriate choice for this Town. Every decision and policy choice needs to be seen through that perspective: what do we as the elected leaders believe will best serve the needs of our residents both now and in the future?

Maintaining or seeking the Town’s best interests also requires taking the long view when immediate results may not be forthcoming and when the public wants to see results now. Councillors need to commit their full attention and resources to what they see as being the Town’s best interests now and into the future. 

          Preparing for Meetings

While the scope of the issues confronting Council might seem overwhelming and the size of the agenda package daunting, there is no simple way to get ahead of the issues than to set aside the time to read the agenda package carefully while making notes of questions or issues not fully understood.

Meeting preparation is an essential aspect in the life of a member of Council. While it may appear to be onerous for some because they have never felt comfortable with reading, learning how to review reports and discern what the key governance issues are is not as difficult as it might first appear. Being prepared for meetings, however, is critical to the success of every Councillor. For some, and based largely on their background, time availability and interest in all issues, pursuing all of the agenda materials at length and then reading through the attached linked materials is considered if not a joy then at least an interesting part of their day. For others, scanning more than a three-page summary which highlights the issues and recommendations seems to provide more than enough “evidence” to make decisions or accept the CAO’s recommendation(s). 


The foregoing may not be an exhaustive list but is certainly indicative of the broad role that each member of Council (including the Mayor) has. These are absolutely fundamental to the success of a Council and need to be viewed by all members as applying to each member. That is, while the Mayor has additional expectations placed on their position, the foregoing also applies.

©George B Cuff & Associates Ltd.

1. Legislation

The role of a chief administrative officer (CAO) is multi-faceted and includes those aspects referred to by legislation and that which has been referred or delegated to the CAO by contract or by resolution. This includes:

Chief administrative officers responsibilities

207   The chief administrative officer

  1. is the administrative head of the municipality;
  2. ensures that the policies and programs of the municipality are implemented;
  3. advises and informs the council on the operation and affairs of the municipality;
  4. performs the duties and functions and exercises the powers assigned to a chief administrative officer by this and other enactments or assigned by council.

Performance of major administrative duties

208 (1) The chief administrative officer must ensure that

  1. minutes of each council meeting
    1. are recorded in the English language,
    2. include the names of the councillors present at the council meeting,
    3. are given to council for adoption at a subsequent council meeting, and
    4. are recorded in the manner and to the extent required under section 216.4(6) when a public hearing is held;
  2. all bylaws, minutes of council meetings and other records and documents of the municipality are kept safe;
  3. the Minister is sent a list of all the councillors and any other information the Minister requires within 5 days after the term of the councillors begins;
  4. the council is advised in writing of its legislative responsibilities under this Act.

(2)  Subsection (1) applies to the chief administrative officer in respect of council committees that are carrying out the powers, duties and functions delegated to them by the council.

2. Generally Accepted vs Legislated Roles

Every administrator (referred hereafter as the Chief Administrative Officer or CAO) has both legislated requirements and generally accepted management expectations. The former, while very important, are often easier/less stressful to fulfill because they are specified in the Act and thus it could be argued, leave little to personal interpretation. The “generally accepted management expectations” are more frequently what can undermine relationships and cause a rift between the Council and their senior employee.

We view the position of CAO as critical because of two central aspects to this role:

      a. It is a policy advisory function

This is essential if Council as the policymaker is to have all of the information it needs to make sound decisions. The CAO as chief policy advisor is charged with ensuring that all of the key and relevant policy options have been identified and properly balanced prior to recommending that which appears to make the most administrative sense. This, then, leaves to Council the obligation of determining the proper political choices to be made.

This function of a CAO also helps to separate the policy and administrative roles. It might be likened to the narrow portion of the hourglass where information is channeled in both directions but where there is some degree of control (and protection) over the administrative resources such that this function is maintained as distinct from that of those charged with setting policy.

      b. It is also an administrative guidance function 

Members of the management group should expect to receive direction from someone schooled in local government administration who has a broad understanding of the issues. The CAO acts as the main contact with the political level and, when necessary, as a buffer between the departments and the policymakers. The apolitical nature of staff is thereby protected, and the administration is left to be managed according to sound management principles rather than by political whim regardless of how well-intentioned.

These two functions, policy advice and administrative guidance, form the basis of what value a CAO is expected to bring to the table.

A CAO’s ability to carry out these roles depends in large measure on their ability to build relationships with those in the organization (particularly at the senior level) and to develop a strong relationship to the Mayor as well as to all of Council. He (in this instance) is expected to advise Council regularly and comprehensively such that the latter is able to develop a high degree of confidence in his ability to carry out the tasks involved.

This confidence is an elusive factor and one that dominates the life of each and every CAO across Canada. Indeed, every chief officer that we have ever worked with has commented on the absolute necessity of building a high level of confidence with the Mayor and Councillors in order to make the system work as intended.

The responsibility of a CAO includes all aspects of the administration including the duty of advising the Mayor and members of Council; ensuring that the Mayor in particular is updated on emerging issues; ensuring a focus on quality customer service; supporting and coaching team members; ensuring sound policies are developed; establishing the necessary supporting procedures; participating as a member of the senior management team; supporting effective administration; and working collegially with the Mayor.

3. Relationships (General)

As we view it, a CAO’s ability to carry out these roles depends in large measure on his ability to build relationships with those in the organization (particularly at the senior level) and to develop a strong relationship to Council. This is generally a function of his ability to advise Council regularly and comprehensively such that the latter is able to develop a high degree of confidence in his ability to carry out the tasks involved.

There are various reasons why we place such a strong emphasis on relationship and confidence building. First, the decisions of the governing body are often predicated on their confidence in the advice provided by their administration. Where there is a substantial degree of confidence, it may be presumed that the Council will accept the advice and provide their approval by way of resolution, policy or by by-law. This is not to say that there will not be suggestions for change or amendment or questions relative to options that have been presented. There is not, however, any likelihood of handwringing over the “what ifs” after the meeting, given that Council feels confident that it has received all of the salient and available information and thus its decisions, regardless of their popularity, are likely sound and sustainable.

Secondly, the decisions being made by a Council on the advice of its CAO are assumed to be relatively “high level” and of substantive impact on the delivery of local government services or the resolution of issues. As a result, it is imperative that the advice of the CAO is presented in an honest, comprehensive and straight-forward manner without reference to the potential political fall-out which might occur. That is because determining or predicting fall-out is a role for Council and is not one for the CAO. 

Similarly, Council members should be able to receive the reports and advice of the CAO with complete confidence. Both Council and the CAO will recognize that a perception that decisions have been mishandled or with less than complete objectivity and professionalism, may negatively impact the Town. Such decisions may become the matter of lawsuits if not carefully managed and may cost the Town reputational harm if it is found that the Town acted without taking all the steps that would be considered by peers in similar circumstances as “reasonable, logical”. 

Thirdly, the role and performance of the CAO impacts the perception that a Council can have of its complete administration and particularly those at the senior management level. If the relationship between the Council and CAO is one based on trust and respect then there is more likely to be a similar degree of confidence in the work and reports of other members of the senior management team. If there is a lack of trust, then it might be expected that members of Council will begin to bypass the CAO and deal directly with the other senior managers. If the Council has confidence in the ability of its CAO to make quality decisions, this transfers as well to their ability to recruit top quality people for senior level positions as well as being able to make prudent decisions relative to their hiring or dismissal. 

3 (a) Relationship Building with the Mayor and Council as a Whole

While it needs to be made clear that the CAO is responsible to Council as a whole, it is also readily apparent to most that the Mayor and CAO have a very important relationship which needs to be built almost immediately after the election. This is not intended to be solely a one-on-one relationship, but it is one which is “set apart” from that of Council-CAO. This ought to be built on mutual respect which will (or should) develop over time. That will be contingent on how well the CAO manages the Town and how he relates to all members of Council. The Mayor will obviously be made aware of the evaluations of her colleagues on Council and may also be made aware of any discord in the office or via the outside staff.

The CAO needs to see this relationship as unique and as front of mind in any weekly planning. Time needs to be set aside with the Mayor such that any and all questions she may have been dealt with on a priority basis. While this should not become a “friend” relationship, it should be one built on respect and overall harmony and trust. 

At the same time, it needs to be made clear that the role of a CAO is set out in legislation as being subservient to the Council as a whole. This is an important distinction in that all too often the Mayor or a powerful Councillor will exert influence over the CAO as though they had ownership of this role. Such a misapprehension of roles should never be tolerated by other members of Council as it establishes a dangerous precedent for future administrator-Council relationships and because it is contrary to the law.

One of the key requirements and expectations of a CAO is reflected in the quality of their relationship to Council as a whole. The CAO reports to Council, not the Mayor nor any other single individual on the Council regardless of perceived experience, voice or background. Council judges the success or lack thereof of any CAO. This judgment is largely a reflection of how the CAO has done managing the municipal resources (human and otherwise) and how well they have “managed” Council’s expectations.

One of the key components of a well-rounded performance review system is an assessment of the relations that the CAO has developed and maintained with all members of Council, including the relationship to the Mayor. That relationship is contingent on the CAO ensuring that Council members are regularly briefed on its governance roles, as well as the issues of the day such that they are able to maintain an awareness of what is happening in the Town and where their collective engagement is required.

The way a Council begins their role as elected officials is also important to how it plays out. Where the orientation is comprehensive yet focused this Council will have a solid basis on which to proceed. This starting point for any Council is critical and never to be taken for granted. And if the administration is paying close attention and listening to the feedback of Councillors, they will make the improvements necessary to ensure that the ideas being communicated have considerable “staying power”.

Reports from the CAO should be addressed to the “Mayor and Councillors” and any advice presented to one should be immediately copied to all others on Council. This is one of the key mechanisms for communicating this critical understanding. While the CAO needs to have a particular (and special) relationship to the Mayor based on more extensive contact with the chief elected official, he must ensure that the proximity of that relationship does not interfere with the separation of roles. The Mayor acts as Council’s liaison to the CAO and will pass both information and comments along that she feels are significant. That relationship, however, must not grow into something it is not intended to be or there will accrue negative results.

The CAO has an obligation to assist Council in coming to grips with its governance role and understanding what is required to lead both a community and a Council. This is significant in that the CAO will prove their worth in helping Council establish how it is to guide, to set priorities and to develop and monitor what is happening “on the ground” (again, pointing to the significant impact that the orientation should play).

Further, and again due to the somewhat closer relationship that the CAO will have to members of Council, he will be in a position to discern when things are seemingly going off the rails. Where this is the case, the CAO should initiate discussions beginning (and sometimes ending) with the Mayor in order to express their concern about what is happening and how it is affecting the sense of team harmony and how that negatively impacts the administration and their productivity.

It would be useful for the CAO to draft for Council approval certain protocols that establish how this relationship will function. Such protocols need to include:

  • Direction given to the CAO.
  • Direction given to other members of the administration.
  • Contacting staff for information/advice.
  • Guidance as to who is expected at the Council table.
  • Distribution/use of Councillors’ access to information.
  • Access by the CAO to legal advice.
  • Role of CAO at meetings with political leaders.
  • Role of CAO in approval of Councillor expense accounts.

3 (b) The CAO-Staff Relationship

The CAO has at least one other very significant audience with whom to maintain a high degree of confidence. The administration holds the keys to whether or not the decisions of the Council are being translated into action. If the CAO and their senior staff are on the same page, then it is likely that the decisions of Council will successfully work their way down the system. Where there is a lack of confidence in the CAO by senior staff, an undercurrent of non-support will send waves across the organization and will result in discontent, low morale and poor performance. The CAO has to be the team leader and in order for that to happen, he has to be able to engender respect for his role. 

As chief administrative officer, one of the principal functions is to provide both a directing and coordinating role vis-a-vis other staff. The CAO is to be responsible for the functions and activities carried out by subordinate staff. While it is apparent that the CAO will need to know something about each of their areas of responsibility, it is equally evident that the CAO will need to rely upon the expertise and academic training possessed by each of these individuals. 

Part of the CAO’s mandate in this regard is to ensure that the Town is adhering to modern, transparent and fair HR (human resources) policies and processes. This necessitates that the CAO retain someone with that skill set and training or at least some exposure and then sufficiently delegate the HR duties so that, again, someone internally is being groomed to take hold of this very important responsibility. Ensuring that all HR practices are in place for a municipality of this size should be viewed as a high-level priority by the CAO. While this may not require additional staffing, it does necessitate the specific delegation of responsibilities to the appropriate individual in the current hierarchy/structure. Whether these HR practices are being adhered to in a constructive and fair manner is often reflected in staff morale. 

None of the foregoing precludes the CAO from exercising their authority to determine the most effective deployment of resources. This requires wisdom in structuring (and restructuring) departments (subject to the Council’s approval of the number and name of those departments reporting to the CAO); recruiting and placing senior level personnel; and, at times, replacing those who may no longer fit the requirements to which they were originally retained.

3 (c) Relationship to the Public

The CAO also has an important role in setting the tone of the Town’s relationship with the public. If the CAO sees the public as the client and the most important audience that the staff have for their work, then the responsiveness of the CAO will underline this sense of closeness to the people being served. If, on the other hand, the CAO is seemingly more interested in the décor of the office, it might be expected that other staff will respond with indifference to the needs and complaints of the public.

Municipalities are in the business of customer service. This is never easy and will be marked by a diverse set of voices with very strong (and contradictory) ideas about what projects ought to be done next. Council and management must be prepared to respond to all sorts of demands both reasonable and unreasonable. The job is not always easy but a positive attitude toward the public will not only help, but it should also be considered as essential.

Maintaining a positive profile in the Town should be expected of the CAO as indicative of the “service first” mentality throughout the workforce. 

4. Principal Advisor

The CAO is, or should be, Council’s main advisor. While a Council may seek and carefully listen to the advice of other senior staff, there should be little argument that the CAO is their principal voice of clarity relative to the evolution and development of key issues. Where a CAO adds the most value is through the impact they have on the decisions of their Council. The principle “what gets decided gets done” is (or should be) largely true. And if this is the case, it is critical that Council receives first rate advice on each and every issue on their agenda.

It is our view that the CAO should:

  • take forward to Council any issues which he is not familiar with and which is not a matter which is subject to a current council policy or bylaw.
  • provide his advice to Council in written form relative to any such issue, clearly outlining the key elements of the issue and including his recommendation as to the appropriate action by the Council.
  • identify the concerns of the residents and advise Council as to the essence of any concerns and what he has been doing about them.
  • ensure that the services of the organization are clearly defined and are in concert with the expectations of the residents.
  • create position descriptions which reflect actual and current duties to be provided by each of the personnel.
  • empower staff to take action on their areas of responsibility.
  • provide support for staff in the face of any criticism from the public or from the Council; take corrective action vis-à-vis poor performance where that is justified; provide confidential performance feedback to staff on an annual basis.
  • coordinate the efforts of the staff through regular (preferably at least once bi-weekly) meetings.
  • encourage ongoing and relevant training for staff.
  • ensure that the compensation plan and personnel policies are appropriate and fair for all employees.

Managerial procedures should also be the purview of the CAO. Whereas the Council is responsible for establishing the policies of the system, the CAO needs to ensure that those are supported by effective administrative procedures. The CAO also will be charged with the development and approval of administrative “directives”.

Council members are not expected to have in-depth familiarity with all of the issues and legislative challenges which will face the Town. These might be familiar to a longer-term employee or department head but unlikely that Council will have had much contact with some of the Provincial legislation or requirements pertaining to such matters as solid waste sites, planning and development, regional agreements, annexations, etc. On these and a multitude of other administrative issues the CAO is expected to grasp the basics such that a reasonable explanation can be provided to Council. Even though the Council does not need to understand the nuances involved, the policy implications have to be described sufficiently such that Council can discern the potential impacts of implementing this policy or that. 

It needs to be understood that the issues that should be presented to a Council by the CAO for its policy guidance should be those that are significant and applicable to issues for which no policy exists. These should always be accompanied by the written advice of the CAO and should include reference to any current policy that may need to be changed or waived or to a proposed new policy that ought to be drafted by the CAO and presented to Council. 

It is our view that the CAO should be familiar with the current range of policies (the policy bank) so that as issues arise, those which are not subjects of a current policy will be presented to Council at the same time as a freshly minted draft policy for Council to consider. Although this seems to place a lot of emphasis on the development of new policies, it also needs to be underlined that many issues on a Council’s agenda might be considered a “one off”, which ought to be addressed as a standalone item rather than the subject of a much more complex policy process.

5. Leadership to Administration

Another significant role played by the CAO is that of the administrative team leader responsible for organizing and building the skills and abilities necessary to discharge the functions of a Town. The CAO is responsible for ensuring that there is a strong focus on quality customer service using a team approach. This requires training and coaching senior staff in what the Town regards as “quality service”. 

Further, the leadership must not only encourage all members of the administration to pursue service excellence, the CAO and their team must “walk the talk” such that those following can model their performance and attitude in terms of what they see on a daily basis in the lives and management styles of the CAO and his subordinates.

A part of this responsibility is to build into the direct reports and through them to the rest of the administration, the type of successes that are possible through collaborative efforts. This is never accomplished at once or through an individual effort but over the course of time and through the combined efforts of all senior team members.

The CAO also has a delicate balance to maintain in terms of his leadership “at the table”. He needs to be seen as “in charge” without using the powers attached to the role in such a way as to intimidate his colleagues. His role as meeting chair (at a senior management team meeting) is to guide discussions, solicit solutions to issues, encourage respect for the Council, and plan administrative response to the Council’s leadership (as expressed through the budget and strategic plan). If the message is one of empowerment and support for a collegial approach, then unilateral decisions should be minimal. 

Council also needs to have confidence that its decisions are going to be carried out by the administration immediately (i.e., as soon as realistically possible) after the Council meeting. Thus, regardless of the advice of the CAO and administration being deemed acceptable or not, the decision of Council is that which defines the resulting action. The CAO is responsible for ensuring that the decisions of Council are implemented as quickly as possible after the motion approving such action.

The CAO also has the responsibility of including any senior staff/subject matter experts in the briefing so as to alert Council to the important role played by not only the CAO but also by their department heads. This has never been intended as a “one man band” (i.e., the responsibility of one person) but rather a collective effort, representative of an “all hands-on deck” philosophy. Council members are not so inexperienced in life that they could be led to believe that a CAO will function on their own or will have all of the answers. 

The CAO is expected to play the predominant role in acting as the team leader of the administration.  In this respect, he is expected to act as the bridge between the Council as policymakers on the one hand and the department heads/senior staff as policy advisors and implementers of policy on the other. The CAO represents the narrow portion of the hourglass in that information and advice going to Council needs to be cleared through their office whereas the direction from Council and guidance on how the will of Council is to be discharged also flows downward from the CAO.

While the CAO needs to have a basic understanding of the scope of services and programs delivered by the Town, one person cannot be expected to the expert in such matters where there are qualified staff leading a department(s). It is a reflection of a CAO’s ability and competence to recognize the need for able and sufficient senior staff to play important leadership roles within a reasonable budget envelope. Such people will have a more in-depth understanding of their department or program area whereas the CAO will be regarded as the overall manager of the entire system. This suggests that the CAO still needs to be sufficiently briefed as to the key issues being faced by each department and/or service area.

The CAO is also responsible for directing/choosing who is to be hired in the key senior positions in the organization. Any position reporting to the CAO should be hired by the CAO. Any position reporting directly to a department head should be recommended for hiring by the department head and unless there is some major red flag that the latter missed, the advice of the department head would be accepted. To do otherwise or to have the CAO make all such decisions sends the loud message “I don’t trust your judgment!”. 

The request for new positions should be approved by the CAO (subject to budget approval) as should a recommendation to change the organization structure. The decision as to the number of departments reporting to the CAO should be the purview of Council. Those populating all such positions should be the responsibility of the CAO.

While not a responsibility to be grasped easily and readily, the CAO is also accountable for the behaviour of their direct reports. The CAO must maintain an awareness of what they are doing and whether or not their decisions are within the scope of their respective mandates. Collectively, the CAO and direct reports set the “tone at the top” from an administrative point of view. As a consequence, their treatment of others must reflect fairness and professionalism in all instances. 

Whereas Council might feel like it is receiving reports on various administrative decisions or proposals direct from individual departments, those reports will have been endorsed by the CAO or they will not reach Council’s agenda. To do otherwise is to invite Council to begin managing departments. The CAO’s initials (or signature) on reports going to Council are absolutely essential so that Council knows that it is receiving the best advice that the administration can provide (not simply the best that one department in isolation can provide). 

Managerial “directives” should also be the purview of the CAO. Whereas the Council is responsible for establishing the policies of the system, the CAO needs to ensure that those are supported by effective administrative procedures/directives. 

  • Quality of Reports

It is our view that the principal mandate of the senior staff, particularly the Chief Administrative Officer, is to advise the Council as to its policies, programs, decisions and budget.  A CAO is normally retained due to their expertise and experience.  It is that which Council wishes to “tap”. Such advice should be prepared and delivered by the CAO to Council in advance of any meeting (whether Committee or Council).  

It is ultimately the Chief Administrative Officer’s responsibility to check each report to Council in light of the following:

  • does this issue need to be decided by Council?
  • is this issue of considerable political interest to Council; does that matter to our administrative analysis?
  • has the appropriate format been followed; were any necessary adjustments made?
  • is the information complete; could a reasonable person make a well-reasoned decision based on what we have provided?
  • is it well‑written; is it grammatically correct?
  • do I agree with the recommendation(s); if yes, have I signed it off; if not, have I attached my own report?

In the final analysis, it is the responsibility of the Chief Administrative Officer to ensure that any reports which are to be presented to Council meet the stated (written) standards of quality and completeness.  This does not necessitate that the Chief Administrative Officer defer or dismiss reports which he may not fundamentally agree with but, rather, that he ensure that his own opinion, if contrary to that of the writer, is presented to Council as the covering document. In some instances, the Chief Administrative Officer might wish to request Council to defer or delay a decision until the management has had further opportunity to study the issue(s).

6. Fiscal Management

Ensuring that the financial affairs of the municipality are being properly managed is also a requisite function of the CAO. While local governments often associate that responsibility with the Treasurer/Chief Financial Officer, the person most accountable for the fiscal health of the Town is the CAO. 

Such a statement is not contrary to any delegation of responsibility to the Chief Financial Officer (CFO). Rather, it is a reflection of the principle of personal accountability of the CAO. The CFO is (or rather, should be) the person most likely to have the best grasp on the financial affairs of the community. The latter (i.e., the CAO) is the key member of the administration who should be held accountable by Council for ensuring that the fiscal affairs of the Town are always maintained in a sound, healthy state. Thus, it is incumbent upon the CAO to choose someone for the important post of Chief Financial Officer who has the requisite skills and academic preparation, realizing how important that role is to the Council and residents of the community. In this instance, we would expect to find the position of Manager of Corporate Services/Finance as one of the key advisors to the CAO (and thus to the Council). 

The CAO is accountable to Council for ensuring that the administration has developed a comprehensive approach to budget preparation which includes an annual schedule which can be tracked by Council. This will likely include a separate process for each of the operating and capital budgets which takes into account the Council’s decisions on strategic priorities. Under the CAO’s guidance, management will prepare and then monitor key indicators which when shared with Council enables the latter to build both confidence in the state of Town finances as well as to understand that the indicators are quite sufficient to maintain a high level of awareness of how the Town is doing in comparison to relevant other Towns and in relation to the previous year(s). 

The CAO also has the responsibility for overseeing internal processes (as prepared by the CFO) which guide critical decisions such as what the Town does to guard against favouring one supplier over another; what expenditure levels drive the need for additional bids; what preference if any is given to local contractors; what is done to ensure that they are aware of projects for which they might be qualified; what critical aspects the auditor is going to examine to ensure applicable procedures are followed and documented. 

With respect to the latter, the CAO will understand that while the management has to be aware of audit recommendations and follow-up, it is Council who is the auditor’s client. This knowledge will result in a transparent Audit relationship based on regular bi-annual meetings between Council and the auditor.

7. Direction-Setting

Every CAO is expected to be instrumental in advising/guiding the Council relative to any discussion or planning exercise regarding its priorities. While the Council has the principal role in setting forth the vision for and with the community, this does not happen in a vacuum. The CAO is expected to play a significant role in ensuring that Council is aware of “big vision” planning. Put simply, the Council should be able to expect the CAO to advise on the importance of having a rational view of its priorities and an expectation that these will impact the business plan, budget and day to day decisions.

Issues which are presented to the Council should be framed, where applicable, in terms of how the issue impacts the larger picture. The CAO’s report to Council will highlight the history of the issue and why it is important; its relevance to the Council’s already stated strategic priorities, and where this current issue lies in terms of its relevance to Council’s bigger picture. Is this a “one-off” or is the issue related to a series of others; does it set a precent which will come back to bite the Council or is it to be considered on its own merits? 

What the CAO should not do is provide Council with a comprehensive draft “strategic plan” and ask for its approval. Baptizing the will of the administration is not a good example of Council’s vision.

The CAO’s role is best described as a facilitator of the strategic plan through ensuring that an independent voice is retained to assist Council with their process; and requiring and advising senior management of their support roles in the process. 

8. An Effective System

An effective Council-CAO system could be said to exist when the following results are in evidence:

  • Clear and forthright policy advice to Council to aid in its decision-making; well-researched opinions on the key issues and apolitical advice on how such issues should be handled;
  • A sound team concept amongst all members of staff; coordination of all staff so that the needs of the Town supersede all other considerations;
  • Discipline throughout the organization; acceptable behaviour within the Council's approved rules; enforcement of policies as authorized by the CAO’s bylaw or by Council policies;
  • Effective use of staff resources; the avoidance of any unnecessary duplication; combining job duties as necessary;
  • Strong fiscal management systems; a solid grasp of the Town’s finances; ongoing advice to both Council and to the department heads; assistance to the other senior staff so as to improve their financial management skills;
  • Positive administrative leadership and the ability to instill a good work ethic in all staff; a sense of “mentoring” of solid management skills;
  • New techniques and ideas; the encouragement to come forward with better ways of doing the work which needs to be done;
  • Positive human resource management systems; well-trained and motivated staff; appropriate personnel policies; a balanced, comprehensive compensation policy;
  • Enhanced employee morale through a better sense of purpose and vision;
  • A more interdependent system with teamwork evident between departments; and
  • A strong mandate for Council which concentrates on the need to set political direction; and the expectation that staff will be properly guided in carrying out the will of Council.

This relationship needs to be built on a base of mutual respect and trust or it will not survive for long. Council needs to know that the CAO is working for it and that the CAO will always strive to provide Council with clear options, full information and sound advice. Further, it is essential that the CAO act within the parameters of current Council policy rather than independently. The CAO, in turn, needs to recognize Council's support for his intentions and actions.

9. What if the Reality Proves Otherwise?

While it is unfortunate and seldom happens, it is possible that a Council can be served by someone who lacks professionalism; plays silly games; is caught up in power; listens only to the Mayor; abuses senior and junior staff; has an anger (or substance abuse or pornography) problem; etc. All of the foregoing has happened. However, none of the foregoing are reasons to abandon the notion that a solid administrator with considerable authority is not the way to go. Council just has to make better choices and get the recruitment right at the outset. Find the best person available after utilizing a thorough (and preferably independent) executive search process. 

10. Summary

The foregoing should provide ample evidence of the important role played by the CAO in ensuring that the Town is managed (and governed) in an effective, efficient and open manner. The CAO is critical to Council being able to govern with confidence; and essential if the administration is to sense that its work is valued by those elected to govern the system. His performance can be judged by the confidence level of Council in his capabilities and personal style, by the ease of conversations internally where staff do not feel spied upon or mistreated, by managers feeling encouraged, supported and where necessary defended, and by the public who realize that this is a difficult job which can be done in a professional and pleasant manner.

©George B Cuff & Associates Ltd.