December 05, 2016

The CAO and Council – Leading Down, Out and Up

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The most effective CAOs know how to lead ‘down, out, and up.’

That’s the view of Brock University’s David Siegel. He has studied the traits that make for an effective CAO. He says that those who can manage “down” to staff and departments, “out” to community stakeholders (including the media), and “up” to Council members are the most effective.

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The CAO and Council: Leading Down, Out and Up

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It sounds simple, but it’s a difficult balance to achieve in practice. Mutual respect between Councils and their CAOs and frequent, thoughtful communications are also necessary components of a well-functioning municipality.

The sort of balance described by Prof. Siegel is outlined in the Municipal Government Act and in the Halifax Regional Municipality Charter.  Under the legislation, the CAO is responsible to Council for the proper administration of the affairs of the Municipality in accordance with Council’s policies. The CAO is the means by which Council communicates with employees of the Municipality. In turn, Council provides direction on the administration, plans, policies and programs of the Municipality to the CAO.

Responsibilities of the CAO under the legislation include coordinating and directing the preparation of plans and programs to be submitted to the Council for the construction, rehabilitation and maintenance of municipal property and facilities; ensuring the Municipality’s annual budget is prepared and submitted to Council; administering the budget after adoption; reviewing the drafts of proposed by-laws and policies, and making recommendations to Council with respect to them; as well as any other duties Council may assign.

The challenge faced by CAOs is balancing their relationship with Council while also effectively managing the administrative branch of the Municipality. Councillors make policies and are accountable to the public who elect them. However, the effective implementation of these policies is dependent on the administrative branch’s resources and abilities. In this way, the administrative branch is dependent on the Council to develop reasonable and achievable policy goals.

This reciprocal dependence is reflected in the legislation. The CAO is responsible to Council for the proper administration of affairs, but should also make recommendations to Council on proposed policies. In turn, Council provides direction to the CAO on administration of plans and policies.

Recognizing and understanding this mutual dependence is essential to a successful Council-CAO relationship. If Council and the CAO have differing expectations and goals are not properly communicated between them, things begin to fall apart. When there is not a clear understanding of the organization and each other’s roles, parties can become frustrated when their expectations are not met. This often opens the door to casting blame on one another when goals are not achieved, which undermines public confidence in the Municipality as a whole.

Leading up is an effective way to avoid these pitfalls. However, it is also identified by Prof. Siegel as the most difficult leadership role. In this role, the CAO’s power comes through influence. The CAO must act as a mediator and negotiator between Council and the administrative branch. In leading up, the CAO inspires confidence through expertise, objectivity, and professionalism.  

Prof. Siegel also identifies the most effective balance between the Council-CAO relationship. He recommends parties recognize their overlapping roles, and understand that policy and administration should be complementary. Under this model, the CAO should be oriented to public interest and problem solving. To be successful this model also requires a focus on mutual accommodation and respect.

A recent series by George B. Cuff on the mayor-CAO relationship echoes Prof. Siegel’s model of the optimum relationship between Council and the CAO: “Not being cognizant that the relationship is a partnership, a two-way street, will limit the good that such a relationship can bring to the table”. Mr. Cuff is a former mayor and long-time advisor to municipalities. His recent series “A Healthy Mayor-CAO Relationship” can be found in the August – November 2016 issues of Municipal World magazine.

Prof. Siegel’s model CAO-Council relationship is reflective of the mutually dependent roles outlined in Nova Scotia’s legislation. In this way, the groundwork for effective municipal governance has already been laid. It is up to elected officials and administrators to use this foundation as an opportunity to function effectively and efficiently in the best interests of the communities they serve.

Kevin Latimer, Q.C., is a partner in the Halifax office of Cox & Palmer, and counsel to UNSM. He practices in the areas of municipal and planning law, administrative law, and public law litigation and can be reached at 902-491-4212 or e-mail at coxandpalmer.com. Brittany Larsen is an articled clerk with Cox & Palmer.


Cox & Palmer publications are intended to provide information of a general nature only and not legal advice. The information presented is current to the date of publication and may be subject to change following the publication date.