Tuesday, October 2, 2001
The Chronicle Herald

Managing Canada’s amalgamated Cities

by AIMS Senior Fellow, Dr. Michael MacDonald

Ken Meech, the Chief Administrator Officer (CAO) for the Halifax Regional Municipality, has resigned. Amid all the talk of Byzantine internal intrigue and plots, and the cost of the CAO’s early departure, few people seem to be focusing on the central issue for the long term health of Halifax as a dynamic urban community. That issue is the differing but complementary roles of elected officials and public servants, and the management responsibilities of a CAO.

Essentially, our political tradition is based on a notion of checks and balances – the assumption that elected officials develop policy and public servants implement that policy. This has been an effective arrangement for several centuries. In effect, it provides the general public a level of confidence that, despite the uneven talents of elected officials, who come and go, there are a number of professionals in place to provide consistency and good management.

A professional public service is essential especially with politicians of mixed talents and weaknesses who are ravenous for power. When the distinction begins to blur and politicians step into management, then the community is often the victim of cronyism and patronage, which in the past has produced massive mismanagement, huge deficits and a cynical electorate.

Throughout Canada newly amalgamated cities, moreover, are facing a number of challenges which underscore the need for a professional and competently led public service. In the early years of an amalgamated city, councillors are usually fractured along regional lines which reflect the older communities rather than the new city. As a result, few see the big picture. In addition, regional councils throughout Canada are made up not of professional politicians but usually of part-time or retired citizens who are willing to serve the community. Councillors are not necessarily elected because of their intellectual attainments or their experience at managing large urban issues, and few have the time or energy to stay on top of the wide range of issues facing a modern city.

There is no magic powder which will turn a retired school teacher, a car salesperson, or an unemployed labourer into an instant expert on transportation, the environment, public safety and the myriad issues which face regional councils daily throughout our country. Simply put, without a professionally led public service which is constantly being re-trained and managed, taxpayers cannot be assured that their tax dollars will be spent wisely and effectively.

Canada’s larger cities, moreover, are beginning to find a new role for themselves within the Confederation. The economy is actually growing in our cities and not in our provinces. Cities are expected to take on the world and the global economy with scant resources. Trade and investment, international business and finance, and Canada’s future prosperity are in the hands of our cities. For the sake of the nation, our cities must be professionally led and well managed. Experience, moreover, teaches us that business and investment tend to avoid communities that are prey to the political whims of elected officials and who lack the discipline of a good senior management team.

But, to be fair, a city’s management sometimes gets in the way of a politician who thinks he or she has found the unique formula about how to get complex problems solved. But that is the essence of modern political leadership, working with professional managers, keeping the community on side, and getting things done. Public attacks in the media on public servants who can’t answer back are shabby and counter-productive. It destroys a community’s confidence and throughout the country it just looks amateurish and bush league.

Good management and an effective team of elected and unelected officials are essential to the economic and social health of Canada’s modern amalgamated cities. The issues are complex and the challenges demand the best people we can hire. We delude ourselves if we think that we can recruit these people on the cheap. Canada’s municipalities operate not only on a national stage but in the North American job market. The competition for excellent managers is intense.

Finally, a community’s interests, its economic future and its potential growth lie in the hands of politicians and public servants working together in very different roles but with mutual respect and integrity. Where this respect and integrity are lacking a community’s future indeed looks very bleak. A municipality’s public servants need a talented and courageous CAO who can lead them, manage them, and protect them. Taxpayers need the comfort level which such an accountable professional brings to the growth and future prosperity of their community.

Michael MacDonald is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a public policy think tank in Halifax. E-mail: [email protected]