Who Runs the Town?

The CAO runs the town. The day-to-day ‘buck stops here’ decisions go with the position. It is the position where the corporate executive power comes into one pair of hands.

The Council sets policy, passes laws, makes political decisions and sets political courses for various aspects of the corporate and community entity called The City of Grand Forks.

The respective positions are analogues to the corporate roles of the CEO and the Board.

The Council has One Employee, the CAO which apparently is the only person working for the City that council members have any direct power over. All the other employees are employees of the City and their ultimate boss / supervisor is the CAO.

In order to fulfill their roles of making policy, passing laws and setting political course the Council members rely on their own personal experiences, knowledge and training … but in most matters related to regulations, laws, and the mechanics / business of city operations the council relies on, depends on staff assistance. It has to work that way because Staff are trained and experienced people who work in these areas but the primary way a person becomes a Council member is by winning a popularity contest. It is beneficial if they have experience in government but it is Not mandatory. Employees get hired on experience and merit but council do not get elected on either (though it helps). (How else do people with no experience whatsoever in government get elected to top positions?)

This means that in many, likely most, situations where Staff and Council communicate and work together it is Staff who are the brightest and most capable minds in the room. Even bright councilors depend on staff for information and interpretation of things they know next to nothing about.

This is how city hall works. – It’s also how it malfunctions.

It sets up a system where a combination of a strong smart CAO and an ineffective council can result in situations that rankle voters and taxpayers.

Decisions made by the CAO will tend to reflect a business first attitude because the CAO’s job requires a business centric attitude. Council is the human part of the equation and social, community, ethical ideas, motives and initiatives are their responsibility. If they, council, are ineffective in that role then the things the City does will reflect that: people will perceive those as lacking humanity and a community vision. With an unbalanced apparatus how could they be thinking otherwise?

If Council ignores Staff input and makes short term pleasures more important than long term responsibilities (or personal agendas) the policy of the day then eventually somebody down the road will have to start making tough and painful decisions. And even though a Council may have to set a new policy direction Staff will have to execute it.

These are extremes and the real world is many situations that fall somewhere between them.

But an inexperienced council, a combative council, a council at opposition to staff is an ineffective council and that does not lead to a properly functioning city until they get their house in order.

The current regime in City Hall began with all those problems as well as having a temporary caretaker CAO. And it suffered for it. We all did. That also goes for those taxpayers not paying attention or taking a side.

How is that?

An analogy: If the City were a car then our tax dollars are the Gas. A properly functioning car gets good gas mileage; meaning more city work gets done for the tax dollars spent. In the early part of this year our City wasn’t getting very good mileage. It has improved albeit slowly and not to the level of satisfaction many would like to see.

The current council is down one member and waiting to hear the fate of another. You could say they’re distracted. And depending on the dynamic mix of the ‘new’ council things might get better. They might … but then again they might not.

Who is to blame for all of this?

Well all this comes back to the lap of the voters. You and me.

We elected this council. And those that came before.

They chose policies, and they chose CAOs, and we have come to the place we are in now.

If the voters choose to not learn how it all works, if they pay no attention to how it is working (or not) then the chances are good they will react emotionally, in ignorance, to situations that others tell them about. Meaning on second hand, filtered and likely biased information. And their ignorance and biases will mean it will be likely they will get it wrong.

That is when they will vote in people who Don’t Fit for reasons that Don’t Work. How else do you think candidates that run on platforms that scream “I don’t know how it works!” get elected?

Put simply: Elect Bozo the Clown and you get a Circus. Elect Revolutionaries and you get a Fight.

That might provide for entertaining spectacle BUT in the long run it’s playing with our futures …

So when you bemoan the current situation and want to get upset with someone please start by looking in the mirror and making your comments there. And follow that up by paying attention to council directly instead of relying on third parties with their own agendas, biases and failures to get it. We’ll all benefit from it in the long run.


7 thoughts on “Who Runs the Town?

  1. Pewter Matheson

    Great explanation Les, clear and to the point. I wish this essay could be mailed to every voter in Grand Forks a week before voting takes place.

  2. C. Lawrence

    Well, if Council would be forthcoming and honest with the Public, that might be helpful to all concerned. If the CAO isn’t accountable to the Public, and feeds the Council their information. how is honesty and transparency ever going to be part of City government?

  3. Frank Triveri


    I read your article, “Who Runs the Town,” with some interest. Although many of your points are well taken, I wish to take issue with some statements. To begin with CAO’s have absolutely no executive powers. In fact CAOs have no statutory powers at all. A CAO serves at the pleasure of Council. The “buck” stops with the Council!

    Section 147 of the Community Charter provides that Council may (note the may) adopt a by-law, which establishes the Chief Administrative Officer’s position with the following powers, duties and functions:
    1. a) Overall management of the operations of the municipality,
    2. b) Ensuring that the policies, programs and other directions of the Council are implemented,
    3. c) Advising and informing the council on the operation and affairs of the municipality.

    As you pointed out, typically there is the expectation that the individual placed in that position is a highly competent professional capable of exercising this role. However, this does not mean he has “carte blanche” to do what he wants. His powers generally are limited to the three mentioned functions.

    It is the legislative role of Council to set policies, initiate programs and give directions. It is the role of the Mayor as CEO to ensure that these policies are clearly articulated to the CAO and public

    Problems arise, as you again correctly pointed out, when lines are crossed or are perceived to be crossed. Any attempt by Mayor or Council to micro-manage the day- to-day operations of the city would be a problem. By the same token any perception that policies are being set by the CAO or any other city bureaucrat is also a problem.

    Let’s look at an issue at hand, the lay-off (firing) of three city workers without debating the merits of the action. Where does the buck stop in this case? Does the buck stop with the CAO whose role was to dismiss the workers? Was it his administrative role to justify the dismissal on GFTV? Who authorized this cost saving measure, Council or the CAO? Whose role is it to make such decisions? Who should be articulating the rationale behind the decision to the public? It is my contention that Council must own this decision. It is the Mayor’s executive role to provide the public with a clear rationale for the decision and ensure that the dismissal protocol outlined in the collective agreement the Council signed with its CUPE workers is followed.

    1. gftvboss Post author

      Thank you for pointing out the literal arrangement of powers Frank.
      My use of the term ‘executive’ in this regard may be not strictly correct. But the effective role and power of the top civil servant in the city is to execute the wishes of council as laid out in the bylaws passed by council and instructions issued on delving / researching into other matters.
      I’ll admit that I’m not aware of the actual steps the city has taken under the section 147 you quote. Whether or not all 3 of those conditions / powers were given or not and when and by which council.
      In this recent situation with Union positions I find myself in the ranks of those who feel that council appeared to be leaving too much to the CAO.
      Were they were hiding behind the CAO and letting him take all the flak and blame? OR were they using him in that way? This is how it appeared to some.
      Why? I leave that to others to cipher out.
      And yet others seem to think that the CAO has some sort of Svengali-like power over council and they do his wishes. While that might happen in some times and places I’d point out that the roster of councilors contains seasoned veterans as well as neophytes. And given the controversial nature of the situation taxpayers should expect council to make themselves more aware of the actual events transpiring and not let it get as far as it did before taking action.
      The outcome works well for our community and the workers and for that I’m pleased.
      But whether or not it came about because of rational, sensitive decision making or as a reaction to the promise of expensive litigation is something we each have to decide for ourselves because those deliberations were done behind closed doors.
      It’s a sad state of affairs we’ve come to in this town when the population is polarized and many mistrust the motives and words of those chosen / elected to govern. I wish I could say I think it will get better but feel that would entail wishful thinking.

  4. Frank Triveri

    I concur with your sentiments, Les. The ultimate solution was a common sense one that could have been arrived at much earlier, avoiding a great deal of anxiety. Of more importance, I’m concerned with the residual effects of the conflict in the work place. Wounds sometimes take quite a time to heal. I agree our community didn’t need further divisions. I too am a touch cynical as to the prospects of improved relations. However, let’s wish that the New Year may provide all an opportunity to start anew and that some mending of walls might begin.

    Keep up the great job you are doing at GFTV. All the best to you for a happy and health-filled New Year.



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