July 19, Updated 4 pm: Schmid Jumps Ship; Muskoka Ratepayers Association responds with Letter to the Editor to media outlets this week calling for a probe into why township staff are departing or retiring now. The following appeared in the Bracebridge Examiner and What's Up Muskoka. Following the letter is a commentary by Norah Fountain about whether an investigation of this type could even occur given the few rules governing municipal bodies.
Letter to the editor:
The Muskoka Ratepayers’ Association wishes to express our deep concern over the numerous administrative staff and Councillor changes occurring at the Township of Muskoka Lakes. This began with the advent of this Council; which is only a year and a half into its mandate. The recent resignation of the Chief Administrative Officer (COA), the glue that has held the staff together, highlights a troubling trend. It started with the resignation of the Treasurer last year. This was followed by the resignation of one of the newly elected Councillors due to his personal dissatisfaction. A key department was eliminated and the Director was let go. Then came the early retirement of the Works Superintendent, replaced by someone who changed his mind at the last minute, forcing the Township to hire back the retiring Works Superintendent as a part time consultant. The Assistant Fire Chief also took early retirement. One of the Councillors stepped down as Chair of an important Standing Committee of Council. But the latest resignation, that of CAO Walt Schmid, fills us with shock and dismay.
We believe that a strong administrative staff is essential for the efficient, effective and professional running of the day to day functions of the Township. We are wondering whether these retirements and resignations are simply coincidental or whether there is some Council desire to clean administrative house. Another possibility is that staff morale has reached an unprecedented low due to Council’s operating style, which seems to include a lack of trust in and respect for staff, and a tendency to micro-manage.
Because of the high decibel level of the rumour mill that gives credence to some or all of these conjectures, perhaps an investigation by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs needs to occur in order to put all our minds at ease.
Sincerely, Susan Daglish
Muskoka Ratepayers’ Association
Commentary by Norah Fountain: Interesting that the MRA suggests an 'investigation'. As I understand it, the only investigation that can be called on a municipal government is an investigation of a Closed Meeting. There is no mechanism to call an investigation into any other activity, including anything that happens in a Public Meeting. While the MRA shows bravery in voicing what other ratepayers are pondering, perhaps the right thing for some constituent to do is to request an investigation into recent Closed Meetings — especially as Public Meeting minutes seem to be missing any discussions of resolutions or directions to staff about recent news-making issues (MNW has requested information about such resolutions or directions of staff regarding the Tree and Bala Falls but has received no response). For example, the so called Native Marker tree or heritage tree has only appeared in Minutes of the Heritage Committee and has not received direction from council with one exception: the Mayor has received Council's blessing to speak about the Native Marker tree with applicable Ontario cabinet ministers at an upcoming conference of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario or AMO in Ottawa in August.
Which begs another question — at least about protocols and formalities: if Township of Muskoka Lakes Council is so concerned with Aboriginal affairs, has Council formally discussed raising Aboriginal concerns with area band Councils? Otherwise, one could argue the township Council is co-opting an Aboriginal concern for its own means — with no resolution or direction to staff formally in regard to that concern. Perhaps the tree discussion has come up in Closed Session. But the Tree is not on township property and there are no legal or personnel matters in regard to it. So it shouldn't be a Closed Session item. Not to mention the lack of a resolution or direction to Council to file an Individual Environmental Assessment request with the Ministry of Environment regarding the Bala Falls situation. Where is the governance? Behind Closed Doors? If the MRA wants an investigation, they may want to follow the process that is set out. Go to the Township Clerk. Request a Closed Meeting investigation. The Clerk then goes to the Township appointed ombudsman through Association of Municipalities of Ontario (of which the Township pays to belong) and ask for an investigation. Kind of like the fox watching the hen house, isn't it? Township picked AMO to be its investigator in these cases but AMO exists to support local municipalities. But t least it would be a start — and the only start. We may never know what is happening with township staff departures but the MRA is correct in suggesting there is a perception that the workplace situation may not be the best (some evidence of which being the glare given a Township staff member by Mayor Alice Murphy during a presentation this week in Council chambers).
If anyone is curious and wants to read on, here's a layperson's discussion of what can be discussed in Closed session using the Friday 13th session as an example.
A Closed session agenda normally refers directly to whether it is a legal, property or personnel matter. Here is an excerpt from an Agenda on Friday, July 13, 2012 which suggests it was a legal matter they were discussing:
Closed Session to be held for litigation or potential litigation,including matters before administrative tribunals, affecting the municipality, personal matters about an identifiable individual, including municipal employees and a proposed or pending acquisition or disposition of land by the muncipality pursuant to Section 239(2) of the Municipal Act, 2001.
Closed Sessions that cover all three — property, personnel or litigation might raise eyebrows as it would seem like an umbrella statement, but it's possible that all three issues might be related or come up separately. Some wanna be councillor on the campaign trail last election called for No More Closed Meetings. Obviously, both the successful campaigners and non successful ones must realize now that such a campaign promise is a tough one to uphold.
So where do we go from here? Readers are either satisfied that all is well with the Council they voted in and Township Council is doing its best, or they may pay heed to the MRA concerns as that association is vigilant in attending meetings to be the eyes and ears for all taxpayers.