Run this town: The struggle to recruit municipal staff in northern Ontario

Gail Jaremy’s rise through the ranks gave Hornepayne its CAO — and reflects what smaller communities have to do to attract and retain top-level talent
By Nick Dunne - Published on Jun 01, 2021
Gail Jaremy graduated from Western University with an arts degree in 1990. (Courtesy of Gail Jaremy)

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Gail Jaremy never intended to run her town. “It’s not even something that I aspired to do,” says the chief administrative officer of Hornepayne, a northeastern Ontario community of just under 1,000 people.

After graduating from Western University with an arts degree in 1990, Jaremy moved back home to Hornepayne. Following a brief stint working at the local hospital, she spent the rest of the ’90s in an administrative role for CN Rail. In 1999, that job was eliminated; the next year, a part-time opportunity came up at the township. She was the office clerk until 2013, when she was promoted to treasury clerk. In 2015, she became the town’s senior-most staffer — the CAO.

She admits the role was intimidating at first. “But then you gain a little bit more knowledge, and then you gain confidence,” she says. “I can honestly say that I do love my job.”

Jaremy’s rise via internal promotion was Hornepayne’s solution to a broader staffing issue facing small, rural, and northern towns: difficulty hiring and retaining senior staffers, and CAOs in particular.

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The role is essential to the functioning of a municipality: “The CAO is the only employee of council,” notes David Calder, vice-president of the Ontario Municipal Administrators’ Association and CAO of Cambridge. “The CAO technically hires all other employees within the organization and is really the liaison between the administration and the elected officials.”

The position requires broad technical knowledge on files ranging from land-use planning and water treatment to taxes and bylaws. It also demands political acuity: understanding council dynamics, the platform goals of various councillors, and how to manage conflict. “We’ve heard a lot of our members refer to their role as almost like an orchestra leader,” says Maureen McCauley, OMAA’s executive director. “You’re bringing together all of the various components and making sure that there’s some logical song at the end of it all.”

When Calder hears from colleagues inquiring about a new job posting, he says, they’re often asking about budget and staffing levels, how big a community is and what kinds of amenities it offers, and what the workload is like. “Some of those things are difficult to check the box on in some smaller places,” he says, adding that potential applicants often wonder “Am I really going to be able to be a visionary and a strategic thinker, or am I going to be really busy doing just day-to-day stuff?”

And then there is the matter of compensation: bigger municipalities and the private sector generally offer higher salaries. “Let’s be honest: it’s also about finances,” Calder says. “A larger municipality can probably pay more than a smaller [town], so you may attract a different level of CAO.”

According to Ontario’s sunshine list of public employees with annual salaries exceeding $100,000, the average CAO in 2020 was paid $176,264, though salaries tend to be higher in larger cities: the city manager for Richmond Hill, for example, made $311,255 in 2020, while the CAO of Mattawa earned just over $100,000. Jaremy made almost $115,000 last year.

In a 2019 survey of CAOs, StrategyCorp states that “in rural and northern municipalities, there is competition with mining or other resource industry major local employers in the private sector” and quotes an anonymous CAO as saying, “Getting new people is always hit or miss; from our professional side we need to develop and retain from within.”

Charles Cirtwill, president and CEO of the Northern Policy Institute, says, “The salaries in those private-sector positions are far more attractive than small municipalities can offer.” When it comes to recruiting CAOs, he says, “it’s probably the same sort of challenges that you find when you’re trying to replace other professionals, like physicians. The challenge of attracting them to smaller communities — salaries are lower, and even though the quality of life and certainly the dollar goes further, the perception is that you’re moving into a place that’s not readily accessible. There’s a lot of stereotypes and lack of knowledge of northern Ontario.”

Among the northern municipalities seeking permanent CAOs are Espanola — which in March hired an interim CAO, clerk, and treasurer — and Chapleau, which is also relying on an interim CAO, according to town staff. Until recently, Gravenhurst and Manitouwadge were seeking to fill their highest staff positions, too. Hornepayne mayor Cheryl Fort confirms that, in the past few months, several neighbouring municipalities have also been looking to fill senior positions, including CAOs. “We joke because I’m like, ‘Don’t you be offering Gail a job. What we’ve done, in Hornepayne, is we train up and ensure that there’s training available,” Fort says.

When Jaremy took the job, she developed technical knowledge through courses and training opportunities, though she says she also learned through the back-and-forth at work with provincial officials on different files: “One thing for me was learning about environmental-compliance approvals: drinking-water licences, all the documents and things you have to have for compliance.”

Most of her senior staff had been in their positions for less than a year, so much of her time was spent training the new staff — two clerks and an administrative assistant, to begin with — while she was also learning on the job. “I was setting the organization up so people could succeed in their own positions before I could really focus on my own,” she says, adding, “I’m still learning every day.”

Calder says this is a common experience for small-town CAOs. “It’s really great because you get to experience a lot; you’re hands-on,” he says, noting that this often makes small towns springboards for senior staff to get work in larger municipalities. “The difficulty, though, is sometimes you don’t get to do that strategic thinking,” he adds.

Because of the work Jaremy has put into staffing her team, she says, she’s been able to work on higher-level planning: “We’re redoing our official plan and getting a zoning bylaw — all of those foundational documents weren’t there when I went in there.” Efforts are also being made to drive investment in the local economy by attracting businesses, including a hotel. “We’ve come a long way,” says Jaremy. “There’s still lots of improvements to be made, but I think we’ve accomplished a lot in the last couple of years.”

Cirtwell says that he’s had conversations with institutions about the idea of setting up a program “either for students coming out of their first post-secondary [program] or folks who are mid-career — and developing our own municipal trainees here.” 

Still in development is a succession plan to address future staffing needs. According to former Tecumseh CAO Tony Haddad, that involves creating a recruitment strategy for senior staff and identifying ways to offer professional-development and skills training. “If and when the time comes, they would have internal candidates who are qualified and prepared,” says Haddad, a former co-chair of ONWARD, a coalition to develop municipal leaders.

Though Jaremy never expected to be overseeing the town’s operations when she first started working for the municipality two decades ago, the experience has been gratifying. “It’s just a good feeling knowing that you are being a part of something positive and helping out with change,” she says.

As for any concern that she may leave Hornepayne for another job elsewhere, Jaremy says she’s here to stay: “I don’t want to start from scratch. I want to finish what we’re doing here.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

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