CAO’s Exit Merritts Better Explanation

Leaving? So soon?

It seems the CBRM’s chief administrative officer (CAO) Michael Merritt is hightailing it back from whence he came.

Merritt was hired in July 2014 and began work in October of that year, so when he leaves in April he won’t even have been on the job a full three years.

Not, it seems, an April Fool’s joke.

His hiring was the result of a $38,903.26 nationwide search by a professional head-hunting firm that apparently forgot to ask the crucial question: “Will you be following your grown daughters wherever they go when they graduate university?”

Because that’s what he says he’s doing: taking the job of CAO in Olds, Alberta, a community of 9,000 about 50 miles north of Calgary, to be near his lawyer and teacher daughters in Calgary.

 

Price tag

Merritt replaced interim CAO Marie Walsh, who’d done the job for 19 months while continuing to serve as finance director for $148,000 a year.

Merritt, the former assistant deputy minister of the Department of Municipal Affairs in Alberta, received a salary of $180,000. Then-deputy mayor Kevin Saccary told the Post Merritt’s salary was “no more than a director of any public organization, and it meets national ‘industry standards.’”

(Sub-text: “That’s what the Toronto head-hunting firm told me to say.”)

To add insult to injury, we paid $25,000 to ship Merritt here from Edmonton. (Presumably we’re sending him to Olds C.O.D.)

According to CBRM budget documents for 2014/15 and 2015/16, we have paid Merritt as follows:

Expense2014/20152015/20162016/2017Total
Salary$80,077$185,267$192,211$457,555
Expenses$31,715$25,90128,452$86,068
Heading-hunting fees$38,903.26$38,903.26
Relocation expenses$25,000$25,000
Total$607,526.26

*Note: This table was updated on 15 March 2018.

That isn’t a full accounting, because the CBRM hasn’t released 2016/2017 financials (the fiscal year just ended March 31) so I’m not sure what his actual salary was last year and I didn’t make a guess at his travel expenses.  In addition, the final total will include salary and expenses for April-June 2017/18.

 

Accomplishments

Still, $500,000 is a considerable investment for a broke-ass municipality — what did we get in return?

Well, by Merritt’s own reckoning, we got his efforts as chair of the Port of Sydney Development Corporation board and the CBRM’s splendid response to the Thanksgiving floods. (We also got his fine work in the aftermath of the Great Slave Lake fire in Alberta, a subject he discussed at some length during his exit interview with the CBC’s Wendy Bergfeldt, so there’s that.)

As for his yeoman efforts on the Port board, I can’t even. He spent two years — two years — chairing an “interim” board made up of the mayor, the deputy mayor and three (currently two) councilors, none of whom is permitted to sit on the board according to the corporation’s own Articles of Association.

That board’s crowning achievement was signing Ports America to operate any container terminal ever built in Sydney harbor. Remember that? A development so momentous, Council was required to set a land-speed record approving a five-year extension to our port “developers'” contract in December. Since then…well, let’s just say, I’m considering putting port “developer” Albert Barbusci’s picture on a milk carton under the question: “Have you seen this man?”

And as for the CBRM’s response to the Thanksgiving floods — has he visited any of those flooded neighborhoods lately?

 

‘Olds fashioned hospitality’

Merritt played his departure cards very close to his chest.

He was hired by the Town of Olds, Alberta in February, his identity obligingly hidden by the town’s mayor, Judy Dahl, who issued a press release that month basically announcing the hire of a “Mystery CAO.”

Due to special circumstances and strictly confidential reasons, Council cannot release personal details (such as the name and residence of the selected candidate) at this time. Council will release this information, with an announcement to the public, in late March.

The “special circumstance and strictly confidential reasons,” of course, were that he was already employed as a CAO and hadn’t told his old employer he was looking for a new job. Personally, were I the mayor of Olds, Alberta (don’t get distracted trying to imagine the circumstances under which that could ever be a reality — it couldn’t), I think that would give me pause. But apparently, Mayor Dahl isn’t afraid Merritt will love and leave Olds as he has loved and left the CBRM.

In fact, Olds thinks it’s landed a real go-getter. Here’s how Mayor Dahl described Merritt in the 3 April 2017 press release that finally revealed his identity:

He is currently the CAO of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality in Nova Scotia, a large rural municipality [rural! -editor] of nearly 100,000 residents. As well, he serves as Chair for the Port of Sydney Development Corporation. He was instrumental in recently closing a contract with Ports America to be the largest operator the Region has ever seen.

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall during that interview! To have heard him utter the words, “I was instrumental in closing a contract with the largest operator the Region has ever seen and such.” (The “and such” is a tic I’ve noted in his communications. Examples include: “I’ve built up a fair bit of vacation, not being able to take it or not taking it and such…” and “You let the new leader basically work with its [sic] new team and not have someone else oversee it and such.”)

Olds said it had conducted a two-month, national search for a new CAO, which means Merritt may have been planning his Irish goodbye since December 2016. If you subtract his first few months on the job here on the grounds they were a training period (which they must have been–he’d never held a municipal position before), then subtract the time he apparently has spent looking for a new job, and then subtract the last two months of his contract, which he will spend working for another municipality (he’s scheduled to start work in Olds on 8 May 2017), it seems we really didn’t get his undivided attention for very long at all — and yet, we paid for it and will continue paying until June.

And let’s discuss that departure date — the CBRM press release announcing Merritt’s resignation said his last day would be June 30. That’s because his contract required he give the CBRM three months’ notice. Any rational person would assume that meant, “three months during which the employee will continue doing his job allowing the employer to hire and train a replacement.” That’s the purpose of notice periods, to ensure employers are not left in the lurch.

But Merritt told the Post he was going to use his banked vacation time to leave the CBRM on April 11 — so, effectively, he’s given less than two weeks’ notice. Merritt, though, told the paper he really doesn’t think it will be a problem.

And let’s face it, he’s probably right — CFO Marie Walsh did his job (and her own) prior to his hiring and she hasn’t left to join the staff of some Alberta municipality, as far as I know.

 

I told you so

Deputy Mayor Eldon MacDonald has been fielding questions on the Merritt departure as CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke “is currently on leave for a previously scheduled knee surgery…potentially returning mid-April (within the next week or two) provided all goes well in his recovery,” according to CBRM spokesperson Shannon Kerr, on behalf of an “out of office” Christina Lamey. (And we wish the mayor a speedy recovery.)

Deputy Mayor MacDonald told the Post on Friday, when news of Merritt’s departure broke, that Council would use the CAO’s last three months on the job to decide how to proceed. When MacDonald discovered the CAO’s last three months would actually be his last two weeks, MacDonald said Council would wait for official notice of that from Merritt and then decide how to proceed.

They’re going to have to decide fast.

While we’re waiting for that decision, I’m going to give the final word on this to then (and again) District 10 Councilor Darren Bruckschwaiger, who supported the candidacy of acting-CAO Marie Walsh for the post in 2014 and was the only Councilor to vote against the Merritt hire. As the Post reported at the time:

Outside council chambers, Bruckschwaiger said the CBRM should look to succession planning when hiring for new positions, and that Walsh had all of the qualifications necessary to take on the senior municipal role.

‘We’ve got more than enough qualified people in our municipality. We had one here and I thought it was a slap in the face,’ he said.

I asked Bruckschwaiger to comment on Merritt’s departure and his possible replacement and he did not say, “I told you so.” (He’s a bigger person than I am. I would totally have said, “I told you so.”) Instead, he said in an email:

…I felt at that time and still believe that Marie Walsh is more [than] qualified to be our CAO. Mayor and council will need to sit down and discuss our go forward plan but for me, my first thought would be to look at Marie again, if she is still interested. Along with seeing her as being very qualified CAO, she can be involved in our Finance Department as well, as she was when she was CAO in the past. There is a real opportunity again for us to save dollars as well at the Administration level. Without sounding [too] negative, we are still experiencing a declining population and a large amount of taxes in arrears, we need to continue to look for savings where we can find them.

 

 

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