Why is Plympton-Wyoming’s CAO allowed to vote during council committee meetings?

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Heather Wright/The Independent

Andrew Sancton, a respected political scientist, says in the 50 year’s he’s been studying municipal politics, he’s never seen anything like this.

He was surprised to learn the CAO of Plympton-Wyoming had been given the power to not just attend committees of council to advise the group, but act as a voting member.

The issue came to light this week. The Fire Executive Committee agenda included a discussion about the group’s terms of reference. The committee discussed whether another member of council should be added to the executive. A councillor resigned from the committee over a year ago and was not replaced, according to Chair Bob Woolvett.

Woolvett says the fire executive committee decided to continue on with three people – himself, Councillor Gary Atkinson and CAO Carolyn Tripp as voting members.

A report on the committee agenda gives the terms of reference for the committee. The document, written by former Chief Steve Clemens, included the CAO as a voting member. Prior to that, administrators were there as advisors. Council, according to the minutes, approved the terms without questions.

While Plympton-Wyoming is alone in this practice in Lambton County, the fire executive committee is not the only Plympton-Wyoming committee with staff voting.

The Independent found minutes of the Water and Sewer Committee from 2015 online which clearly show both the treasurer and the public works manager as active voting members. Staff still is today.

So, we asked Sancton, a former Western University professor who has authored five books on local governments and has been studying Ontario’s municipal governments for 50 years, whether the practice is unusual. “I’ve never heard of a situation where a staff person, let alone the CAO was a (voting) member of a council committee.”

Sancton says having the CAO on a committee could present an “institutional conflict” since councils rely on their top administrators to look at various issues to find the best interest of the municipality. That may be difficult if the CAO has already approved any recommendations coming from the committee.

Sancton adds council “contradicted themselves” when they agreed to the terms of reference in 2017 since the procedural bylaw, which governs the actions of council, allows just council and citizens to be on committees. “The long and short of it is I don’t see any justification for being a member of this committee.”

However unusual Plympton-Wyoming’s practice is, there appears to be no reference expressly forbidding it in the Municipal Act.

But is it a good practice? The Ontario Municipal Administrators Association’s Code of Conduct states administrators “submit proposals…provide facts and advice on matters of policy as a basis for making decisions… and refrain from all political activities which undermine public confidence in professional administrators.”

Neither Woolvett nor Mayor Lonny Napper could remember or explain the practice at both the fire and water and sewer committees.

Woolvett suggested it was common practice until The Independent informed him it wasn’t.

Woolvett then said he didn’t know what to say. “To be honest with you, I’d have to do the same as you’re doing, go and ask some questions.”