Last week, Merrickville-Wolford Mayor, David Nash and Chief Administrative Officer [CAO] John Regan sat down with the Times to talk about the changes in the municipality over the first two years of this mandate, and how they see the future unfolding. The full video of the interview will be available on the Times website in the coming days.

Mayor Nash began the conversation by noting that his main priority on being elected Mayor was to see an improvement in communications, accountability and transparency. “And I think we have achieved a lot of those things. I’ve had the privilege of working with a very strong Council that brings a variety of skill sets to the table. We’ve already had a couple of public meetings, and we’ll continue to have public meetings. We’ve had a survey asking the public: ‘what are we doing right, what are we doing wrong?’ Because, in my mind, part of communication is not that you get an opportunity to rate us once every four years by voting. You should be rating us on a regular basis. If you have a problem, pick up the phone, or come in and see us so we can address the problem. If we do a survey on an annual basis, we can identify what’s important, so that people in our community can tell us what direction they want us moving in.”

CAO Regan agreed with that assessment, emphasising the importance of transforming the way in which staff were accountable to Council, a situation which he felt had not been adequately dealt with. In fact, he says quite frankly, the system was broken.

“We were broken, and the only way to fix things is to realign: realign staff thinking, and staff’s approach. We are creatures of Council. Council tells us what to do, and we do it. I’m not sure if we’re completely aligned yet, but things are changing and change is good. The Mayor has talked about accountability and communication, and that is so important to me. I am trying to change the culture in the municipality from a staff perspective: that clients, our residents, come first. I want to ensure that we’re meeting their expectations, as well as Council’s expectations.”

The Mayor pointed out that: “We went without a Treasurer for five years in Merrickville-Wolford, and we paid a price for that. One of the first things that we put in place when we had a full-time Treasurer was a variance reporting system, so that on a quarterly basis Council will know where we stand on the budget”. There is a new, long-term approach to planning, and the foundation for that has been laid by putting together a new team to carry through Council’s decisions. “When you look at things, we’ve really done a complete restructuring from the top down”, says the Mayor. “We have a new CAO and a new Treasurer, and we have just completed the hiring of a new Deputy Clerk this week, and I’m sure she will bring a different skill set to the table. So I think we’re moving in the right direction. The biggest change in two years is that we’ve put in place long-term planning.”

To bring about the changes both men felt were needed, new systems of reporting have been introduced. Department heads will report to Council on a quarterly basis, through which, the Mayor says, “Council is kept informed about the operations of the municipality, so we can base decisions on that”. It is hoped that this new approach will also improve staff morale, and steps have been taken to do so. Council has been doing some team building with staff, through holding a Christmas party, having Volunteer appreciation events, etc. They believe that “it is important that we thank people. In doing that we build morale, we build a team that enjoys working together”.

In addition to municipal staff and the Council, the other vital team member is the public of Merrickville-Wolford, and both Mayor and CAO have identified keeping residents informed of what the municipality is doing, and, possibly more importantly, why they are doing those things, is “mission critical”. Public meetings, surveys, and involvement by residents in developing the new Strategic Plan, serving on the various Advisory Committees, and bringing their concerns to Council and staff, are all ways in which the municipality is working to keep the people involved in the decision-making process for the future.
“Communication is a two-way street”, says David. “First of all, we have to learn to listen, and I think we’re starting to develop that. But we have to do more than just listen: your credibility comes from how well you listen and how well you respond.”

John agrees very strongly with that approach: “Our expectations need to be aligned with the community, with staff, with Council and with all of the strategic stakeholders. You have to work together. “

The Strategic Plan is at the core of this long-term perspective, and it also involves reassessing the municipality’s Asset Management Plan, so as to efficiently budget for future infrastructure and asset maintenance and replacement. David Nash is very pleased with the Strategic Plan, both as a plan, and for the manner in which it was developed. “We were very fortunate to have a very highly talented group of people working on the Strategic Plan and the Economic Development Committee transferred their efforts into putting together a Strategic Plan, and I’ll be forever grateful for the work they did, and staff and the public. We’ll come up with an Annual Report format to report on the plan and it will be show the goals on an annual basis for the next ten years.”

The way ahead has already begun, with a new budget process . According to the Mayor: “I’m very pleased with the way the Treasurer we have now, Sheila Kehoe, has put together the budget. This is the first time that I’ve been on Council that I’ve seen a budget brought in this early. Last year it was May before we had a budget approved, which was completely unacceptable. Council is much better informed about the financial status of the municipality, and that will continue with the variance reports and the reporting formats”.

It seems that a new team has been put together, allied with a renewed vision for the future of Merrickville-Wolford, which will put municipal government on a new level for the residents. External issues remain to trouble the waters, but a strong foundation has been laid, and, with the continuing involvement of residents in shaping the future direction of the community, Merrickville-Wolford is in good shape to meet the challenges and opportunities that will come.

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