To say that the atmosphere in Merrickville lately has been tense, is an understatement. At every council meeting there seems to be more and more residents coming out to ask about the investigation surrounding Merrickville-Wolford’s CAO, John Regan.
The CAO was put on paid administrative leave by council on January 19. According to Interim CAO Arie Hoogenboom, the municipality has sought outside human resource and legal advice about how to deal with the situation. A workplace investigator was also hired by the municipality at the end of January.
It was a resident, Pat Watson, who first broke the silence at a council meeting on February 26. “This is my Village,” she told council. “I’ve been around a long time and, at the present time, I am not very happy with the current situation here regarding municipal staff.” She asked several questions, including details about the inquiry, whether John is being paid his full salary, and if or when he will be returning to work.
Despite acknowledging the necessity for transparency, Arie said he could not answer any of her questions, as they are specific to the individual in question. “Those are questions that I cannot answer, and should not be answered, while this process continues to unfold,” he said. “I also believe in transparency in government, but I also understand that you can’t be transparent until you know all the facts.”
Since then, things have escalated in nature, with the rumour mill active and rampant throughout the community. Several residents say they have seen John with municipal councillors and staff in the Village, and some have been questioning whether this is appropriate, given the circumstances. Resident, Ivan Wood, brought this up at a council meeting on April 9, questioning whether this was a conflict of interest for the investigation. He was told that it is not, as the investigation is not being carried out by council or staff. In fact, council is being given little or no information about it at this time.
According to Arie, this is normal, as per the legal counsel they have received, and a full report will be presented to council when the investigation is over. John says that, as part of the community, he has many friends, and spending time with them has been completely personal and social. “I have, and continue to, respect the confidential nature of this process,” he says. “I have not had one-on-one meetings with staff or councillors.”
Beyond the council chambers, the community remains divided on the issue of the CAO, and reports of nasty words, and even threats, between interested parties have been heard through the grapevine. People are fed up about being left in the dark, and not knowing has created some animosity between those who support the CAO, and those who are not his biggest fans. Residents are concerned about how much this investigation is costing the tax-payers, with the legal fees, workplace investigator, and paying two CAOs. According to Arie, these numbers will be released, again, once the investigation has been completed.
At the last council meeting, Councillor Chuck MacInnis asked to revisit a decision council made on January 19 last. This did not happen, as it was a decision that had been made in-camera, and therefore needed to be carried out in a private meeting of council. None of the council members, except Chuck, felt the need to tack on an in-camera session to the end of the meeting to discuss this matter. Although it wasn’t explicitly said in the meeting, it is possible that Chuck was hoping to discuss the decision to put John on administrative leave, which was made at the January 19 closed meeting.
It is unclear whether any information surrounding the CAO will ever be made public. John has said that he fully intends on coming back to work once the investigation is over. “Merrickville is a great community, and I love the fact that people are interested in what we do at the municipal level,” he says. “I am looking forward to having this investigation all wrapped up and returning to my position, so we can focus on doing some more good work for our citizens.”
One can only hope that this issue can be resolved soon, rumours put to bed, and Merrickville-Wolford can return to the friendly little town it once was.