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County starts process to hire permanent CAO

Headhunters hired to help find Athabasca County's next top administrator
20201020 Dawn Phillips_SUB_WEB
On June 24, Dawn Phillips became the interim CAO for Athabasca County after the sudden resignation of Ryan Maier and as of Nov. 16 council has directed administration to start the search for a permanent hire.

ATHABASCA — When then Athabasca County CAO Ryan Maier suddenly resigned June 24, the municipality has been helmed by interim CAO Dawn Phillips, but the wheels are now in motion on finding a permanent hire. 

After a contentious June 24 council meeting with a clear split of 5-3 between the council members, Maier’s resignation, and Phillips being called upon to fill in, exposed a widening rift in the group, but now the new council gets to make what could be the most crucial decision of the term, whcih came up Nov. 9 at the regular council meeting. 

“So, it was brought forward a couple times since the resignation of the previous CAO, and at the last meeting (of the previous council), it was moved to table the CAO recruitment until after elections,” Phillips said. 

She added some proposals had been submitted from human resources (HR) consultants, or recruitment companies, and noted some smaller municipalities will handle the recruitment themselves. 

“There’s some liability when it comes to what you can ask in an interview, about checking references, those kinds of things,” she said. “And the recommendation is typically to go with a recruitment company.” 

Also, as in-house HR would be supervised by the CAO, they should not be involved in hiring their boss, Phillips said. 

“We do have three or four proposals; they range from $15,000 to $30,000 depending on the level of involvement you would like them to do,” said Phillips. “The higher end, well some of them are just higher end, and some are analyzing your policies, and just getting to know your community first and the others are more to provide the services of recruitment and they’ll do a little headhunting as well and help you with the interview process, help with short listing, and basically guide you through the process.” 

Coun. Natasha Kapitaniuk acknowledged up to $30,000 sounded like a lot of money, but considering the magnitude of the decision felt it would be well spent. 

“This could be one of the most important decisions made in this council and so I am very much interested in accepting help from those who are wiser,” she said. "I know that looking at that number sounds like ‘Wow, that's a lot of money,’ but that is not a lot of money to put toward something as valuable as the CAO for the County of Athabasca and so I would definitely be in favour of discussing using an outside firm.” 

Coun. Tracy Holland asked for clarification on the CAO recruitment committee. 

“That was just one of the recommendations; instead of moving forward with nine (councillors) to do that initial short list and choosing the consultant and getting things going, you could form a subcommittee to start that process,” said Phillips. 

Reeve Brian Hall agreed hiring a consulting firm is cheap when compared to a potential problem. 

“It’s all relative and a bad hire will cost the county far more money than hiring a consultant,” he said. “In addition, I think those professionals will have some knowledge of the people who interview well or perform poorly, and they’ll be able to help us sort the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.” 

Phillips noted the next council meeting would not be until Dec. 1, so Coun. Gary Cromwell made the motion to add CAO recruitment to the Nov. 16 public works meeting as a closed, or in-camera, session. 

Following the closed session at the public works meeting, Coun. Ashtin Anderson made the motion to contract Human Edge Talent Partners, but a cost was not mentioned at the meeting.

“The cost for Human Edge is $17,000 plus GST. This was an oversight,” Phillips said in a Nov. 18 e-mail. “Council used a rating matrix to evaluate and score each proposal during the closed session. Four proposals were received from reputable recruitment firms with municipal experience.” 

She said a consulting firm was selected as the preferred option for several reasons.  

“As the only employee of council, this is a very important hire. The CAO is the administrative head of the county; the wrong candidate would cost the county far more from any perspective, whether its employee morale, productivity, monetarily, or other lost opportunities,” she said. “While council makes the decision on CAO, a third-party firm handles the process to ensure fairness, and professional expertise in addition to council’s belief that administration should not be involved in hiring their own leader.” 

There was no timeline given but Phillips said during the Nov. 9 council meeting that councillors can expect interviews to begin early in 2022. 

Heather Stocking

About the Author: Heather Stocking

Heather Stocking a reporter at the Athabasca Advocate, a weekly paper in Northern Alberta. Heather covers all aspects of the news in and around Athabasca and Boyle as well as other small communities.
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