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Conference life helps overcome professional obstacles

by Sean Meyer, Municipal World
in Governance, Leadership, Management
June, 2024

Municipal employees face many obstacles that make it difficult for them to maintain essential services. But, like their elected counterparts, staff also face a constant barrage of harassment.

As a result, municipalities across the country struggle to attract new talent to their offices. They are also challenged to keep the staff members they currently have.

This dilemma is one reason why Stephen O’Brien thinks conferences are an essential venue for finding solutions to this struggle. O’Brien is acting director of human resources at the City of Guelph and the past president of Association of Municipal Managers, Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario (AMCTO).

Transformative Incrementalism: A journey to sustainability

Part of AMCTO’s job is to give resources to its approximately 2,200 members. With that in mind, it can be difficult to figure out what to say to staffers who are too often being inundated with harassments of all levels. That’s why O’Brien said he is so happy to have the chance to discuss this topic with colleagues from not only across the province, but the country as well.

“I don’t say this lightly, and I don’t say it in a trivial or jovial kind of way, but unfortunately misery does like company,” said O’Brien. “I think we can do a lot as association to sort of uplift and get folks hopefully out of those spots – let people come together where they’ve had shared experience that might be challenging, but then get them to a spot where they’re learning tactics and tools to deal with that.”

Record Conference Turnout

This year’s AMCTO conference was held June 9-12 in the Town of Blue Mountains and saw a record attendance of more than 700 delegates.

That record turnout, O’Brien said, speaks to the level of change being seen across the municipal sector. O’Brien said there is “a lot of positive change” in the sector with many new, young professionals entering the profession.

But it also speaks to how the sector is changing. You can’t go a day, O’Brien said, without reading about the latest changes coming to the municipal space. As such, he said the conference turnout was indicative of folks wanting to get together to share knowledge and information about those changes.

It is a point that AMCTO Executive Director David Arbuckle strongly supports.

Arbuckle said conferences provide an opportunity for members to step away from their offices and reconnect with colleagues. This is important, he added, because all municipalities face similar challenges related to financial sustainability and new legislation.

As such, it is important for officials across the public service to spend some time together, share some of the stories from their municipalities, and just have a laugh over some of those things, too. But that said, it absolutely is also a venue for helping members deal with the escalating pressures of the sector.

“It’s not a simple answer because we also know that as coming through COVID that there is a different environment in many municipal organizations in the sense that people have become more emboldened to demand certain things from their municipality,” Arbuckle said. “So we try to provide the network for constantly allowing people to share some of those stories. But there’s no doubt that it is a constant challenge for retaining staff, especially when some of those cultures have maybe soured from where they were before.”

Increasing Public Incivility

O’Brien has seen the sector change over the course of his career. While he has only been on the AMCTO board for a few years, he has been in the municipal public sector for coming up to 17 years.

Over the course of nearly two decades, O’Brien said he has seen a lack of civility creep into the public discourse. While the COVID-19 pandemic deserves some of the blame, O’Brien said that increasing incivility is reflected in many countries. It has been seen in France, in the United States, and it is becoming a part of the Canadian political reality as well.

But even so, he remains convinced that public service, particularly at the municipal level, is an ideal career goal. It’s about being empathetic and caring, O’Brien said. It is about listening to people, talking to people, and caring about what they’re going through.

In fact, O’Brien started his career through an AMCTO internship program. That, he said, is where the early seeds were sown in terms of his passion and appreciation for the organization and the profession.

“It’s still a great job. That sort of lack of stability or maybe vitriolic kind of commentary that we’re seeing, I don’t want that to be a hindrance to folks. It’s a great, great career,” O’Brien said. “There is certainly, and I don’t want to sound cliché, but there is that calling to public service that I think a lot of us have, and that’s really impactful. If you want to see the things that you work on day in and day out come to fruition in a relatively quick amount of time, then municipal governments is the place. You can see the impact you’re having.”

Importance of Public Service

Arbuckle wholeheartedly agrees with O’Brien. Ultimately, he said, if someone feels a strong calling into public service, then the municipal sector makes for rewarding career choice.

Yes, it has a good pension. Coming out of the pandemic, there are increasingly flexibility working arrangements. And like O’Brien said, staff at the local level can see the policies they helped bring to life being implemented in a way that may not be as clearly witnessed at the provincial or federal orders of government.

“Yah, we to really do sell it on the fact that if you are interested in public service and you think you can make a contribution … there’s so many streams that you can look to in the municipal sector,” Arbuckle said. “And ultimately, you have an association that’s here to support them once they’re ready to move into those places.”

Moving Mountains. Changing Landscapes

The 2024 AMCTO conference had the tagline of “Moving Mountains. Changing Landscapes.”

O’Brien said he hopes the conference helped contribute to that perspective. The expectation, he added, is that delegates left Blue Mountains with tools and tactics that are probably specific to them.

He also hopes they left with a lot of fond memories of the experience.

But most importantly, he hopes they left having met someone new. Maybe it was someone from a neighbouring municipality. Maybe it’s someone from the other end of the province or across the country. But that, he said, is why he hopes people keep coming back – the power of our association.

“The ability to sort of pick up the phone, fire off an email, reach out over the divide, wherever that divide is, county line, provincial line, municipal boundary, and have someone that they can speak to and share and learn from and grow with,” O’Brien said. “It’s a great opportunity for our members to come together. That’s the power in the 700-plus people that are here. And that’s what I’m hoping folks take away.”  MW

✯ Municipal World Executive and Essentials Plus Members: You might also be interested in Greg Crone’s article: Advocacy a key focus at AMCTO conference.

Sean Meyer is digital content editor for Municipal World.

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