Kevin MacLean/Dariya Baiguzhiyeva
Niagara-on-the-Lake chief administrator Holly Dowd opted to retire in August rather than continue to put up with a group of councillors who spent months actively trying to undermine her as she completed the final year of her employment contract, The Lake Report has learned.
The tipping point appears to have come on June 10 when four councillors – Gary Burroughs, Clare Cameron, Wendy Cheropita and Stuart McCormack – voted against reappointing Dowd to the board of town-owned NOTL Hydro.
In interviews, the four councillors cited a variety of reasons for their individual decisions. However, the vote came after McCormack told the June 10 council meeting that Dowd did not have the qualifications required to continue as a member of the utility’s board.
That debate actually ended in a 5-4 vote in favour of Dowd, but the die was cast and it was the last straw for Dowd, who, after 37 years with the town, could have retired last year.
Neither Dowd nor Lord Mayor Betty Disero would comment on her departure, but The Lake Report pieced together events through extensive research and interviews with more than a dozen people.
Dowd, who has fibromyalgia, which she has said can be exacerbated by stress, went on medical leave not long after the June meeting and on Aug. 12 Disero announced the town’s top civil servant was retiring.
Her departure was the culmination of several months of dealing with a few councillors who regularly questioned her suitability as NOTL’s top civil servant and did not want to wait for Dowd to retire after her contract expired on Dec. 31, 2019.
She was appointed CAO by the previous council after her predecessor, Milena Avramovic, left in 2016 after only a brief time in the post.
The town was in a bind at that time, and by accepting the job, Dowd saved the town tens of thousands of dollars in salary costs by serving as municipal clerk and acting CAO for a time after Avramovic departed, one source said. Her permanent appointment also saved the town the cost of conducting an expensive executive search to replace Avramovic.
While Dowd, 56, was eligible to retire with a full pension last December, earlier this year, the new council asked her to stay on and voted to extend her contract until the end of 2019.
For the past several years, the town CAO’s appointment to the hydro board basically has been automatic. Disero and Coun. John Wiens are among the eight people who comprise the current hydro board. The utility is owned by Niagara-on-the-Lake Energy Inc., which is wholly owned by the Town of NOTL.
The June 10 vote regarding Dowd’s reappointment to hydro included no debate among councillors and was over in minutes.
McCormack, reading from a prepared statement, outlined some of the requirements for the position, including having business expertise, experience on boards of corporations, knowledge of legal and regulatory processes, energy industry knowledge and experience with risk management strategy.
“I make no comment on the CAO’s ability to perform as a CAO,” McCormack told councillors.
“But I note the suggested requirements for a director in the hydro company are substantially different than the job description the town uses for the CAO.”
Minutes of the June 10 meeting show while Dowd’s reappointment was successful on the 5-4 split vote, all other hydro appointees were approved unanimously.
The vote atmosphere was described as “awkward” and “tense” by one source, noting that Dowd “was sitting there while they’re voting, sort of like the old days of (kids) choosing pickup teams.”
With barely six months left on her contract, “You wonder why they wouldn’t wait,” another source said.
No members of council would say whether – or not – Dowd’s hydro tenure was discussed in advance or during private, in-camera sessions held by the council elected last fall. Councillors are bound by confidentiality on personnel matters.
However, a number of sources confirmed such talks occurred. And at the June 10 council meeting, after McCormack’s statement on requirements for hydro board members, the vote came quickly, with no debate. The livestream video of the meeting shows the entire process lasted four minutes and 10 seconds.
Hydro board chair Jim Ryan said that, during her tenure as a director, Dowd “brought a closer perspective as to the operations, longer-term directions and some co-ordination with the town.”
“In my opinion, she did a good job in liaising with the town to both the hydro board and to town staff,” he said in an interview, adding the management of hydro has a close working relationship with the municipality.
However, he emphasized, “the directors all serve at the pleasure of council. So, we don’t have a say in the appointments. The council looks at who is nominated and they solely make the decision.”
When it came to the hydro board vote, Cheropita said the primary reason for her No vote was that she expected Dowd would be retiring soon.
Council had extended Dowd’s contract until the end of this year, “so when we were voting on a board member for hydro, we were voting for the next four years. And so it didn’t make any sense to me to vote (for) Holly when … my understanding when I was running for council was that Holly was going to retire. That that was her plan.”
As well, Cheropita said, the majority of the candidates on the list for the hydro board fit the qualifications “absolutely, completely, and completely aligned with the mandate and the requirements and the skillsets that the board was looking for.”
“Holly Dowd was also on that list, but her bio did not line up with the specific skillsets that were being asked for.”
McCormack noted in an August interview, “I think it’s just a question of making sure that the best-qualified people were appointed to the board, since it’s basically a subsidiary of the town.”
He declined to comment further when contacted again last week.
Dowd gave the town many years of service, said Cameron, who, like the others, said she wished her “all the best.”
Regarding Dowd’s reappointment to the hydro board, Cameron said the qualifications for the job didn’t align with Dowd’s qualifications.
Cameron added that traditionally the town appointed its chief administrator to the hydro board and while she voted against Dowd, she had “no issue with council’s decision” to approve her reappointment.
One reason for her No vote was “because I think with the new council it’s important that we look at all the administrative functions in the town, including things that may have been done a certain way in the past, and really have a look at ‘Is there a way we could do things differently’ and I’m open to doing things differently,” Cameron said.
“I don’t tend to be convinced just because something’s always been a certain way that it has to continue being that way forever,” she said.
Burroughs, who previously was lord mayor for 10 years, said in an interview in August that he believes Dowd was “the best clerk in the whole region” during his tenure.
He said it “was nothing against Holly” when he voted against her hydro board reappointment. He said he wanted a councillor, specifically McCormack, a retired lawyer, to be on the board so reports could be brought to council.
However, with Disero and Wiens already on the board, there would be two council members who could do that.
In a subsequent interview on Sept. 6, Burroughs said he “preferred to have an accountant go on the board, at least that was my preference. I don’t know about anybody else (on council).”
Owning NOTL Hydro “is our biggest investment and so when they’re dealing with how much dividends are to be paid to the town, all of those things, it’s an accounting kind of question that would be useful for me.”
The hydro board vote was “not against Holly, it was having a different representative. I’ve known Holly probably longer than anybody and she’s fabulous. It has nothing to do with not wanting Holly,” Burroughs said.
“I catered her wedding. I’ve known Holly forever, and her parents, and so I have nothing but good things to say about Holly.”
Town employees held a retirement party for Dowd last week at the Virgil fire hall. None of the four councillors who voted against her hydro reappointment were in attendance.