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Feb. 27, 2021 | Saturday
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Town's heritage and history part of NOTL's lure, new CAO says
NOTL’s new CAO Marnie Cluckie, right, with customer service rep Marilena Basilone, is getting to know town staff after officially starting her new role Dec. 9. (Supplied)

Marnie Cluckie says she’ll be doing “a lot of listening” during her first 100 days as Niagara-on-the-Lake’s chief administrator.

The mother of two has had a long career working in municipal and regional government, but this will be her first time as a CAO.

Right now, she’s getting into the swing of things, meeting and getting to know her new colleagues and town issues.

Barely a week into the job, she has met with Lord Mayor Betty Disero and will have meetings with all councillors. She also has met virtually with many of the town staff.

“And then I’ve been doing a lot of reading and had a lot of briefings on what we have on the go,” Cluckie said during a Monday phone interview with The Lake Report.

“But it’s also important that you get to understand the unique culture that you’re in and the unique challenges that you’re faced with. So that’s what I’m striving to do right now.”

She said there are lots of reasons she chose to apply for the position in Niagara-on-the-Lake. A small-town girl herself (in the Haldimand-Norfolk area), she said the job provides “the opportunity to make some meaningful change.”

“But also, I mean, NOTL is fantastic. It’s got a huge amount of heritage. It’s beautiful, it’s vibrant, it’s got super-friendly people as well. And it’s built on this strong foundation, but you see the community really leveraging opportunities to advance itself,” she said.

“So it’s really, in some ways, a dream job for me, because it’s got all of those components that make for a fantastic community.”

Cluckie spent three years with the Region of Niagara Region and says NOTL is a place her family would travel for visits, “because of all it has to offer.”

Starting the job during a pandemic is “unusual,” she said — there have been negatives, like not being able to walk around and meet everyone to build rapport, but she says it’s also given her a sense of the team she’s working with, seeing how they respond in an emergency.

“You can tell when a team is strong by how they react to those bad situations. And this council and this community and the staff here really pulled together. So, in that way, it’s been insightful for me.”

She said the plan is to meet everyone virtually and stay connected through videos and emails.

Cluckie, who started out in construction, has had a series of progressively more senior roles over the past several years. She says NOTL isn’t just a stepping stone to a higher role.

“I hope to be here for quite some time because it has all of those components that I think I can thrive in and that I’m passionate about.”

NOTL’s CAO position has been sort of like teaching defence against the dark arts at Hogwarts, with new CAOs coming in and leaving after only a brief time.

But Cluckie said it’s the kind of job she’s cut out for.

“I’ve worked in the public sector for over 15 years now. I’d say the real driver for that is because I want to make a difference in community,” she said.

“And in local government, you’re uniquely positioned to create that kind of change. I love the small towns. I grew up in a small town and I’ve pretty much always lived in a small town.”

Cluckie lives in Port Dover, but she said she plans to relocate to Niagara in the summer, after her kids (16 and 12) finish the school year. 

Also in her first 100 days, she plans to “set the vision” for staff moving forward and align staff to council’s strategic plan.

“What I’m talking about is a vision for the internal organization and how we align to that, and how we establish our priorities so that we can be successful. Because if everything’s a priority, nothing is a priority,” she said.

“So it’s really important to focus your energies, especially right now during COVID, when everyone is so stretched. We have to be laser-focused on what we want to achieve ... so that we can be dedicated to the most pressing items.”

“Of course, things will always come up and you have to be adaptable still. But if you’re focusing on things, then you can achieve them. And then you can begin to focus on more things, right? It’s like a rolling snowball, you get better and better at it if you really focus initially.”

Some of those priorities will be the tourism, transportation and irrigation master plans.

“All of those will need to be achieved. There’s more work to do on heritage designation of buildings. There’s definitely continuing to create a sustainable budget, which is always a difficult one. And there’s the asset management plan. And that’s just to name a few,” she said.

In her first six months, she plans to start to achieve that vision by setting “key performance indicators so we can measure our success, focusing which priorities we’re going to work on, and then aligning the budget and the resources to it so we can achieve it.”

“And then longer term, monitoring our successes, achieving some of those longer-term items, like some of the strategies that we have in place, and course-correcting when we need to.”

Cluckie comes with a wealth of experience in construction, having been director of construction, energy and facilities management for Niagara Region and most recently wearing multiple hats in Halton, including chief building officer for Halton Community Housing Corp. She said she’s been involved with “countless” facility and construction projects.

When she worked for Niagara Region, the construction of a new courthouse in Welland was under her portfolio, as were the new police headquarters and 1 District police building in St. Catharines.

She’s been involved in “all kinds of things, a whole bunch of recreational centres in Hamilton, Tim Hortons Field, city halls, so lots and lots of background in that.”

She started out getting a degree in architecture.

“I worked as an architectural designer. So it’s really, really important to me to maintain unique heritage elements and build on that strong foundation. That’s one of the draws for me as well at Niagara-on-the-Lake is that heritage district and all those beautiful buildings.”

She said she plans to be a champion for preserving the town’s heritage and its “identity in general.”

As for her management style, she said she’s “very collaborative.”

“I like there to be a vision in place, so we’re all working together toward common goals. I like to lead by example,” she said.

“And I think people will say that I don’t just talk the talk, I walk the walk. So I’m going to say what we’re going to do and then I’m going to deliver on that with others,” she said.

“And perhaps most importantly, I really want to inspire and motivate my team to bring out the best in them, because everyone brings unique skill sets to the table. So the best thing I think I can do is to help other people to shine in their roles.”

Cluckie has worked in “male-dominated arenas” for most of her career and said she’s a firm believer in equality.

“Gender equality, but just equality in general,” she said. “I have a background in construction and energy facilities and government, where you’ll often see it very male-dominated in the management area.”

“I’ve been really fortunate to have been championed by and inspired by some really incredible women in management. So for me, it’s important that I make space for other women as well. And that I help to mentor and coach them in their careers.”

She added it’s not just gender-based diversity she’d like to see.

“I think diversity in general is a really positive thing because it brings different perspectives. I like that there’s also the opportunity to work with a multi-generational workforce, and with people of different backgrounds, because it offers all kinds of perspective. So, I hope to just encourage in general, diversity.”

In her family life, she said she’s a gymnast mom for her 12-year-old daughter, who is also a young entrepreneur, having been named Young Entrepreneur of the Year in Norfolk this year. Her son, 16, is a budding journalist who writes for Young and Free Press. “So they’re very active in the community and busy, busy kids.”

Interestingly, as Cluckie takes the reins in the hometown of the Shaw Festival, she notes she once had a leading role in a Binbrook Little Theatre production.

“The play that they were doing at the time, and this was many years ago, it was called ‘Sirens.’ I had the role of Rosa Adelle (Abrams),” she said, adding she hasn’t acted in years. Her hobbies now are kayaking, hiking and being out in nature.

She said she hopes to be a lasting CAO.

“I want to be here for a long time. I’m passionate about small communities. I’m thrilled with what Niagara-on-the-Lake has to offer. I’m committed to being here.”

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