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Two top Niagara Region staffers will maintain “acting” status for the foreseeable future

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A pair of high-ranking Niagara Region staff members may not be onstage performers, but their “acting” roles are getting noticed.

Ron Tripp, formerly the Commissioner of Public Works, assumed the CAO’s duties in December 2018, and has been in an “acting” capacity ever since.

Acting Chief Medical Officer Dr. Mustafa Hirji was appointed in January 2018, almost three years ago. He’s still “acting” as well. Hirji replaced the retiring Dr. Valerie Jaeger, and has been orchestrating the Region’s handling of the current coronavirus health crisis.

Daryl Barnhart, the Executive Officer in Regional Chair Jim Bradley’s office, said that the quest for a new Chief Administrative Officer was suspended in March, after Regional Council passed a motion to shelve the search in order to focus its energies on the COVID-19 pandemic. “There was a motion passed by Council,” said Barnhart, “that until such time as there has been an abatement of the pandemic, we’re leaving well enough alone, and we’re not going to hire right now.”

According to Barnhart, there were good reasons for the delay. “Things took place in Niagara that made posting these positions less than practical,” he said.

One involved an Ontario governance review launched by the Ford government in January of 2019, which explored amalgamations and effectiveness of two-tier government in eight regional municipalities, including Niagara. In October of 2019, it was announced that any plans to reform the province’s regional municipalities had been curtailed after a lengthy review process, and instead the government offered up $143 million as a conciliatory gesture for municipalities to find new ways to lower costs and improve services.

“That (potential municipal restructuring) would have created a lot of instability for both of those senior positions,” according to Barnhart.

Another delay occurred because “there was a report coming from the Ombudsman’s office (regarding former CAO D’Angelo), and we needed to know the outcome of that,” said Barnhart. Once that was resolved, there were a number of policies and procedures that need to be put in place as pertaining to the Ombudsman’s recommendations. Ironically, the night Council was going to appoint the members of the CAO hiring committee, “COVID-19 really took off, and it was the last time Council met in person,” said Barnhart.

As far as a schedule moving forward to fill these two positions, Barnhart responded, “I’d have to check with Human Resources, but we probably wouldn’t hire for the Medical Officer of Health until there’s a new CAO. It will require a motion of Council to restart that process. There is no timeline set out at this point, nor has there been a lot of discussion. Both positions would be posted for open competition.”

The Human Resources department of Niagara Region will not act to fill these positions of their own volition. “They can’t, because the CAO is the only employee of Council,” said Barnhart, “and Council passed a motion that essentially said that they’re not doing anything with this until such time that they feel the worst is over (with COVID-19).”

An attempt to contact the Region’s Human Resources Director Franco Meffe, as to whether both Tripp and Hirji have been receiving regular performance reviews over the course of their employment in their “acting” roles, was unsuccessful.

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