After 43 years in planning and administrative roles in both the public and private sectors, Wellesley chief administrative officer Willis McLaughlin is set to retire on Tuesday.With 11 years as an employee of the Township of Wellesley, first as the director of public works and since 2013 as CAO, McLaughlin is proud of his tenure.
Of particular note, he says, is the fiscal responsibility the township has maintained.
“We always watch the bottom line for the taxpayer and make sure we don’t go over it. … We make sure to print off the state of the union every month and every department head in here knows what the budget is every month, exactly, what has been spent, what’s left, the percentage of use and that kind of thing. Whatever month you’re in, you take that number and you take your budget number and divide it by 12 times whatever month you’re in and that’s the percentage you should have left. We do that all the time.”
Resources are limited in Wellesley Township, and those at the helm are hired to get the most out of every dollar.
In other words, “to squeeze the nickel so hard the beaver screams,” he joked.
McLaughlin started his career as a surveyor for TransCanada Pipelines, the company where his father worked as a commercial pilot.
Just 17 years old, McLaughlin landed the summer gig travelling through the back woods of Northern Ontario and Manitoba (from the Sudbury area to Falcon Lake) – with “all the bugs you could eat and all the beer you could drink,” he laughs.
That led to an opportunity with the County of Peel (now, Peel Region).
Like so many career paths, the early going was a humbling experience.
“My first job there was to clean out the trunk of the survey car, and I’ve never forgotten that,” he said. “So whatever positions you aspire to over the years, and I’ve had a lot of them, I always say to myself every time I have gotten a promotion, ‘not too bad compared to cleaning the trunk out.’”
After his time in Peel, he did a stretch in the private sector with a number of developers and engineering firms, eventually landing a position with Proctor and Redfern.
But after 17 years, the firm – then one of the biggest in Canada – was abruptly sold and all 800 employees were laid off.
So back to municipal government he went, this time with the City of Kitchener as a supervisor of operations.
Finally in August of 2003, McLaughlin took the job as director of public works for the Township of Wellesley.
In the decade since, there have been significant “structural changes at the township,” McLaughlin said, noting a turning point shortly after Ross Kelterborn took over as mayor in 2006.
“We were in a heck of a snowstorm; it might’ve been 2007,” he remembered. “Ross Kelterborn came in, and there is like two feet a snow out there and everybody is going crazy (trying to deal with it) and he throws a zinger at Kevin (Beggs) and I.
‘Do you know how much the snowstorm costs (the township in materials)?” he asked. And so Kevin goes to the computer and prints out a sheet and puts it in front of the mayor. Then he asks, ‘how about the labour and overtime?’ And so Kevin goes and gets another sheet and puts in front of the mayor. And he looked at those two sheets and he says, ‘I want the whole place to run like this.’”
He continued, “You hear it on the news all the time, that this government or that government has gone so much over budget on one initiative or another, like these smart meters, a billion dollars over budget, what the heck? Whoever is in charge of that needs to be fired.”
The township needs to be especially prudent because the potential for growth is so limited, he added.
“For a long time when I was in public works, I was configuring the department to work in a no-growth environment,” he said. “So in terms of the budget and staffing, what do we need so that when no new growth comes we aren’t too big and we don’t have too many plans going forward?”
For a time, it looked like there would be no additional sanitation connections for the township, limiting growth, but they got a reprieve of about 250 potential homes and, or businesses “out of nowhere.”
But eventually the township will need to function without the influx of capital that accompanies development.
It won’t be easy, but the township is on the right path, McLaughlin said.
But that’ll be up to the newest iteration of council to handle, as they prepare to hire the next CAO in the new year.
As for McLaughlin, he plans to spend time exploring Georgian Bay with his wife in their 33-foot boat, or cruising around on their Harley Davidson motorcycle.
“It was time,” McLaughlin said. “I am proud of the work the staff has done here in Wellesley and excited for the future with my wife.”