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Reflecting on 25 years at the helm of Durham Region

Garry Cubitt took over as CAO in March 1993, will retire later this year

Photo courtesy Durham Region Durham Region CAO Garry Cubitt (centre), who is marking his 25th year in the position, recently announced he would be retiring later in 2018. (Image courtesy of Durham Region).

By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express

During his 21 years as regional chair and CEO, the late Roger Anderson had a constant counterpart, usually sitting to his right in council chambers.

This year marks the 25th for Garry Cubitt as the CAO of Durham Region, a role he took over on March 3, 1993.

His municipal experience began in 1971, first serving as a social worker for the City of Oshawa.

In 1974, he moved to the region and was named commissioner of social services in 1987 before accepting the role of CAO.

It was recently announced that his 25th year on the job would also be his last, as he will be stepping down in late-2018

At a recent council meeting, the region recognized Cubitt for his years of service, something he admits he wasn’t expecting.

“Very rarely am I struck speechless, but that was one of those times,” he recalls.

Cubitt says what struck him most was that when called upon that day, he was introduced “as a person whose career has been characterized by the balance and thoughtfulness of [his] advice.”

“It was very touching,” Cubitt says.

To him, in that statement lies a significant portion of the role he plays as CAO.

“That in my mind is something that any CAO owes their council. Sometimes you are telling them something they might not want to hear or telling them to consider a position contrary to the one they might have first embraced.”

Sitting in his fifth-floor office at regional headquarters in Whitby, Cubitt explains that this “is not meant to be disrespectful.”

Cubitt is quick to point out that over the two decades he worked alongside Anderson, there were many times when they disagreed, but it never got in the way of achieving what was best for the region.

“You may leave his office holding two completely different points of view on something, but never did you leave his office where he was disrespectful or unappreciative of hearing that advice,” Cubitt says.

With a laugh, Cubitt remembers questions as to whether he and Anderson would be able to co-exist initially.

“People thought we have this feisty, tenacious Roger Anderson and we have this more reserved, conservative CAO; oh boy, how will they ever get along?”

However, as Anderson pointed out to Cubitt shortly before his passing in March, “not only did we get along, we formed a partnership.”

Cubitt praised the former regional chair for his ability to make decisions, even those that may have been unpopular with all residents, like the creation of Durham York Energy Centre.

“The heat in the kitchen never dissuaded him. That just meant it wasn’t going to be an easy ride,” Cubitt states. “But he never ran from it, regardless of how much would come in there, he never ducked from it.”

That close relationship went beyond dealing with regional business as Cubitt delivered the eulogy at Anderson’s funeral, something he felt privileged to do.

“I will certainly miss him. I believe it’s going to be hard to find another chairman who is so clearly and unashamedly a champion for the region,” he says.

While speaking with The Oshawa Express, Cubitt spoke on his relatively low profile during council meetings in comparison to some other CAOs.

He notes under the old standing committee structure he would engage in the dialogue more often because the conversations were much more issue focused.

“There are far less of those conversations now,” he says.

With that said, because he’s subdued in a meeting doesn’t mean he isn’t communicating with councillors and staff on a regular basis.

He voices the utmost confidence in his senior staff to speak on their own respective departments.

“I’m not threatened by having my commissioners front and centre speaking. Quite the opposite, when they do a superb job it reflects on our leadership team that I’ve got to be a part of and build.”

For others in his position, Cubitt says they may think it is “essential that they are seen to be in control, and that they are seen to be the spokesperson.”

“I don’t think there is a right and wrong. I think it’s what works best for you,” he adds. “For me, I’ve always seen the CAO’s role as one of empowerment, support, engagement, and leadership, not necessarily control.

“With that said, the CAO is responsible for boundaries, ethics and certain types of behaviour, and cross those lines, and you’ll find that the other hat can be worn if necessary, but it wouldn’t be my first choice.”

Cubitt says it is imperative that Durham Region adapts to changes in “issues and culture.”

“What’s important is that an organization respond in a positive and constructive way to those changing environments and not insist that the changing environment responds to it.”

Reflecting on his two-and-a-half decades with the region, redundancy has never been an issue.

“It’s a fascinating place to be. Very few times in life does one get the opportunity to be in a such a dynamic organization,” he says. “We have never had one year repeated twice, every single of the 25 years has been dramatically different.”

In his recent retirement notification to Regional employees, Cubitt noted the gratitude he feels when reflecting on the people, projects and moments of his years in public service, along with the great respect he holds for the future of the organization.

“I have strived throughout my career to be considerate and comprehensive in my decision-making and to lead with both my head and heart. It is in this same spirit that I retire,” said Cubitt.