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New CAO sees bright future for Durham

Elaine Baxter-Trahair took over top staff position in region with new term of council

Elaine Baxter-Trahair

By Chris Jones/The Oshawa Express

Durham’s new CAO says she has been seeking the opportunity for a long time, and is excited to fill the role for Durham.

“I’m loving [the position],” says Elaine Baxter-Trahair. “It’s a great region, there’s tremendous opportunity. It’s really lovely to be in a place where a lot of what you’re managing is related to growth.”

She also praises the staff, and the amount of support she’s been given since beginning her tenure in December.

Prior to coming to Durham, she spent much of her career working for the City of Toronto, and also oversaw a not-for-profit organization for a few years.

“I’ve worked in all different parts of municipal government,” she explains. “That’s why, really, I have a passion for it.”

She’s worked in a wide variety of areas, including project management and human and social services, as well as serving as the acting deputy city manager in Toronto.

“Being on the other side of the table in the not-for-profit sector for a little while also got me to see government, especially municipal government, from both sides, so I feel like this is just the perfect point in my career where all of that comes together,” says Baxter-Trahair.

When given the opportunity to play a supporting role for the Toronto CAO a few years ago, she really developed her passion for municipal government.

“It’s the only government – I say all the time – where you can identify a problem, develop a strategy, implement the strategy, and measure the results,” she says. “So you really can see something from start to finish in a relatively short period of time, and see the community benefits. I can’t think of any better work.”

After being in the position for just over a month, Baxter-Trahair’s current goals are to “get out there and meet as many of the staff as possible, and see as many of the facilities as possible. I’ve been doing that with [Regional Chair] Henry.”

The first three months in the position are all about relationship building, which is a key to being successful, she says.

The region is currently working on their budget, Baxter-Trahair’s first as CAO.

“An immediate priority is to get the budget ready to go to council in March, and we’re doing very well in that,” she says. “I’m also working with the commissioners and the chair to launch the strategic planning process for the next five years.”

Generally, she sees her role is to assist in strengthening an organization that already has a strong team.

“The commissioners are all excellent subject matter experts,” she notes.

She says they are looking at how to improve automation and modernize the region’s services, all while streamlining their processes through strategic planning and other initiatives.

“In general, Durham is really known for excellent public service,” she says. “So my job is to keep it excellent and improve it wherever possible. I’m a big proponent of continuous improvement.”

Baxter-Trahair says she became interested in moving to Durham the moment the opportunity appeared.

“When this opportunity came up, I had just finished an acting assignment as acting city manager, and the timing was just perfect,” she says. “So it just seemed like the perfect point in my career, and it worked out. So I was very excited and happy.”

Many of Durham’s strengths also helped to draw her to the position. Baxter-Trahair notes these strengths are the civil services, noting those who work there are “very talented and professional.”

“I think the communities that comprise Durham are very healthy,” she says. “It’s a very strong place to live, work and draw your recreation.”

She also says there is a good balance of business with education.

“I think that the education infrastructure we have in place in Durham really puts us in a great position for growth in all the right sectors.”

Elaborating, Baxter-Trahair singles out the post-secondary institutions in the region, Durham College and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT), for their excellence in artificial intelligence and technology.

“I think we’re really approaching a cusp where Durham has many of the strengths I think we need to thrive in what everybody calls the ‘new economy,’ but really an economy that’s more focused on technology and innovation,” she says.

While she acknowledges the impending closure of the General Motors plant in Oshawa does present some problems for the region, ultimately, she believes Durham has plenty of options to address this.

“There’s many positive things going on that I think will help alleviate some of those pressures, including companies moving to the region, which is very exciting,” she says.

Durham Region’s growth, which she notes has become very rapid, may put pressure on some civil services.

“I think we need to keep our eye on that, and ensure that we’re working with our partners to develop affordable housing, the proper balance and mix of housing, that we’re able to provide the support services that residents need as they transition employment, that our main public hard services are growing at a speed that’s financially viable and able to support the growth.”

She believes it’s not so much what the region can do better, but it’s how they deal with the challenges the government faces as a result of growth.

“It’s ensuring that you are managing growth, and expanding your services to support growth in a way that maintains affordability for residents,” says Baxter-Trahair. “I think that while that’s a challenge, it’s also an opportunity. I think anything that’s growth related is a huge opportunity.”

Baxter-Trahair says while she sees herself as the primary conduit between the bureaucracy and council.

“I’m part of a team. I’m not in here to say we’re going to do A, B, C and D, and I’ve been very clear about this early on.”

She sees herself working very closely in partnership with the commissioners, as well as the directors, “and I see us as a joint senior management team.”

Previous CAO Garry Cubitt, who was in the position for 25 years, assisted Baxter-Trahair before his retirement.

She says she had several meetings before she took over, and “there’s a binder on my desk that I look at regularly with briefing notes.”