John Thomas hit the ground running when he took over as Chief Administrative Officer at the District of Clearwater.
During his first few days, at the end of June, the B.C. interior was experiencing a record-breaking heat wave, increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases and an earlier-than-expected fire season. Not to mention the many projects the DOC has on the go and learning the history of the town he now calls home.
But while he has big shoes to fill, left by his predecessor Leslie Groulx, Thomas said he is “loving it.”
Thomas came to Clearwater from Faro, Yukon, where he landed after falling in love with the territory during a trip in 2017 for the Governor General Canadian Leadership Conference. He had previously lived in Toronto for 10 years.
“Everyone in my MBA cohort thought I was crazy,” he said. “You don’t typically finish an MBA and then decide to move to a community of 900 in the Yukon. But it was very hard for me to describe what I saw up there and I knew I needed a change so I moved out.”
Living in the Yukon was an enlightening experience for Thomas, especially when the pandemic hit. But while he enjoyed being close to nature and outdoor activities, other aspects took their toll – it took four hours to get to a grocery store – and he decided to seek other opportunities.
He wanted somewhere that provided a little bit of everything that he enjoyed: small-town living, the great outdoors and a more mature municipality. Clearwater, while bigger than Faro, boasts a similar vibe and has access to Wells Gray Park, numerous lakes, skiing, mountain biking and trails. But it also has a hefty infrastructure and overall strategic plan, while facing bigger concerns such as housing.
It was a no-brainer: when Thomas saw the posting for DOC, he applied, heard back fairly quickly and “bing, bang, boom, I’m in Clearwater.”
Thomas describes himself as a strategist who enjoys piecing different bits of information together and how they tie in to each other, not only from an operational perspective but the relationship with the community. As CAO in the Yukon, he recalled a situation when the small community had a sewage spill due to a contractor piercing the sewer main.
“It was just very unique dealing with sewage clean up and having to deal with the environmental aspect of that and having to deal with the relationship building with the property owners that were impacted (and) having to deal with the organizational internal processes of, ‘OK, how do we triage a situation like that?’” he said. “That’s a really small example, but it can happen anywhere…no two days are the same, you get to touch several aspects of community building and that’s what I really like about this job.”
Being the CAO is not always easy, he added, and one is always on call. While taking over the Clearwater role is exciting, he wants to ensure that the transition is smooth with as little disruption as possible for staff, council and the community.
As the CAO takes direction from council, Thomas’ priority over the next six months is to get up to speed on the projects underway while getting to know the mayor and council and establishing relationships with important stakeholders like Simpcw First Nation and the community.
“I know there will be a lot of eyes on the work that I do,” he said, adding it’s important for him to get to know the community as well as the community “getting to know me as a person beyond just the role that I carry.”
He’s also looking forward to planting deeper roots in Clearwater, noting the defining theme of the entire recruitment process is stability, in politics, in operations and in the community.
Another thing Thomas is looking forward to establishing in Clearwater: teaching Latin dance.
Thomas grew up in Grenada, where the culture is highly influenced by the French, British and Spanish empires. Growing up, he always had a strong affiliation for the Latin culture.
“I did that in Faro and it was very well received,” he said. “I look forward to infusing some of that vibe, shall we say, in Clearwater.”