A stroll around Riverwalk Commons on a recent hazy Saturday afternoon found the public square teeming with friends and families splashing in the water feature, cyclists whizzing along Tom Taylor Trail, and others buying local honey and farm-fresh produce at the farmers market. For Newmarket’s outgoing chief administrative officer, Bob Shelton, who will retire Nov. 30, this is exactly as it should be.
“We need places for people to enjoy,” said Shelton, a self-professed arts lover who has a background in civil engineering with a specialty in municipalities. “We have concentrated on building a community with a solid foundation that includes infrastructure, but also great recreational amenities. Public art, music venues, our huge trail system, and respect for the environment. All this has contributed to the revitalization of the downtown and gives people a place to congregate and celebrate.”
There’s palpable excitement in Shelton’s voice as he dishes on what makes a community one of the best places to live. To his credit, Newmarket has for the past five years consistently ranked as one of MoneySense magazine’s top 25 best places to live in Canada, the only exception being in 2017 when none of York Region’s nine municipalities made the cut.
Throughout Shelton’s four-decades long career with the town, the last 16 of which saw him in a leadership role in the C-suite, he witnessed the town grow out to its boundaries. Politicians came and went, staff moved on, and the inevitable challenges associated with local governments reared its head, such as the development of green spaces and providing residents value for their tax dollars.
“You need a sense of humour in this job,” Shelton said. “My father taught me the three Fs of handling challenges: deal with tough situations firmly; treat people fairly and; if you can, throw in a friendly and you’re in good shape.”
Much of the town’s bragging rights mirror Shelton’s career highlights: the Canadian Institute of Planners’ 2016 People’s Choice Award for best Main Street in Canada; the creation of the “N6”, a partnership of the region's northern municipalities — Aurora, East Gwillimbury, Georgina, Newmarket, King and Whitchurch-Stouffville — which saved millions of taxpayers’ dollars and provided improved service levels; the state-of-the-art Magna Centre, which features three NHL-sized ice rinks and more; as well as the town’s first strategic plan.
Former colleague Susan Plamondon, King Township chief administrative officer, worked with Shelton in Newmarket for 22 years when she was the town lawyer. Shelton knew how to plant the seeds of a good idea and had the patience to see it through, she said.
"At the heart of it all, you don't make the progress if you're not sincere," Plamondon said. "The Riverwalk Commons project is a good example of a political vision working well with the administrative body. It was years and years in the making, even just to assemble the land. Bob has a heartfelt commitment to doing the work to the benefit of the community."
Perhaps the key to success is to look beyond the horizon to gain insights that can be localized, Shelton said. For his part, the turning point in his career came after attending an international Livable Cities conference soon after he took the helm as CAO.
He was captivated with the idea of building public squares that were more than bricks and mortar. An example of this thinking in action is Riverwalk Commons, now a hub of economic and cultural activity that supports citizen engagement and fosters a sense of belonging among community members.
All in all, the decision to retire wasn’t an easy one for the career bureaucrat. Shelton counts among his own professional achievements the opportunity to help individuals he has worked with to develop to their highest potential.
“We are in good shape as an organization and as a community and I’m leaving it in good hands and good health,” Shelton said.
While Shelton prepares for his move out of town hall, he said he has no plans to leave Newmarket, where he and wife Carol raised their three children, a community they have called home since 1977. What is on the horizon, however, is more family time, travel and volunteering.
In the meantime, Shelton offers this advice for future municipal leaders.
“Become a part of professional associations. It’s a great opportunity to learn, share and gives you contacts across the province,” said Shelton, who served as president of the Ontario Municipal Administrators’ Association from 2008 to 2009.
“On behalf of council, I want to extend my heartfelt thanks to Bob for his strong leadership, mentorship and vision throughout his 40-plus-year career with the Town of Newmarket,” Mayor Tony Van Bynen said in a media release. “He has been instrumental in shaping the Newmarket that we all know and love and creating a framework for future success. Bob’s legacy will continue long after his retirement as his many accomplishments have left a positive impact on our community that will not be forgotten.”
An executive search is set to begin for a new town CAO. The salary and benefits package for the position was $251,343 in 2017, according to the 2018 Sunshine List, a requirement under the Public Sector Salary Disclosure Act that makes public details of all public sector employees who earn $100,000 annually or more.