Municipal Mayhem

July 30, 2018


Healthy and prosperous communities need good governance, but we seemed determined to do the opposite in Ontario.

Ford’s recent meddling in Toronto's election demonstrates that he is more than willing to put his own political interests ahead of the health and prosperity of Toronto, regardless of how you feel about the size of its council. Wynne did the same when she vetoed Tory’s plan to use road tolls to raise funds for infrastructure and transit. And Tory’s knee jerk reaction to hold a referendum on the size of the council is no better.

More frightening to me, though, is Ford’s insistence on a “strong” mayor system. This is not good news for local democracy.

Sadly, most Canadians get their impressions about municipal government from American TV shows - like Boss, a political drama about a fictional Chicago mayor played by actor Kelsey Grammer. In this TV series, Grammer’s character has degenerative neurological disorder which serves to exaggerate the unpredictability and consequences of his actions. It makes for compelling drama.

Chicago is also a city where the mayor has substantial executive powers. How substantial? When Mayor Daley wanted to transform the local airport in his neighbourhood into a lakeside park but faced stiff opposition from the airport, he sent in a small demolition crew with a bulldozer in the middle of the night and cut a deep trench across the middle of the runway. Today, he has a lakeside park in his neighbourhood. That is executive power in action.

So, how many mayors in Canada enjoy similar executive powers as a Chicago mayor? Exactly, none of them.

There are at least two flaws with leaving our civic education to U.S. television.

First, it’s not real - its television, folks! Situations are dramatized, and characters are cast larger than life to keep us entertained. Perhaps this explains some of the appeal of political personalities like Rob and Doug Ford and Donald Trump. They deliver much more entertaining television; reality TV as we have come to expect. Good governance is quite dreary in comparison and it makes for poor TV.

The second reason we need another approach to civic education is that the system of municipal government in Canada is very different than it is in some places in the U.S.; mayors have one vote, along with their colleagues on council, on all matters. They govern, not through brute force, but exceptional leadership. It is more inclusive and democratic.

So here is the boring bit, but entirely necessary to begin to understand what is going on and make an informed decision.

The oldest form of municipal government in the U.S. is referred to as the mayor-council model. In this model, the mayor is elected to run city operations, and council is elected to ensure there are sufficient “checks and balances” in place to prevent the mayor from going rogue. Over a third of local governments in the U.S. still follow this model of municipal government – like Chicago. Within this model, there are many variants, and some are based on the role of the mayor. A “strong mayor” in a mayor-council model would have complete authority to hire and fire employees, prepare budgets, direct departmental activities and dig up a runway. In contrast, a “weak mayor” in a mayor-council model would have less authority over government operations, but still considerably more than a Canadian mayor.

As the complexity of municipal services increased with urbanization and new technologies, the need for a more professional approach to municipal administration grew. This led to the promotion of a council-manager model in the early twentieth century. More than half of U.S. local governments have now transitioned to this model of government in which council is elected by voters in the same way shareholders elect a board of directors. Council, including the mayor, hires a manager and then oversees the operations on behalf of the electorate. The manager is like a chief executive officer of a corporation, although we call them a chief administrative officer or a city manager in Canada. In this model, the mayor’s role is most like the chair of a board.

Why the change in the model? As noted, one reason was to bring greater professionalism to a role that was becoming increasingly complex. Another was to ensure that the decisions being made were in the best interests of the community, and not just the mayor’s interests in re-election. In case you haven't noticed, we are electing a breed of politicians who have no qualms spending your money to make a political point - like cancelling a wind project that is half built and which will cost taxpayers millions with zero benefit.

All Canadian municipalities follow the council-manager model of municipal government. I was mayor of the first Canadian city where this model was adopted – Guelph. It is frequently referred to as a “weak mayor” system, but this is not accurate because it is a completely different municipal governance model than the U.S.. Ford is misusing this term to advance his own political agenda; good governance is not among them.