Introducing Strong Mayors to Canada
The Government of Ontario has been more than musing about introducing some aspects of the strong mayor system to both Toronto and Ottawa. This would be a first in Canada, where we have relied on the weak mayor system over the generations.
According to an article on the topic, ”The bill would allow the mayors of those two cities (Toronto and Ottawa) to override council approval of a bylaw, such as a zoning bylaw, that would hamper a set of provincial priorities that will be set out later in regulations.”
The legislation also gives the mayors the power of the pen in creating city budgets; allows the mayor to be the sole boss of the Chief Administrative Officer; and to control the employment of most department heads. To me, the topics of budget control and the fate of department heads, in particular, stray out of the lane of governance and begin to get deep into the management and administration of the municipality. In my opinion, this is a really bad idea.
Typically, strong mayors in the country south of us have a suite of powers that change a municipal council from a group of equals to a situation wherein, as Orwell stated, “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” This has included – like in the proposed Ontario situation – veto power over motions that have been passed by council, and hiring/evaluating/replacing the municipal manager, among other powers. The result is that the mayor becomes the de facto ‘boss’ of council and, therefore the municipality.
The perception of many members of the public is not far off from what a strong mayor really is. They see the mayor as the spokesperson of council, as the person who greets visitors to the municipality, as the one who chairs council meetings, and makes a lot of speeches. When push comes to shove, however, the Canadian mayor really has no more formal authority than any other member of council. As a small support to this situation, when I address a council, I will often speak to “madam mayor and other members of council,” indicating that I am aware that the mayor is but one member of the larger council.
The reality of mayors as ‘first among equals’ is likely accurate precisely for the reasons I’ve just outlined, but it doesn’t extend to the mayor having an override on council decisions.
Some of the proponents of the strong mayor concept in Ontario’s situation have noted that there will be a reduction in ‘red tape’ and an ability for speedier decisions to be made. No doubt this is true, but in whose service is this? In the Ontario example, a strong mayor will no doubt speed up developments, but will they provide better governance to the community in the long run, or just to the mayor’s desire for re-election?
I am not a supporter of strong mayor system, particularly in our constitutional monarchy. It changes our egalitarian system of local government into more of a republican system, where the mayor becomes a new ‘branch’ of government, separate from council, which then takes on the role of the legislative branch.
I imagine there are other factors at play here. It is very rare that provincial governments provide more power to municipalities over which they have legislative authority. What is the real reason that the Ontario provincial government is interested in giving additional powers to the mayors of Ottawa and Toronto?
Related articles have stated that other municipalities might get similar powers. That tells me this is a bit of a trial balloon. This provincial decision is related to decisions about development and a few other topics, but there is nothing to stop the province from extending the strong mayor powers to other types of decisions too. There is an appeal process built into the legislation, but it is a supermajority that is required to prevent the veto.
I see this as one of those proverbial slippery slopes, where a small decision by the province now will lead to major consequences later on. Given that councils are elected to represent all citizens, these potential consequences are not in service of democracy and long-term sustainability as we have known them.
In Alberta, where I live, I can’t imagine the province executing a similar devolution of powers to the mayors of Alberta’s two largest cities, simply because both of those mayors hold very different political views than the provincial party in power.
What’s your take? What do you see on the horizon if strong mayors become common in Ontario, and potentially in other provinces and territories? On a related note, I speak to this a bit in my first book, Who’s Driving the Grader and Other Governance Questions.
As always, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.