The Weak Mayor System
Updated: May 29
Sometimes when I provide candidate workshops in advance of elections, or even orientations for new councils after the election, it seems that some people have watched too much American TV and got their information on the role of the mayor from south of the 49th.
Many local governments in the United States use a system of government called the ‘strong mayor’ system, wherein the mayor carries more real power and authority than other members of Council do, often including the responsibility to hire (and fire) the chief administrative officer. That’s not the case in Canada.
While mayors, reeves, and in some places chiefs, in Canada certainly have moral authority as the elected head of the local government, their input and voting rights are the same as any other member of that council. Canada’s ‘weak mayor’ system of local government has evolved over time to suit local circumstance and culture, but there are several tenets of it that ring true across most, if not all, local governments that are constituted through the authority of the provinces and territories.
Additional nuances of the mayor’s role are identified through the municipal procedure bylaw. In particularly how much authority has in the meeting process, in appointing people to agencies, boards and committees, and in his or her ability to vote (or not) in Council’s committees.
Mayors in Canada chair council meetings of course, but they have no special rights beyond those laid out in rules of procedure, whether by bylaw or through an external source like Robert’s or Bourinot’s. There are lots of really good sources on rules of order in Canada, one of the best being Eli Mina. He’s got an excellent newsletter that’s always fun to read.
I quite enjoy the weak mayor system, though I would like to see the term get a re-think. It’s not the mayor who is weak; it’s the trappings that surround that office that are built around equity among colleagues at the council table. Even under the weak mayor system, there are mayors who are strong in their commitment to the community, strong in their ethics, strong in their moral suasion provided through their experience and sound judgement.
A thorough council orientation ought to include a robust discussion about the role of the mayor, that the real authority lies with council as a whole, and how the person occupying that august office still serves at the will of the people who elected all of council.
A mayor who acts as if they are the ‘chief executive officer’ of council rather than the ‘chief elected official’ is frequently the cause of angsts among council and administration alike.
Overreach of the role of mayor can cause grief and legal problems for the community over the course of that term. As an example, a mayor who singlehandedly negotiates and signs contracts on behalf of the municipality, effectively bypassing council and the CAO, is suddenly going to come to terms with limits on their authority.
As always, I’m interested in your thoughts about this topic. Do you see where the strong mayor system might be advantageous in Canada, or whether there are parts of that system that could be helpful? I realize we’re ignoring pretty much all extant legislation to engage in this academic debate!
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