Why every Ontario municipality should be talking about mayoral power

“It’s a big job. You’re the quarterback, the referee, the equipment manager, and the cheerleader – all at the same time. You’re seen as the person who controls everything, sometimes way beyond local government jurisdiction and definitely beyond what you actually control.

People think you’re in charge, but you’re not really. When people are unhappy, they call you. It doesn’t matter what they are unhappy about – a big political issue, a family tragedy, or what happened on their morning commute – they call, and they want results. They reach to the leader who is closest to the people, and that’s the mayor.

The role keeps evolving. It’s moved from a ‘chief magistrate’ to one that is something of a celebrity. But the bottom line is, it’s an awful lot of work and few people really understand it. It’s a job like no other.”

These words were spoken to me by a well established mayor of one of Canada's largest cities. I was on a cross-country tour for my PhD research, interviewing mayors and those who worked most closely with them. 

The focus of my project was to understand mayoral power in Canada, where we often assume that our mayors are "weak" mostly in absence of what are known as "strong mayor" powers in the US. 

The most basic finding of my study was that Canadian mayors can be much more powerful in practice than what we would expect. I argue mayors have three concurrent roles: as political leaders, as executive leaders, and as community leaders. In practice, mayors tend to be unevenly powerful across these roles -- but when done effectively, mayors can be enormously powerful leaders within each of these realms (and if you want the very long version of this argument, you can you find it here). 

A common theme of the interviews with mayors (and councillors, to a lesser extent) was the difficulty of the mayor's role, characterized by as a mismatch between high expectation and ability to deliver.  

The consequences can be significant. Mayoral campaigns often receive the most attention and frame the agenda. The successful candidate is then expected to be able to deliver on this platform, but without almost any of the levers of leaders at a provincial or federal level. It can contribute to the general confusion about local politics, create conflict and erode trust. 

So how to address this? The best-in-class solution is for municipalities to have periodic discussions about their own governance arrangements, including the powers of the mayor. No one model is universally optimal (and anyone trying to tell you that "strong mayors" will fix policy problems, or that certain models are undemocratic ... frankly, they are out to lunch). Similarly, forcing a model on a municipality (yes, I'm looking at you Province of Ontario) without invitation is a recipe for conflict, especially at the council table.

Instead, municipalities should be more intentional about choosing a model that works in that community at that moment in time. The trick here is to separate out perceptions of the people in the role from the role itself. Otherwise, opinions about mayoral power become little more than reflections of support, or lack of support, for the current or future mayor (sound familiar?). 

Canadian mayors already have quite different powers across cities and provinces.  Mayors in Winnipeg can suspend council decisions, appoint members of the Executive Policy Committee which meets in camera and is responsible for most of the significant council decisions. Mayors in St. John's legal powers include to "inspect the conduct of officers in the government of the city" and to "prosecute and punish all negligence, carelessness and positive violation of duty" (though I will note this was a surprise to the incumbent mayor when I mentioned it!). 

Add American cities to the comparison and of course this range of powers expands dramatically. Strong-mayor cities are characterized by a concentration of executive powers vested in the mayor. Mayors have veto power (often without recourse from council), hire and fire heads of all departments, can issue executive orders, have control over municipal budgets and external municipal bodies.

In an extreme case, the mayor of Washington DC holds powers of a governor, county executive and mayor all rolled into one. This includes administering Medicaid, issuing driver’s licenses, having authority to tax, running the local jail, overseeing the public school system, and all of the functions of a 'strong mayor' in a municipality with an annual budget exceeding $15 billion USD.

Bottom line: mayoral powers are like a menu, and municipalities should get to choose the the combination that works in their own context. This should include consideration of each of the mayor's roles, including:

Political powers

  • Control over agendas
  • Presiding over meetings and/or other controls in meetings 
  • Appointment powers, including committees (sometimes tied to incentives such as increases in pay) 
  • Creation of executive or budget committees, including appointment powers 
  • Ability to engage with leaders at other levels of government, independent of council
  • Suspension of veto of some or all council decisions  

Executive powers

  • Hiring and firing senior officials 
  • Oversight of administration
  • Ability to issue executive orders 
  • Control over budget expenditures, within office and in administration
  • Influence over external bodies such as police, transit, health, etc.
  • Other delegated authorities specific to municipal services and functions 

Community powers 

  • Ability to issue proclamations, raise flags, etc. 
  • Ability to make citizen appointments to boards and commissions 
  • General platform to speak to, consult and engage the public on behalf of the municipality 
  • Resources of the Mayor's Office to deliver annual reports, lead community initiatives and generate public/media discussion on topics 

This is not an exhaustive list, and each of these items can be scoped to be more or less significant. The same combination of powers will not make sense in each community or at every moment in time.

All members of council generally agree that municipal governance could be more efficient (surprise!), and it's in the interest of all members to see things run smoothly. Ensuring the right governance model is in place is a step in the right direction. 

The important point is that municipal councils should get to choose the model that's right for them.

One way to do this - and to limit person rather than role evaluations - is to engage both outgoing and incoming councils in the discussion. This can include a survey of council members before an election to see the extent to which the current suite of mayoral powers (and broader governance arrangements) are working in that municipality, and assess areas that may be worth examination by the next council. This can then establish a starting point for an incoming council to examine their governance model. 

As the wise mayor said, "it’s an awful lot of work and few people really understand it." This is certainly true about mayors, as well councillors and those who work in local government. Expectations are high, and resources are limited. 

Let's hope that any municipal governance changes on the horizon are made in a way that improves effectiveness -- and does not burden, surprise or add conflict -- for our municipal leaders.