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  • Writer's pictureJohn Chisholm

Hey, Who's running This Town? (Part 2)

Updated: Sep 18, 2020

With only weeks to go until the municipal election most people are going to the polls with the impression the Mayor runs the city. This is wrong and we should get it sorted.

"Without a Mayor Quimby, our town would really stink. We wouldn't have a tire yard or a midsize roller rink. We wouldn't have our gallows, or our shiny big foot traps. It's not the mayor's fault that the stadium collapsed!
The Simpsons

The Mayor, whoever it turns out to be, does not have the official power to do ANY of the things we want. They can't send a truck out to fix a pothole or add a crosswalk button.

Despite the significance of the position, remarkably little is known about the role of Canadian mayors. The responsibilities of mayors in Canada are “vague”( Lightbody 2006, 156) and “generally quite unclear” (Sancton 1994, 175). The Canadian Political Science Association observes There is no ‘job description’ for mayors.

The mayor DOES NOT hire or fire anyone -  no one reports to the mayor. They don't write or sign cheques. They don't set policy or even vote on policy except in the rarest circumstance. They don't even speak at council except under special conditions.  They don't decide the budget, the business plan, or any element of how the city works. They sure don't get to decide the 'vision' or strategy for the city. Most importantly the council does not work for or report to the mayor.

The word "responsibility" is not in the Mayor's job description because they are not responsible for any aspect of city government.

The mayor's job is completely ceremonial. They ride floats, cut ribbons, entertain visitors, send out notes to old people, and specifically their job description in the Municipal Government Act is clear... they are to chair council meetings, but if they are not available someone else can do it, it doesn't matter.

You can read everything there is to know about the Mayor's position here in the Municipal Government Act and here in the City Charter

In Halifax we have a CAO-Council form of government. It's widely known as a "Weak Mayor" form of government and it has been the most widely used form of city government for over 50 years in North America. But since we get our ideas about government from movies, TV shows and comic books we read when we were kids we often misunderstand the Mayor's role... and the media sure isn't helping. The mayor has no more offcial power to effect change in any of these areas than you as an average citizen.

However, because of the misunderstanding of the role of mayor and our form of government the job has become more mischievous than any other in Nova Scotia. 

It's our own fault. In Weak Mayor governments the mayor is normally selected by council to conduct ceremonial duties or elected at large but has NO executive duties.

The mayor is of course highly incentivized to play up this misunderstanding. There's a lot of money, power, and prestige at play. At his campaign launch the current mayor said things like "I will work with my council...". It's a line of talk that definitely gives the impression he is the boss.

The reality, well cultivated, is that the mayor does have a tremendous amount of power and influence simply because so many believe he does. In political science they call what we have created in our local mayor  'soft power' . In local politics it's bad. It's mischievous, distracting, overly political, open to influence of moneyed elites and special interests.

My position is that we should not be having these distracting mayoral elections. We should save the money and effort and do it as Manager - Council governments work best.  Anyone can be appointed Mayor, by the council or by other means, and ceremonially chair the meetings of council, ride the floats and cut the ribbons etc.

It's worth remembering why most cities moved to the Weak Mayor form of government. 100 years ago corruption was rampant in city governments. Political machines fueled by land speculators ran rough over American cities. In the Progressive Era progressives worked to bring forward new ideas and developed the council-manager form of government. But new studies are worrisome. Osgoode Hall researchers Stanley M Makuch and Matthew Schuman have argued that Canada has effectively legalized corruption in its expanding municipalities.

For the purpose of this election though, what can you do? It's difficult. The sitting mayor and the defacto challenger both take land speculator money and are known to quote the "development at all costs" mantra chapter and verse. We effectively have no choices. At best their influence is mischievous. So it's a long game to fix. It's starts with speaking out about the soft power and influence of mayors with the goal to bring their influence into check as the Progressive Era reformers intended.

#politics #Halifax #election #local

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