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  • Writer's pictureJohn Chisholm

You're Not The Boss Of Me

Updated: Sep 27, 2020

More Mayor, More Problems

I previously argued that the role and responsibilities of Mayors in Canada is kind of nebulous - only mentioning the idea of the Soft Power they have from various sources. 

In this post I’ll argue that this Soft Power is actually very powerful and we can’t just ignore (with 30% voter turnout) the real power of the mayor and council to change the city in unexpected ways. Sometimes good. Often not. 

"Boss of Me" is a 2002 song by alternative rock band They Might Be Giants. The song is famously used as the opening theme song for the television show Malcolm in the Middle, and was released as the single from the soundtrack to the show. These guys are giant thinkers and great song pickers. To me Boss of Me is ultimately a political song about the natural human reaction to power used and abused too much. The lyrics say it all.

It's my view that many of the problems of the day could be solved or avoided if more of us concerned ourselves more and spoke out more about power and how we saw it being used in the community. It's something we don't talk about together enough, but like bullying, which is a form of power abused, power problems can often be brought into check simply through discussion.

In 2012 Joseph Nye of Harvard University explained that with soft power, "the best propaganda is not propaganda", further explaining that during the Information Age, "credibility is the scarcest resource". In Halifax the Mayor has great credibility. Whether they vote or not, as I argued previously, people, for whatever reason, believe the mayor is the 'boss' of the city. (The mayor is not the boss of the city.)

The way soft power is exercised is through two basic means:

Simple attraction

The Beatles and other major entertainers have soft power that they have at various times used for political purpose. A great evening of conversation, if you find yourself in a very international crowd, is a discussion of the rise, and perhaps fall, of American Soft Power in the world between the 1950's and now.


Co-option is a tool of manipulation from the school yard to the highest levels of power. By including people "in" in a way they perceive themselves as insiders they will closely follow the rules of the group. In a classic 1979 article for Harvard Business Review, consultants John Kotter and Leonard Schlesinger presented co-optation as a "form of manipulation" for dealing with employees who are resistant to new management programs:

Co-opting an individual usually involves giving him or her a desirable role in the design or implementation of the change. Co-opting a group involves giving one of its leaders, or someone it respects, a key role in the design or implementation of a change. This is not a form of participation, however, because the initiators do not want the advice of the co-opted, merely his or her endorsement.

In his essay THOUGHTS ON PURPOSE IN LIFE Admiral H. G. Rickover USN wrote,

A major reason why so large a majority is smugly docile is that it has accepted the unwritten rules of the game: Don't rock the boat as long as you get your cut. Why become worked up over corruption as long as there are enough benefits of the fallout to go around? Once the acceptance of corruption becomes sufficiently widespread, effective exposure seems threatening to too many people and interests. Clamor for closing loopholes declines in direct proportion to the number of people who benefit from loopholes of their own.

So Soft Power is a real thing. It can be legitimate. It occurs naturally in any group. And it has tremendous capacity to be abused and misused.

More Mayor, More Problems

Here's my shot at the best possible description of the Mayor's role in Canada.

Mayors in council-manager communities (or wardens in counties) are key political leaders and policy developers. In the case of the council, the mayor is responsible for soliciting citizen views in forming these policies and interpreting them to the public. The mayor presides at council meetings, serves as a spokesperson for the community, facilitates communication and understanding between elected and appointed officials, assists the council in setting goals and advocating policy decisions, and serves as a promoter and defender of the community. In addition, the mayor serves as a key representative in intergovernmental relations. The mayor, council, and manager constitute a policy-development and management team.

So, How Could This Go Wrong?

Recently I've corresponded with Tom Urbaniak. Dr. Tom Urbaniak is a Political Scientist, Director of Cape Breton University's Tompkins Institute and a professor in CBU's MBA program. He is the author of 5 books including Her Worship: Hazel McCallion and the Development of Mississauga (University of Toronto Press); Action, Accommodation, Accountability: Rules of Order for Canadian Organizations (Writing on Stone Press); and Dignity, Democracy, Development: A Citizen's Reader (Breton Books).

If you haven't heard of the Tompkins Institute it is one of our educational gems. It is named after Dr. Jimmy Tompkins (1870-1953), one of Cape Breton’s great leaders in adult education and community enterprise. An activist-scholar and priest, Dr. Tompkins championed inter-faith social action, giving rise to dozens of co-operatives, housing projects, credit unions, public libraries, and proposals for major changes in public policies. Since 1973 the Institute has conducted applied research demonstration projects and offers continuing education in community leadership and community regeneration.

In the rest of this post I'll be quoting Dr. Urbaniak at length and linking to his work.

In his opinion article published August 4, Dr. Urbaniak (Tom) agreed that on paper mayors in Canada have little power, few responsibilities, and the government units they represent, cities and towns, also have limited power. Halifax, for example only exists through the Municipal Government Act of Nova Scotia and (as discussed in another post, "Hey, Who's Running This Town") needed the permission of the provincial government even to put limits on campaign spending for its own election.

On the other hand, mayors clearly do have power, which they often use for good purpose. One of the bright spots of the American political scene in the last year is the story of "Mayor Pete". Tom writes, "When Pete Buttigieg became mayor of post-industrial South Bend, Indiana, he didn’t rest until 1,000 derelict buildings were restored or demolished in 1,000 days, even though his power was often just persuasion. This move energized his small city."

It sure did. And all of America too. Mayor Pete ran to lead the Democratic Party in the presidential election.

Tom wrote,

"dynamic, effective mayors realize that their greatest power is to coordinate, champion, persist and persuade – to stubbornly insist on change, to be clear on what their community needs."

This sounds great to me. Exactly what we need. So what could go wrong?

In his September 15th opinion article, in The Telegram titled IS YOUR LOCAL CANDIDATE AWAKE IN NOVA SCOTIA Tom wrote about three modes of municipal government:

Maintenance Regime

This is where government just plods along. Technocrats make and follow rules, they react to problems and generally try to keep everything quiet. It reminds me of the old saying my Grandmother evoked, often just before we tried something a little daring, "A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for."

Development Regime

There's nothing new under the sun. Using Halifax as example Tom writes, "A development regime usually has active ties to business, especially land developers. This can be a problem if the politicians are the junior partner, as the developers look after their own bottom line. They can destroy neighbourhoods and the environment if not kept under control. The Halifax Regional Municipality may now be experiencing some of the tensions of a development regime.

It can be tempting for local politicians to accept the role of junior partner in a development regime. Developers bring tax revenue and an appearance of progress. They often contribute to the campaigns of friendly politicians. But they don’t always act in the public interest."

(Clearly, Tom soft-pedals things more so than I would.)

Progressive Regime

Tom describes a Progressive regime as

"Local politicians in a progressive regime tend to be sharp and astute. They run on clear platforms with clear goals and an intimate knowledge of every corner of their neighbourhoods. They get impatient with lazy or naysaying bureaucrats. They have studied municipal government themselves. They have attended council meetings before running for the first time. They have actually headed organizations. They can show that they have executed serious projects in their community."

Like many, I'm fascinated with the accomplishments of the Progressive Era in Nova Scotia and all through North America. Tom's great description goes a long way to getting at the heart of that movement.

FDR and the leaders of the original Progressive movement began work at the local level by pushing past Maintenance Regimes and resisting the money, power, and insider politics of the Development Regimes. As citizens we can challenge our candidates to do the same. Tom wrote, "It’s not enough for candidates to be nice people who are accessible, although that is important. Ask them to show you a full platform. Ask them how they’re going to transform crumbling parts of your district. How will they move around obstacles? Do they have the leadership skills to work outside the council chambers to actually organize complex projects with multiple interest groups? Do they have the communication and financial skills to draft business plans and policies themselves and then push them through? Have they ever previously brought partners together to write a complicated grant proposal?"

It's uncomfortable work to ask for more and better from local politicians, especially the popular ones who are very nice, seem to only want good things, and agree with pretty much everything you think. That's the challenge. It's these folks who are our jailers. Their power and politics are the chains of our enslavement to old ideas, old ways of doing things and the "Ins" of the bureaucratic and Developer class who ultimately rule the city to their own advantage.

Yes, no, maybe

I don't know

Can you repeat the question?

Winston Churchill liked the old saying, "Democracy is the worst form of government... except for all the others that have been tried." Ultimately, those who've dedicated lifetimes to studying democracy and voting see it come down to this; every once in a while - by design, popular movement, or just whim - a democratic system can remove those in power and give someone else a go... or at least give the perception that has happened. It seems a small virtue but no other system does this as well and as peacefully. I've argued that a major weakness of our municipal politics is that Incumbents rarely lose. We need to be openly discussing this imbalance of Soft Power and actively try at every turn to bring it into check.

You can read more of Tom's great articles about the municipal elections and local government. It's an incredible resource of knowledge and ideas.

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