Publications, opinions, and speeches
Strong-mayor powers shouldn’t mean minority rule
Published on 11/01/2023
Originally published on TVO.org.
Strong mayors have been in the news in Ontario, as the provincial government has established new municipal-government protocols in Toronto and Ottawa and hinted at doing the same for other cities. Strengthening the hand of mayors with more executive power is part of the story, but what has caught the most attention is allowing mayors to get legislation on issues of “provincial interest” through with support from only one-third of city council.
Creation of a “strong mayor” is being conflated with minority rule — the one-third provision — and many people assume they are one and the same. They aren’t.
Many cities around the world, usually big ones like London, New York, and Chicago, have a strong-mayor system of government. It is just that: a system, one that gives the mayor a set of executive powers to manage the business of municipal government. These usually entail the preparation of the annual operating and capital budgets, the appointment of senior managers, and the design and membership of council-committee structure. The idea is that, by assigning responsibility to the office of the mayor, this work will be done more efficiently than in a so-called weak-mayor system, in which councillors are involved in all these functions along with the mayor.
The critical counterpart to the strong mayor is a strengthened city council, which must have the power to act as an effective legislative branch of municipal government. It must have the ability to choose its own leadership, conduct its own investigations and research, and hold the executive branch to account. It must approve the budget, senior appointments, and other major matters brought before it. To do so in an informed way, it needs staff support and organizational structure.
Advocates of the weak-mayor system, in which the mayor has only one vote on council, note that building consensus is necessary to prevent radical initiatives from prevailing. In a strong-mayor system, in which a strengthened council is integral, ensuring consensus is also critical, and an effective mayor must work to cobble together support through good relations with council members and their leaders.
Consensus in Toronto has not been hard to come by, as data compiled by Matt Elliott, publisher of City Hall Watcher, and University of Toronto professor Gabriel Eidelman show. For 50 years, on major issues, council has easily generated majorities of over 85 per cent on votes. They have been in favour of proposals by the mayor of the day (except during the mayoralty of Rob Ford, when they were against his proposals in the same proportion).
What is confounding today is the minority rule provision, which allows a mayor to get something through with one-third of the vote on an ill-defined set of issues. This does not happen in democracies. Even with this stipulation, given the Elliott/Eidelman data, Toronto council usually votes well within the parameters of a “super majority” and can do so for or against a mayor’s proposals.
The strong-mayor system does offer many benefits: It can reduce the transaction costs of council business by assigning initiatives to the office of the mayor, where they are then subject to the study and approval of council. It can focus the city agenda on a number of high-impact matters. And it can focus an enhanced executive effort on critical issues like affordable housing, transit, and risks from climate change.
But a strong-mayor system that doesn’t attend to the role of council such that it can act like an effective legislative branch is likely to produce a lop-sided and problematic result.
Nowhere in this system — indeed, nowhere in a democracy — is there a place for minority rule. Those who have asked for it, and those who have granted it, have no place in a democracy and should probably rethink their suitability for the jobs they hold.