Vision, communications key when picking mayor
With less than two weeks to go before municipal elections, the promises are coming fast and furious from mayoral hopefuls across Ontario.
Millions in new investment, thousands of new jobs, lower taxes, better garbage pickup, new pools and arenas — the list of campaign promises grows daily.
How much stock should voters put in the promises of mayoral hopefuls? Virtually none.
This is not the opinion of a jaded cynic. It’s simply a reflection of the facts.
In recently completed research, Western University’s Kate Graham found most Canadians think their mayors have far more power than they actually do. In fact, our mayors don’t have much more formal power than councillors.
Mayors cannot hire and fire staff. They have no veto over bylaws or budgets. Far from being masters of the municipal universe, they are leaders of a diverse and unruly lot. Their success depends entirely on their ability to build support among those around them — councillors, staff and the broader community.
In terms of actual outcomes, then, mayoral hopefuls can promise very little indeed.
So how should voters judge them? If their promises are not worth the screens we read them on, what qualities should we look for when deciding in whom to put our trust?
One essential quality is the ability to articulate a vision. Mayors are elected city-wide to the most visible of all local positions. Notwithstanding their limited powers, they set the tone and direction for municipal government. This means focusing on the big picture, identifying top priorities, and setting a vision that council — and the city as a whole — can pursue.
Another quality is communication skills. According to Graham, the position of mayor is uniquely demanding. Mayors operate across three distinct arenas — the community arena of dialogue and discussion, the political arena of council and the administrative arena, in which decisions are turned into action.
Mayors connect all three arenas, but control none of them. To realize their priorities, mayors must have exceptionally strong communication skills. They must be able to listen respectfully to diverse perspectives, identify common ground and convince, cajole or ( best-case scenario) inspire people to come together to pursue common purposes.
So how can you tell if a mayoral candidate has what it takes? The records of incumbents typically speak for themselves — for good or for ill. But what about challengers? Three things are most telling. First, the substance of a campaign platform. Promises aside, does the candidate have a big-picture vision for the next four years? Is it a concrete and thoughtful vision, or simply a vague pledge to “do things differently”? Are they clear about their top priorities? And will these priorities help to build the kind of city that you want to live in?
Second, campaign style. Is the candidate combative and abrasive, or do they listen well and respect different points of view? Do they express themselves clearly and persuasively? Do they focus on a positive message, or merely rail against others?
Finally, leadership experience. Some candidates emphasize their business background. But businesses are usually managed top-down, and have one bottom line — making a profit. Municipalities, by contrast, are managed collectively by council, and there’s no single bottom line — what’s most important depends on the balance of interests and needs in a community. Leadership experience in the non-profit sector, in a community group or in another role within local government is often more relevant and valuable than business background.
We need mayors who can work effectively with others, bridge divides and lead on difficult and complex issues. Looking beyond the promises, we can learn much about mayoral candidates from the way they campaign. It’s up to us to investigate the options closely, and choose wisely.