Vi­sion, com­mu­ni­ca­tions key when pick­ing mayor

The Delhi News-Record - - OPINION - MARTIN HORAK Martin Horak is as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at West­ern Univer­sity, and for­mer di­rec­tor of the lo­cal gov­ern­ment pro­gram.

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.

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