Mayor hankers for veto power
The Hamilton business audience chuckled when Mayor Fred Eisenberger recently said he’d like veto power over council decisions, but he wasn’t joking.
A mayoral veto would be a “useful tool” to keep councillors on track and focused on the “greater good” when dealing with city-wide issues, Eisenberger said.
He says he’s asked provincial cabinet ministers to give Ontario mayors the power to override the wishes of council on a “number of occasions.”
“I don’t think the province in any way, shape or form is prepared to entertain that, although I think it would be a useful tool for mayors to have — to be used sparingly and rarely — in case people aren’t coming together to look after the greater good.”
Eisenberger cites the divisive LRT debate as an example of when a veto would come in handy. Redrawing ward boundaries also springs to mind.
The mayor argues that giving him the power to reject council decisions
makes sense since he’s the only member of Hamilton council elected by voters from across the entire city as opposed to councillors who are elected in specific wards.
He publicly floated the idea at the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce mayor’s breakfast last week in response to a question about dealing with councillors who are more concerned about their own wards and re-election than what’s best for the wider community.
Eisenberger later said it was “just an offhanded comment” but went on to say he’s had a number of conversations with provincial ministers about it in the context of municipal reform.
“I think many here would acknowledge that even though mayors normally have a broad mandate and get elected at large, they don’t necessarily have the clout to exercise that broad mandate directly.”
Eisenberger says being elected at large does give the mayor a “moral authority” that can factor into councillors’ thinking when it comes to advancing mayoral initiatives and campaign promises. But, he notes, that doesn’t give the mayor the power to autonomously enact.
Eisenberger isn’t the only municipal politician to pine for more executive power. Toronto mayoral candidate Doug Ford pitched a veto during his unsuccessful 2014 campaign.
But what’s to prevent a headstrong vetoarmed mayor from becoming an autocrat? At the risk of opening old wounds, imagine the chaos a veto might have caused in the hands of temperamental former mayor Bob Bratina.
Eisenberger believes placing restrictions on when a council vote could be quashed would prevent the misuse of power. “I think you would limit it to certain issues that have broad consequences across the municipality.”
He suggests one trigger could be if council was straying from decisions it had collectively agreed to in, say, the city’s strategic plan.
The reality is vetoes are commonplace in many major American cities, including New York, Boston and Detroit. In those jurisdictions, the mayor’s veto can be overturned by a two-thirds majority vote of council.
The idea clearly appeals to those frustrated by Canada’s weak mayor system — in which the mayor’s vote carries the same weight as a councillor’s — compared to the American strong-mayor model which, in some cases, gives mayors more direct power over legislation, budgets and department heads.
But the strength of a strong-mayor system is also its weakness: it centralizes a lot of power in one person’s hands and diminishes the role and influence of councillors.
In many ways, it’s not unlike Hamilton’s old board of control, which was composed of the mayor and four elected-at-large councillors who acted as an executive committee or cabinet of council, especially for financial matters.
The board’s decision could be overturned by a two-thirds vote of council.
Hamilton abolished the board of control in 1980, but it still seems to cast a nostalgic spell over some, especially when councillors appear to be more concerned about the trees than the forest.
Andrew Dreschel’s commentary appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. firstname.lastname@example.org 905-526-3495 @AndrewDreschel
Fred Eisenberger talks about the state of the city with TV’s Connie Smith on Wednesday.