Mayor hankers for veto power

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - AN­DREW DRESCHEL

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. adreschel@thes­pec.com 905-526-3495 @An­drewDreschel

SCOTT GARD­NER, THE HAMILTON SPEC­TA­TOR

Fred Eisen­berger talks about the state of the city with TV’s Con­nie Smith on Wednesday.

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