A mayoral veto is just musing, but …
You had to know that when Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger used the word veto, hackles would be raised. Not all hackles equally, mind you. Reaction on social media was more mixed, with some actually seeing merit in the mayor’s observation. But in the minds of many — see today’s letters — Eisenberger may as well have suggested doing away with council entirely and running the show himself.
Let’s be clear: the mayor was musing, no more. The province would have to change the municipal act to enable something like a veto, and there is no appetite for that. Eisenberger knows that and said as much.
He was trying to make a point, and it’s one worth discussing. Hamilton city council, like many others, is a dichotomy in many ways. You have 15 councillors who are elected by citizens of the ward they represent. Then you have the mayor, who is elected by the community at large. In that respect, the mayor has a mandate from the entire city, while councillors have a mandate from their ward constituents only.
Ward councillors justifiably feel great responsibility to respect the will of the people who elected them. They zealously guard the interests of their ward. That’s parochial politics, and it’s not always a bad thing. But what happens when what’s best for the city overall butts up against the interests of ward councillors?
LRT is an example. Councillors for the wards most heavily impacted by LRT construction and disruption are solidly behind the project because they see its overall benefit to their wards and eventually the city overall. Citizens in other wards don’t agree. They don’t see any direct benefit so don’t support the project. (Though it’s hard to fathom how some don’t see assessment growth and new commercial tax revenue as overall benefits.)
Another example: ward boundaries. Looking at the big picture, it’s hard to argue against redrawing boundaries so all citizens have roughly equitable representation. But such changes are trouble for wardheeling councillors whose wards might have to change for the greater good. And so, we spent thousands on consultants, ignored their work and ended up kicking the can down the road.
Eisenberger’s point was that there must be a better way. Councillors elected at large instead of by ward? A mix of both? A board of control, or “executive committee” as its called in Toronto? A mayoral veto with appropriate checks and balances to prevent abuse?
As noted earlier, the discussion is academic. But maybe it shouldn’t be. The current system certainly has its share of drawbacks, although it generally works. But would it be so bad to study, perhaps even pilot, an experiment in doing local government differently? And why not in Hamilton, a city where challenges are overshadowed by ever-growing potential?