A may­oral veto is just mus­ing, but …

The Hamilton Spectator - - OPINION - Howard El­liott

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?

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