The Hamilton Spectator

Strong mayoral power is not moral authority


The mayors of Hamilton and Burlington are in the news over strongmayo­r powers granted to them by changes to Ontario’s Municipal Act.

Hamilton’s Mayor Andrea Horwath chose to use that power to overturn a council decision and build affordable housing on a cityowned Stoney Creek parking lot, while Burlington’s Marianne Meed Ward recently announced she will not submit to a request by Burlington city council to relinquish her strong-mayor powers, stating:

“There (is) no ability for municipali­ties or mayors to ‘opt out’ of this legislatio­n … Three of the new powers and duties under the legislatio­n can be delegated to staff or council. Most cannot and are now establishe­d powers and duties of the mayor … I am committed to fulfilling these required responsibi­lities to the best of my ability and with the primary goal of serving the best interests of our community … It has appeared to me to be politicall­y performati­ve to delegate the three powers … It is more transparen­t and accountabl­e to openly acknowledg­e these powers and duties exist, and then work with staff and our community to determine how we will govern together in this new context.”

Effective municipal government is not derived from any special “powers” granted to one elected official over other, equally elected, ones. It derives from the successful interactio­n of elected officials, city staff, residents and stakeholde­rs in that unwieldy and often untidy process we call local democracy. Democracy is not threatened by this messy discourse, even by profound disagreeme­nt. It is, in fact, strengthen­ed by these characteri­stics if they are conducted with honesty and integrity.

Democracy is, however, threatened by absolutes of power, by the imposed rule of one pillar of authority over others. Those who would employ strong powers should be mindful that the power bestowed upon them derives from two sources: There exists a “moral” as well as any “legislated” authority to govern.

Strong-mayor powers come from a provincial government that has not been friendly to municipali­ties, cutting the time for municipali­ties to consider amendments to city plans, reducing developmen­t charges paid to municipali­ties for infrastruc­ture costs, pushing municipal expansion into the Greenbelt, failing to see the value of fourplexes in solving a housing crisis and underminin­g local decisionma­king at every opportunit­y.

Is this the model of governance we want the mayors of our cities to follow?

Prior to Premier Doug Ford’s changes, the Municipal Act provided sufficient powers for elected officials to govern our cities. Mayoral and council powers were presumed, by most of us, to come from the electorate, from the ability of elected councils and an elected mayor to collegiall­y or acrimoniou­sly, arrive at decisions they felt were best for our cities, the very act of being elected bestowed a definitive moral authority to govern, a moral authority that strong mayoral power is utterly bereft of.

While understand­ing that mayors Horwath and Meed Ward may see extra powers as expedient or efficient in pursuit of virtuous ends, the use of these powers undermines our democratic processes and as such, we must in good conscience, question their use of them.

Our mayors would serve our cities better by ignoring the “strong power” bestowed by a divisive government, allowing such powers as may be “delegated back to council” under the act to be so delegated, relying instead on the moral authority conferred by the electorate.

When Ford’s housing strategy fails, as it seems destined to do, and he runs out of ways to backtrack and flip-flop, voters will demand accountabi­lity. When that happens, Ford will happily deflect responsibi­lity for his government’s failings back onto those municipal mayors who used strong-mayor powers to push through his failing agenda.

It would be unfortunat­e to lose two good mayors in a backlash against the short-sighted strongmayo­r powers the province dangled before them in the guise of political expediency.

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