OPINION | It's time to reconsider Alberta's weak mayors

Political advisor Najib Jutt wonders whether Alberta's big cities would be better off with stronger mayors.

If we want more accountability at city hall, maybe we should grant more power to the person at the top

Both Edmonton mayor Don Iveson, left, and Calgary's Naheed Nenshi, operate under a system in which mayors hold no more power than any other member of council. Najib Jutt suggests it might be time to look at changing that. (The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion from Najib Jutt, a political advisor based in Edmonton.

Alberta's mayors are weak.

Despite what the public may believe, Calgary and Edmonton mayors hold no more formal power at city hall than other council members.

The council-manager system currently used by the majority of Canadian cities, and the largest municipalities in Alberta, is very similar to the governance model used by most corporate boards.

(It is important to note that the term "council-manager system" is not formally used to describe local government in Canada, but it does best describe the most common type of system.)

Our elected governing bodies — city councils — are responsible for the legislative functions (policies, local laws, other municipal concerns) and hire a city manager to direct and oversee city operations and administration. The city manager reports directly to council and the mayor's position is largely ceremonial and holds no greater executive power than any other member of council.

Obvious weaknesses

The weaknesses of the council-manager system are obvious. For one, there's the question of who, exactly, your councillor reports to.

The idealistic argument is that they work for the voter and their performance is rated every four years at election time. But this overlooks the fact that incumbent mayors and councillors rarely lose their seats, regardless of performance.

But what is the accountability structure between elections? How do you know your councillor is doing a good job? How do you know they are working at all?

In February 2020, concerns over attendance at Calgary city council meetings prompted four councillors to issue a motion calling for the city to track the attendance of the mayor and councillors, citing "several committee meetings which have failed to start due to lack of quorum, a meeting that has been lost due to lack of quorum, and extended periods of bare quorum."

The motion was voted down.

Concerns over attendance at Calgary city council meetings prompted four councillors to issue a motion calling for the city to track the attendance of the mayor and councillors. The motion was voted down. (Scott Dippel/CBC)

If you have the sinking feeling lately that ethical murkiness, entitlement and other lapses in judgment have permeated municipal politics at an alarming rate, you wouldn't be alone, and your feelings would be justified.

We have seen the padding of expense accounts, more than one breach of council's code of conduct, and too many instances of failure to hold to the standard of elected office.

The fact is that, unlike MLAs and MPs who are accountable to the premier or prime minister's office, city councillors report to no one.

Citizens can't be faulted for believing that mayors act as the "boss" in some sort of dotted-line hierarchy within city hall. The reality is that they do not.

In some cities, the mayor has some leeway in disciplining council members by exercising soft power through appointments and other levers, but they have zero authority to regulate the behaviour of a councillor in a council-manager system.

So, what is the alternative?

Strong mayors

There are mayor-council systems, in which executive power resides with the mayor's office.

These systems pre-date council-manager and are still used in many larger urban centres in the United States. A semblance of this structure exists in some parts of Canada as well.

In Canadian cities that may be considered to have strong mayors, such as Vancouver and Toronto, the mayor is granted powers to make meaningful political appointments, and in the case of Winnipeg, to even temporarily suspend council decisions. These can be important levers for rewarding or disciplining other council members and demonstrate that there are significant differences in political clout wielded by mayors across the country.

Now that we have entered the 2021 election cycle in Alberta, perhaps the time has come to consider whether we should grant our big-city mayors additional executive responsibilities.

Some Canadian cities have what may be considered strong mayors. Perhaps the time has come to consider whether the mayors of Alberta's big cities, like Edmonton (pictured), should have the same powers, says Najib Jutt. (Natasha Riebe/CBC)

A legitimate criticism of handing executive authority to the mayor's office is that it may be too much power for one individual. Will it attract "strongman" politicians, who thrive on authoritarian rule and rise to power on platforms of divisiveness and populism?

The reality is these types of politicians are already attracted to the mayor's chair and always have been. The allure for them is any access to authority, be it soft power or otherwise.

Some may argue that vesting full executive power with one elected official doesn't work. They may cite the lack of accountability and transparency we have seen with other levels of government, even very recently.

I would push back that, actually, given enough public and media pressure on that individual, we do see concrete actions. We have seen elected representatives removed from prominent posts, forced to issue apologies, and even asked to resign.

The ability to apply pressure at one point, on one individual who has the power to remedy the situation, changes the outcome. An entire cabinet or council may be able to collectively weather public pressure on any single issue, but a lone individual is much more likely to succumb and be forced to take action.

A balanced approach

I am not advocating for a full embrace of a strong mayor type of mayor-council system. It is far from perfect and will not remedy all the lapses in judgment, toxic environments, and inability to achieve any kind of real consensus in city councils we have seen over the past few years.

There are hybrid models being used in other municipalities that are worth investigating. As with most things, the solution probably lies within some sort of balanced approach.

I do believe that if we in Alberta grant the mayor's office additional powers, such as those we see in other large cities in Canada and the U.S., we will not only see improvements in accountability, but also real consequences for poor performance between elections.

Certainly, without significant changes, without a reimagining of how our municipal governments work, the manner in which city hall operates is unlikely to improve.

(Disclaimer: The author works in a political advisory capacity with all levels of government, including campaigns for the 2021 Alberta municipal elections.)

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read our FAQ.

About the Author

Najib Jutt is a political advisor and brand strategist. He focuses on issues of social justice, equity and accountability within politics and business.


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