Friday, September 7, 2012

halifax is getting a new mayor - but do we need a new mayoral system?

halifax magazine is full of election fever this month, including my article looking at the mayoral system itself. i've been wanting to explore this since i returned from living in the uk in 2006. there, councillors are affiliated with political parties, making "local elections," as they call them, part of the national conversation.

so what is the HRM system designed to do? and what are the other options? read on: 

By Jon Tattrie

Peter Kelly is not re-offering in the fall HRM elections, leading to intense focus on the candidates who would fill the mayoral chair – but a lot less interest in the chair itself. We’re not talking about Kelly’s famous low-budget seat, but the power vested in the office of mayor.

There are many ways to run a city and Halifax has a system designed to flatten the mayor’s power into the council. Others boost the mayor into a CEO position that runs the city, while others still look to national politics for inspiration.

Halifax Magazine spoke with Jack Novack, a professor at Dalhousie University and expert on municipal affairs, to examine three systems. Perhaps it’s time for HRM to think not just about choosing a new mayor, but a new model of governance.

Novack says the deep question is: what do you want a municipal government to do? Do you want it to take charge and run a city, or do you want it to administer provincial policies at a local level?

“Those are very different views of what local government is all about. Whether HRM is governable or not, and what kinds of modifications ought to be considered, has to originate from a basic view of what local government is and why it’s there,” he says.

The three systems we’ll look at are the weak-mayoral council (which HRM uses), the strong-mayoral council (big U.S. cities) and the party political system (used in the U.K.).

The weak-mayoral system
In this system, the mayor has no extra powers compared to the councillors. She has one vote and her chief duty is not to put her view forward, but to chair the meetings so that all councillors are heard and council procedures are followed. Key positions like the police chief are suggested by the chief administrator officer and voted on by the entire council.

“The mayor has relatively little power and the mayor’s power tends to be more symbolic,” Novack says. “It’s a very difficult role for the mayor to provide leadership when there is no real executive power.”

The mayor can draw moral power from the fact that she is the only member of council elected by the entire municipality. When the system works, she can use the platform she ran on to provide “moral leadership” to the council. She can use this power to form voting blocks on council and recruit support from community groups as well as business and political leaders to carry out a clear vision.

When a mayor is unable to use this persuasive power, councils can pull apart into their constituent units. 

Each councillor answers to his voters and not toward a broader goal for the entire city.

“Sometimes when councils get into deep trouble, it’s because the mayor loses control and the council is dominated by particular factions or individuals,” Novack says. “Municipal policy simply becomes the coincidence of district policy.”

The local government has a “weak executive function,” meaning it is more geared to deliver provincial policies, rather than set its own course. “I can see it being useful in a time when things were far less complex and there were a limited array of services,” he says.

Strong-mayoral council
Fans of The Wire will be familiar with this system, where the mayor has sweeping powers and can dominate council. He fills key posts like police chief, and they answer to him. He is not a member of council and holds veto authority over council decisions.

“Where there is much greater executive power vested within that office, you have much stronger mayoral systems,” Novack says.

When it works, a city can drive forward in a planned-out direction. When it fails, you wind up with a dictatorial mayor vulnerable to corruption. “You get the boss syndrome. You get a person with too much power and no countervailing authority and what can happen is you can find that is a problem,” he says.

Party political system
In this model, each councillor runs for a political party like the Conservatives, NDP or Liberals. Whichever party wins a majority on council runs the city. The mayor acts like a Speaker, wearing impressive costumes, chairing meetings and cutting ribbons, but having little real power.

In the U.K., local council elections often act as an unofficial referendum on the national government and you’ll see sweeping Labour wins to express discontent with a Conservative government. The advantage is citizens can vote for the deeper principals and policies that govern political parties.

“When you vote, you would not just vote for somebody who is going to represent your district or somebody who is a nice person and who is approachable; you’re also voting based on a direction you would see for your larger community – where it’s going, what’s important and what are the priorities,” Novack says.

That means a Conservative voter in Ecum Secum can find common ground with a Conservative voter in Spryfield, and the whole city can share a vision. It can also give smaller political parties (think the Greens in Canada) a chance to show how they would govern federally.


Regardless of who fills the mayor’s chair this fall, HRM doesn’t ultimately control itself. Any changes to HRM’s system of government must be made by the provincial government.

Novack notes that no matter which system a city uses, it can be dramatically changed if citizens become active. A few years ago in Fredericton, a group of citizens got fed up with drifting city policy and decided to empower themselves. They interviewed council candidates in all ridings and gave their backing to those embracing a particular vision for development. That faction was elected and governed with a de facto executive mandate – and not a sentence of new legislation was required. Council had a clear agenda and was held accountable by the citizens.

A similar effort called Citizens for Halifax sparked up a few years ago, but seems to have fizzled out. With a municipality the size of P.E.I., district policies are likely to dominate HRM council in the absence of a strong mayor – or a strong citizenship. 
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