Urban Nation: Why We Need to Give Power Back to the Cities to Make Canada Strong

Frank Murphy — September 16, 2010
This excerpt from Urban Nation: Why We Need to Give Power Back to the Cities to Make Canada Strong offers some suggestions for the badly needed reform of municipal government.

The author is Alan Broadbent, Chair of the Canadian Maytree Foundation, which identifies itself as “committed to reducing poverty and inequality in Canada and to building strong civic communities.”

Among the Maytree Foundation’s initiatives is Ideas that Matter which is based on the wide-ranging ideas and principles of Jane Jacobs.

Jane Jacobs

Here’s background on the book: Maytree Policy in Focus newsletter.

The recommendations I thought might be a good basis for discussion here are:

Political Parties – Most cities in Canada do not have a party system. Adding a party system could help local officials articulate policy, and make the system more comprehensible to the electorate. It could also make consensus easier to obtain because of party discipline – but this is a double-edged sword. If party discipline is too strict, it could prevent a diversity of opinions from reaching council, or limit the influence of local councillors.

Mix of Ward and City-wide Councillors – In Vancouver, councillors are elected city-wide, and the electorate votes for their top 10 candidates. In most other cities candidates are elected by a ward and only mayors are voted city-wide. There are pros and cons to both approaches. A mix, where some councillors are elected to represent local issues, and others are elected with the views of the entire city in mind, would likely result in a stronger city government.

Stronger Mayor – Canadian cities are governed by a “weak mayor” system. In most cities, the mayor is the only member of council elected by the entire city. Once elected, they have to negotiate with the councillors of each district or ward. While this arguably provides more opportunity for individuals to have their views expressed through their councillors, it also make it difficult to pass city-wide initiatives.

In cities like New York, London or Chicago, the mayor has substantially more powers than the councillor, and the office has a budget for staff that mirrors that of provincial and federal ministers. They can make appointments to key council committees and senior positions in the public service. They can also prepare annual plans and budgets, subject to approval of council.

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