Can the Weak-Mayor*, No-Party System Control City Spending?
Frank Murphy — October 6, 2010
Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson explored some of the issues facing municipalities in Canada in his weekend column: Dear Toronto: A Warning From Your Ottawa Cousins. Most of his points are echoes of Alan Broadbent’s book Urban Nation: Why We Need to Give Power Back to the Cities to Make Canada Strong, which I talked about in my Sept. 16 post. I’m surprised that in neither, is there a discussion of the lack of costs control in cities. The assumption seems to be that the great corrective element is the ballot box. I’d like to see the development of an office (independent of individual municipalities and probably under provincial authority) of combined responsibilities of audit, ombudsman, cost/benefit analyses, strategic planning overview and the resources needed to deliver these to City Councils and Senior Management.
Speaking of Alan Broadbent and his book Urban Nation he’ll be conducting a free webinar Thursday, October 28, 2010 from 12:00 PM – 1:00 PM (ET). It will start with a presentation followed by a discussion: How can cities be enabled to play a greater role in the country’s prosperity?
I continue to find it curious that there isn’t more discussion about the reform of municipal government. Do share, bloggers, anything you come across.
*The term weak-mayor describes a system of municipal government. A strong mayor system as found in American cities gives the Mayor more power and funds his or her support staff.
I have argued previously in this blog that we need some reforms in our municipal political life in this city. I have championed both civic parties (as the lesser of evils) as they can provide a more consistent context, some checks on Councillors during their terms, and provide resources for research which are not currently available to Councillors who, if the fulfill their civic duties have little time to even think about the consequences of the steady stream of recommendations coming from Staff.
I have also been in favour of Jack Little’s concept of a mix of ward and at large elections with, for the sake of argument, four Councillors being elected from wards, and four Councillors plus the mayor being elected at large. In addition to better representation of the various segments of this city, it gives voters at least a chance to know some of their representatives better.
I do not favour a strong Mayor system in that it elevates one Council position, not merely to an administrative head, but to a ruler. Stories of Bosses Tweed or Pendergast are enough to put me off and the current situation is most American cities provides no relief.
But first the apathy. How do we get people to believe that they can make a difference? Or for that matter to come to some kind of accommodation on what they would want that difference to be?
Ron… I think our little corner of the blogosphere offers us a useful forum to discuss municipal issues. When I see efforts like Broadbent’s book or columnist Simpson airing some of these things I wonder why the discussion isn’t more prevalent in the bigger public discussion. Every once in a while I hear of someone at SFU doing extensive research but I’ve never found a way to access that info… You’d think that through for instance the VIU Geography Dept there might be more evidence of robust discussion and debate. The recent Province/UBCM Elections Task Force focused mostly on campaign contribution limits and as you’ve pointed out here its 4 year term recommendation was defeated at the UBCM AGM. An opportunity missed I guess to actually engage in a public debate about what needs to be reformed and updated in municipal government.
I find I’m a little envious of other cities where politics is in the air. Even fractious partisan politics looks good to me from this vantage point. There’s politics going on for sure — just not out in public. Sometimes a person or an issue emerges around which people can coalesce… and from there build an organization focused on success at the polls. If one doesn’t emerge within the next few weeks seems to me it will be too late for the 2011 election. Then it would be the usual 6 week scramble just before the election. I do think that it has never been less of an advantage to be an incumbent than it is right now.
Very good question Frank, I have been wondering the same thing in the context of draft neighborhood plans. I believe that these plans need co-coordination with economic strategy plans that are also consistent with environmental protection. For example if the public knew the services, infrastructure, and environmental costs associated with the draft NB neighborhood plan there would be little tax payer enthusiasm for many of the proposals that it contains.
Our social and cultural values, planning process, and governance model has a long way to go and we are running out of time. The human population density on planet earth is now estimated at 260 people per square mile. Clearly we can not continue to think that population increase equals economic opportunity. To think this way is to gaze at an extinction horizon.
In the words of Billy the Beaver found in the environmental section of this blog, “I’m going downstream to the ocean to see if the waters are rising.”