Election 2016: What Does the Mayor Do?

There will be a mayoral race in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality this fall and I for one, am glad.

That’s partly because acclamations are no fun—who wants to watch incumbent Cecil Clarke debate himself?—but mostly because I don’t think they’re particularly healthy for a functioning democracy.

CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke

Cecil Clarke

Instead, Rankin MacSween, head of “community development group” New Dawn Enterprises, will take on Clarke, a one-term mayor and former provincial cabinet minister. And who knows what other candidates may throw their hats into the ring? (Other than our own Dr. StrangeJob, of course.) The deadline to declare your candidacy for mayor is September 13, so there’s lots of time yet for all those dark horses lurking out there wherever dark horses lurk…

Whoever wins this fall will have an important role to play in this municipality; a role so important the Nova Scotia Municipal Government Act (MGA) has almost nothing to say about it. Seriously, here’s the definition of “mayor” from the MGA:

“mayor” means the council member elected at large to be the chair of the council;

And here’s the description of the job:

Mayor or warden
15 (1) The mayor or warden shall preside at all meetings of the council

(2) During the temporary absence of the mayor or warden, the
deputy mayor or deputy warden shall preside and, if neither is present, the council
may appoint a person to preside from among the council members present.

(3) The mayor or warden may

(a) monitor the administration and government of the
municipality; and

(b) communicate such information and recommend such
measures to the council as will improve the finances, administration
and government of the municipality.

The MGA is more voluble on the subject of “Municipal Powers Respecting Trees”


Some Mayors Smoke Crack (Allegedly)

I consulted The Canadian Encyclopedia, hoping to gain more insight into the role of the Canadian mayor, but its entry on “Municipal Government” starts out dull:

Variously described as ‘the chief officer,’ ‘the chief executive officer’ or ‘the head of council’ in provincial statutes, the mayor may be high profile but, in fact, has little power independent of the municipal council. All provinces provide that the mayor shall be elected at large (meaning that unlike councilors, they do not represent a specific geographic area or ‘ward’ of the municipality). Canadian mayors generally preside at all council meetings, are ex officio members of all committees and can make recommendations to the council.

Before, apparently, being hijacked by Perez Hilton:

Canada has had a number of colourful mayors who have made national headlines for various reasons. Toronto’s Mel Lastman, a local character who founded Bad Boy furniture, famously called in the army in 1999 to help shovel snow during a big winter storm, making the city the butt of jokes across the country. Toronto’s Rob Ford faced allegations in 2013 that he smoked crack cocaine (the allegations were never proven) when alleged images of him circulated on the Internet and in the media. Ottawa’s Larry O’Brien, who owned a multi-million dollar high tech company, faced influence peddling charges related to his 2006 election to office, and was acquitted in 2009.

That is not at all helpful—by this reckoning, Canadian mayors are either utterly subordinate to municipal councils or crack-smoking, influence-peddling, snow babies. (Thank heavens for Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi who gets a nod for his emergency response work during the Calgary floods.)


Creatures of the Provinces

Meanwhile, Jay Makarenko, writing on the Mapleleafweb.com, is dismissive of municipal governments generally:

Local governments…are simply recognized as creatures of the provinces, and derive their powers from provincial law (usually in the form of a Municipal Act created by the provincial legislature). This means the provinces have the right to alter local governments in their jurisdiction at any time, be it to abolish or amalgamate municipalities, change their financial structures, alter their powers and responsibilities, or change the methods of electing their officials. Moreover, the province may do so without the consent of the local government(s) it is altering.

I find that makes the provinces sound like the Queen of Hearts in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, ready at any moment to yell “Off with that municipality’s head!”

Convinced there must be more to municipal government than this, I decided to ask an actual person from the CBRM—CBU Political Science Professor David Johnson—what he sees as the role of the Nova Scotian mayor.

“[L]ittle in the MGA about the role of the Mayor,” he agreed with me, (getting off to a fine start).

But it turns out the little that is in the MGA actually means quite a lot:


The mayor is the leader of council and given that he/she is elected at large for the entire municipality. he/she can rightfully claim to represent the entire municipality in contrast to local councilors who only represent their district.

Rankin MacSween

Rankin MacSween

As leader of council, the key power the mayor has is to set the agenda for council meetings and to direct the flow of discussion. But the mayor has only one vote on council so he/she is very much first amongst equals. The key role of the mayor is very much felt behind the scenes. A mayor is a full-time position while councilors, officially, are only part-time representatives. So it is the mayor who is working with municipal staff in the development of policy and position papers, in meeting with other representatives of other levels of government, and in meeting with local businesspeople, possible investors, members of the local community, etc.

Setting the agenda is not simply confined to directing what council meetings will address and when, but in trying to set the stage for what the municipality will be seeking to accomplish over a four-year term of office.

So the mayor does play an important role in municipal government. No wonder people want the job.

But I have to say, that “first among equals” line is also significant: the mayor is important but so is the council. In fact, the MGA states quite baldly:

The most important political structure in any municipality is its council.

And sure, it’s the mayor who deals with municipal staff and other levels of government. And it’s the mayor who sets policy and advises council. But it’s council that weighs, maybe even tempers, that advice. It’s council that must approve that policy. We elect 12 people who bring their own ideas and experience to the table — the more ideas and experience the better. Lucky the mayor who has an engaged council to debate and discuss policy. And so while it’s healthy for our democracy to have a two-way (at least) race for mayor, it would be even healthier if we also had races in all 12 districts.

(I started out wondering what the mayor does and ended up talking about the council. Funny that.)


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