Municipal Charters & ‘Mayors Gone Bad’

Last Friday, as former Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz faced allegations of accepting kickbacks from a construction company and former Montreal Mayor Michael Applebaum was found guilty on eight criminal counts including fraud and breach of trust, Philip Slayton’s phone was ringing off the hook.

Slayton’s a lawyer by  training — and a Rhodes scholar, and the former dean of law at the University of Western Ontario — but it was as author of the 2015 book Mayors Gone Bad that he was in demand for comment on Friday’s events.

Philip Slayton

Philip Slayton, author of Mayors Gone Bad, Bay Street (A Novel), Mighty Judgment and Lawyers Gone Bad.

Mayors Gone Bad is both madly interesting and deeply depressing. Slayton takes the reader on a guided tour of bad Canadian mayors, ranging from those who sailed close to the wind — like Halifax’s Peter Kelly and Mississauga’s “Hurricane” Hazel McCallion (the former dodging accusations of wrongdoing involving a Black-Eyed Peas concert and his role as the executor of a friend’s will, the latter found guilty of conflict of interest but facing no penalty due to lax regulations) to those who actually ended up in jail, like London, Ontario’s Joe Fontana.

As bad as they unquestionably broke, Slayton is not entirely unsympathetic to Canada’s rogue mayors — the “fundamental vice,” he told me in a phone interview, “is constitutional” — Canadian mayors have no real power.

Slayton, who lives part of the year in Toronto and part of the year in Port Medway, N.S., had a recent example of mayoral impotence at the ready: Toronto Mayor John Tory, trying to raise the money Slayton said is “desperately” needed for transit in Toronto, has been denied the right to charge tolls on the highways leading into the city. The ruling, from Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, is “an absolute disgrace,” according to Slayton and illustrates the dilemma faced by Canada’s big city mayors, who have to provide services to millions of Canadians but have no source of income other than property tax — a regressive tax that hurts the poor more than the rich — with which to do it.

The frustrations of the job, says Slayton, discourage many qualified people from wanting it.

“Why would you want to be mayor if you were serious about public policy?” he asks. Even good mayors, like those making up the so-called “Western triangle of mayoral goodness” — Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi, Edmonton’s Don Iveson and Vancouver’s Gregor Robertson — eventually run smack up against the impossibility of accomplishing anything significant and shift their focus to “rather sad” goals, says Slayton, like “more bike lanes.”


The Office Seeker

Slayton’s book provides an interesting breakdown of the types of people who are attracted to the job of mayor despite its limitations.

First are the “glory seekers.” Fooled by the “accoutrements — the title, the big desk, the flag in the corner, the chain of office,” they look forward to wielding power they eventually find to be “non-existent.”

Then there are the “office seekers.” Slayton defines them as “professional and perennial politicians, bouncing back and forth…between various levels of government.”

Third are the “idealists” who “hope that politics can transform society and provide meaning.”

And last are the pragmatists, often policy wonks, who have “particular things, sometimes quite technical and complicated” they hope to accomplish.

(A fifth category, “psychopaths,” suggested by a longtime Montreal Gazette City Hall reporter, is surely — ? — a joke.)

I will give you a moment to play the “What Kind of Mayor Do We Have?” game. Note that the categories can overlap.


Charter Rights

So, how do you solve a problem like municipal government?Cover of book, "Mayors Gone Bad" by Philip Slayton

Ideally, says Slayton, by modifying the Canadian Constitution to reflect the “modern reality” that the majority of Canadians live in cities; then making cities creatures unto themselves rather than creatures of the provinces. As quickly as he suggests this possibility, though, he dismisses it:

But that is unlikely to happen; the political forces and technical difficulties arrayed against it are too great. Constitutional change in favour of cities would require provincial governments to surrender great power.

Instead, Slayton argues for city charters. Those cities with charters (Halifax, Calgary, Edmonton) would renegotiate them, those cities without charters (hello, CBRM!) would negotiate them. Each charter would contain certain elements, key among which would be an “entrenchment clause” containing “special requirements for modifying or repealing” it. This, he says, couldn’t entirely prevent the province from ignoring the charter but would set the political price for doing so very high.

(I didn’t ask him if he thought a city’s charter should be drafted in secret by the mayor and presented to the province without any input from council — hello, CBRM! — but I’m going to go out on a limb and say he would not favor that approach.)

The other elements Slayton would include in a city’s charter are the authority to impose “whatever taxes it saw fit;” ethical requirements for municipal politicians — particularly concerning conflicts of interest; and the removal of any impediments to municipal level political parties. (This last based on the “hotly contested” notion that municipal political parties bring greater accountability and stability to municipal politics.)

The question that comes immediately to mind — one Slayton anticipates and answers in the book — is, “Why would we want to give bad mayors greater powers?”

The answer is simply because until we make the job of mayor a serious job we won’t (reliably) attract serious candidates.  It’s also why one of the three items to be covered by a city’s charter is ethical rules. Slayton says it will then be a matter of holding politicians accountable to those rules. (A job for the press, in particular.)

Selling this concept, says Slayton, will require a “new breed of politician,” one who “treats the electorate as adults.” It will also, it seems fair to say, require an electorate that acts like adults. One that realizes, as Slayton puts it, that “taxes are the price of civilization.”


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