Kooks and Cretins

Could the office of mayor be hardwired for failure?

In the last few years, Canadian mayors have failed in such weird and varied ways that they seem like characters in an Edward Gorey montage. There was Peter Kelly of Halifax, who left his post after botching (of all things) the execution of an elderly friend’s will. And Susan Fennell of Brampton, turfed after going on a series of delusional junkets at her taxpayers’ expense. And there were assorted mayors of Montreal and Laval, tied a bit too closely with contracting and real estate interests, who kept getting cycled into office by voters and out again by the police. Then there was Rob Ford of Toronto, who became well known for being Rob Ford of Toronto.

But are bad mayors the result of electorates gone mad, or are they actually a feature of our system of governance? In Mayors Gone Bad, a survey of Canadian mayors who turned out to be the opposite of good, Phillip Slayton tries to make the case that the recent run of erratic mayors that has beset Canada’s biggest cities is less an electoral issue than it is a legal one. Canada’s weak mayor system, he argues, essentially selects for losers.

Canadian mayors have little executive power, and even if they can herd their fellow councillors into agreement, cities are sharply curtailed in their ability to raise revenues to build things and deliver services. “In this world of legal and financial impotence,” he writes, “what person of real talent and understanding would want to be chief magistrate, presiding over a forlorn and hollowed-out quasi-kingdom?”

Who indeed.

Mayors Gone Bad offers some insight into the characters who ended up holding these offices. Slayton is able to snag some of them for interviews, revealing his subjects to be a bunch of odd, odd ducks, by turns haunted, charismatic and oblivious. Ottawa’s Larry O’Brien has the Mel Lastman-ite charm of the deal maker, and speaks candidly about the mistakes he made going from private business to public office. Peter Kelly, caught in an airport lounge en route to his new administrative job in a small town halfway across the continent, just seems lost.

Slayton is a keen and compassionate observer. It is a pity, then, that he interviews only three of the eleven “bad” Canadian mayors he features. In the remaining chapters, he uses media reports to offer brief synopses of their mayoralties. For analysis, he leans heavily on quotes from contemporary newspaper columns, and a few present-day columnist interviews and some personal anecdotes. This is troublesome: if Toronto’s canonical bad-mayor experience teaches us anything, it is that the media establishment can become totally detached from public sentiment.

It is not completely clear that Canada really is suffering from an epidemic of bad mayors; Slayton himself highlights the virtues of Western Canada’s municipal darlings, Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi, Edmonton’s Don Iveson and Vancouver’s Gregor Robertson. Other “bad” mayors’ qualifications for the title are harder to discern. Sam Katz of Winnipeg had a rocky road, but did he truly go bad? And Slayton holds a particular animus for Hazel McCallion of Mississauga, less for her brushes with conflict-of-interest law, and more for having built her city into a giant suburb. The problem here is that more or less every mayor on the continent was busy doing the exact same thing in the last century; Hazel is unique only in that she was around to be berated for it for so long.

But let’s look again at Slayton’s broader contention, that we can chalk Canada’s dodgy mayoral stock up to the constraints of the job. He is not wrong about the plight of cities, and he offers some sharp analysis about the disincentives that keep the status quo in place. But if a lack of formal power was really attracting the wrong sort of politician, one might reason that offices with more power would conversely be attracting the right sort.

I might have been more inclined to buy this if Stephen Harper’s former parliamentary secretary was not last seen getting perp-walked out the back of a Peterborough courthouse. Or if his closest advisors were not spending quality time in front of a jury at the trial of one of his hand-picked senators. Cretins and two-penny demagogues circulate freely between city councils and higher levels of government. If you want less corruption, then the answer is not to give individuals more power.

Given the right conditions, any elected office is susceptible to an attack of acute populism. Rob Ford did not come about because of a weak mayor system, or because there were not high-profile serious politicians who also wanted the job; he came about because he was the right character at the right time for the civic mood, which in 2010 was leaning toward “burn everything down.”

Here’s a thought: if we want to improve the quality of mayors, we should seek to improve the quality of the municipal councils that they are frequently drawn from. All too often, the composition of big-city councils is driven by incumbency over merit, and the councils attract a mix of bright sparks and dull implements. The ambitious ones move on, but the weak ones, rising to their feet year upon year to deliver braying, ratepayer-pleasing odes to received wisdom, become entrenched.

Better accountability—as Slayton suggests—and less incumbency would help here. Both are hard, because provincial governments tend to enact legislation that opens the door to these things, but then leaves the municipalities themselves to implement them. Toronto’s city council, for instance, recently backed away from the hard-fought idea of ranked ballots, which make it hard for divisive, weak candidates to win by splitting the vote.

Municipal governance is a fascinating and unique construct. Unlike higher levels of government, which are responsible for large swaths of territory bounded by abstract borders or, worse, some idea of a nation, cities are down-to-earth things. Municipal government is the most concrete level of government, literally—it involves pouring a lot of the stuff. Small wonder that mayors keep getting entangled in real estate and construction contract affairs.

And if, like Slayton, we want to draw a common thread through what we have seen in Canada’s cities, this might be a good starting point. What unites the mayors of Canada, good and bad? They are tied to their land. A good mayor navigates the interlocking territories of his or her city, and the eddies and currents of money and identity that play them off against each other. A bad mayor becomes servant to them.

Politicians themselves will always be a mixed bag, a heterogeneous assortment of the ambitious and the self-interested, the idealistic and the idealess, the gold-hearted and the sold-out. They will continue to be so for as long as public office is open to the public. Centuries of civil service reform have not transformed politicians into model administrators. Instead, they have made the municipalities they steer more resilient when something goes sideways at the top.

Slayton is right: We should make it harder for mayors to go bad, and easier for the good ones to effect change. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that structural change will attract better candidates. Public office will continue to attract the people who see themselves fit for that life. And in a democracy, nothing is going save voters from themselves. Isn’t that the point?