Municipal politics is all about personalities

By on July 11, 2014

U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt is credited with coining the phrase “bully pulpit” to describe one of the powers of his office. The President needs this power to marshal support in both houses of Congress, among the public and even in his own party.

Our Canadian Prime Ministers don’t have this problem since they have far more power than a U.S. President, party discipline and question period in which s/he faces critics. A Prime Minister doesn’t even need to do the hundreds of media interviews that a President typically does.

But where the bully pulpit comes into play is at our municipal level. With few exceptions, our Mayors’ only real power is their one vote at council. Some can make appointments to an executive committee, be the public face of emergency management and help ensure some councilors and city staff get to go to a conference in Florida in January. So it’s the informal, extra-legal authority or charisma that Mayors wield that is often more important than the powers set out in their provincial Municipal Acts.

When I was growing up, Tom “Terrific” Campbell wielded something like it in Vancouver, as did Rod Sykes in Calgary. Everybody knew Montreal’s Jean Drapeau could get his way in Quebec City or Ottawa, but that was also thanks to separatists and the political need to be seen to be doing something for Quebec.

So, it’s also the issue and circumstances that provide a Mayor with power. This is no way to run a railroad or a city, but that’s the system we have.

Take an anecdote from my time as Executive Assistant to the (then) world’s longest serving big city Mayor – Mel Lastman at the height of his popularity in the City of North York. At the time, titans occupied high office in the country, including Trudeau and Mulroney in Ottawa, Davis in Ontario and Paul Godfrey as Chair of the now defunct Metropolitan Toronto level of government.

The government relations advice at the city level went like this. If you wanted to get something done in North York, you had to see Mayor Lastman first. Look out if you happened to meet with his arch rival Councilor Howard Moscoe first – the deal was dead. In Toronto you had to get council onside first before meeting with Toronto’s longest serving Mayor (now Senator) Art Eggleton. This is because Mayor Eggleton saw himself as a team player needing his council onside. But in the neighboring City of Scarborough it was said that Mayor Gus Harris, in his late 70s, was irrelevant to the process.

It’s like this, one way or another in your town or city. If you’re a ratepayer who wants to get something done, a lobby group that wants to prevent something or a developer who wants permission to build, you’d better look at personalities as much as by-laws.

Council passes official plan amendments and changes by-laws all the time. By-laws are by definition a codification of yesterday’s needs, practices and incentives. There used to be a TV program called This is the Law which made fun of antiquated laws – no standing up while drinking, no filling a wine glass more than 3/4 full, room and board for horses in Montreal if you drove up to a hotel in a carriage.

“Let’s Make a Deal” planning has a bit of a bad name. But what’s an elected council for if it isn’t to hear the will of the people, not that the will has changed, and adapt accordingly? Otherwise, we’d only need to codify everything in by-laws, abolish elected council and let a clerk run the city.

So, read your by-law. Know your design guidelines. But also, get to know the personalities on council, in the Mayor’s office and in the bureaucracy. That’s city building. -TroyMedia

Dr. Allan Bonner has consulted on some of the major planning and public policy issues of our times on five continents for 25 years. He loves cities and his latest book will be titled Safe Cities.

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