Sunday, February 20, 2011

Rob Ford the Strong Mayor?

A few days ago, the quote that zoomed around the internet was Doug Ford opining the relatively little power his brother Rob Ford has in Toronto’s weak mayor system, prompting the blogo- and Twitter-sphere into a foamy frenzy. “I believe in a strong mayor system, like they have in the States,” Doug Ford said. “The mayor should have veto power ... so he has enough power to stop council.”

Just to recap: in Toronto’s weak mayor system the mayor has one vote, just like every other councilor. Rob Ford cannot let loose with the gavel and cancel projects willy-nilly. He must first garner the majority support of councilors, which can be pretty annoying and difficult and laborious, but, you know, that’s democracy.

In an electoral system where the mayor had won a clear majority of the votes, the idea of a strong mayor system begins to look a little less undemocratic. For example, a strong majority from voters could mean they have confidence in the mayor's own personal vision for the city. But one has to wonder if allowing a mayor veto power when he was elected with less than a majority (Ford was elected with 47%) makes for a democratic system. Perhaps before we look to overhaul the powers of our mayoral system, we should look at the system that elects the mayor in the first place to make sure that it provides the most fair and democratic manner of election.

In the current system, first-past-the-post, a mayor, or any councilor for that matter, can easily be elected with well under majority support. James Pasternak in Ward 10 York Centre, for example, was elected with a paltry 19% of the vote this past election, meaning that over 80% of voters didn’t want him to be their councilor. Organizations like Fair Vote Toronto, Better Ballots, and the advocacy group Ranked Ballot Initiative (RaBIT) have all proposed solutions and started dialogues on the matter of refining Toronto's municipal electoral system.

It’s not surprising, however, that Rob Ford would want to govern with a weightier hand, given his propensity for proclaiming various city projects dead (coughTransitCitycough) without first discussing the matter with the other 44 councilors. His campaign was focused, hard-lined, and unbending, so why should we expect his mayoral reign to be any different? Of course Ford would want veto power because then he wouldn’t have to work with all those pesky left-wing councilors and their kooks of a constituency.

In the current weak mayor system, the mayor must forge relationships with a diverse group of councilors (and with Toronto’s 44 councilors plus a mayor you are going to get a lot of diverse opinions to contend with). How much of a mayor’s vision gets implemented during his or her term is a reflection of how much support he or she garnered on council. The mayor cannot rely on party support because there are no parties in the Toronto system. Contrast this with the Vancouver system, which introduces parties into municipal politics. While still a weak mayor system, Mayor Gregor Robertson of the party Vision Vancouver can usually rely on the support from other councilors within the same party—and with 7 out of 10 current councilors affiliated with Vision Vancouver he usually has the support he needs.

But Toronto’s system is different. Without parties, there are no givens in terms of what councilor is going to support what or who is aligned with who. While Rob Ford certainly has clear alliances on council, there is nothing officially tying any councilor to vote with the mayor. The mayor must work with councilors to gain the support needed, which works then in theory to keep the mayor from becoming a lone wolf figure. The weak mayor system acts a check-and-balance against power, preventing the mayor from simply over-riding council decisions and implementing his or her own civic vision--for better or worse. The downside to a weak mayor system is that things could move a lot slower as the mayor works to gain support. Of course, this can be an upside too, depending on the agenda.

Before we even think about giving our mayor the power to veto decisions by council, we should make sure that he or she is elected in a truly democratic system.

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