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Two men gesture as they speak, both in navy suits.
Toronto Mayor John Tory speaks alongside Ontario premier Doug Ford during a joint news conference in Toronto in June 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

Even without strong powers, mayors find a way to get things done

Anyone following the debate around Ontario’s proposed Bill 39, which would permit the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa to exercise “strong mayor” powers, may be under the impression that the leaders of these large Canadian cities have difficulty getting things done.

With the province of Ontario moving with such urgency to bestow new powers on Toronto’s John Tory and Ottawa’s Mark Sutcliffe, it would be natural to assume there’s a governance crisis at play. Are mayors being stymied by their councils, and are their policy agendas routinely scuttled by obstinate city councillors?

Not really.

Mayors are generally successful in getting their policy preferences enacted. They’re elected on a policy platform and slowly but surely, mayors usually find a way to push it past a council that may have been elected on a set of opposing priorities.

Mayoralty successes

Along with Tory, Toronto’s past recent mayors — David Miller and the late Rob Ford — were able to enact major pillars of their election platforms in relative short order after being elected.

How did they do so in the absence of the type of “strong mayor” powers their counterparts in some major American cities enjoy?

Here’s how.

They enjoy a deference to their office and mandate. Mayors certainly represent only one vote of many around the council table, but they’re the only one with a city-wide mandate. They can claim support from voters throughout the municipality, and can argue that since they ran and won, they have a good handle on the mood and policy preferences of residents.

They have a city-wide political machine. Accompanying a city-wide mandate is a political machine that supported that victory. These include skilled political operators, volunteers, well-placed supporters and hundreds of donors. This machine is invested in the mayor’s success and can be activated throughout the mayor’s mandate to drum up support for policy initiatives.

They have a large, skilled team at city hall to help them. The mayor has the largest political office of anyone on council. Councillors have staff to assist them mainly with scheduling, administrative issues and constituency services, but mayors have policy staff who help draft and find support for their agenda.

These political staff work closely with city staff, including the city manager’s office, to design policies and services. They also closely manage the mayor’s coalition on council and find support among other councillors who may be partial to whatever initiative the mayor is hoping to pass.

They are natural coalition-builders and can create and re-create alliances as needed. Every mayor has a contingent of councillors they can count on for support. This group shares some type of policy or ideological alignment and can generally be expected to vote with the mayor. Mayors don’t have a caucus or cabinet in the same way a premier or the prime minister does, so this coalition can ebb and flow depending on the issue at hand.

Read more: Many Republican mayors are advancing climate-friendly policies without saying so

Mayors work to find new partners and keep the door open for even hardened critics to vote with them on certain issues. Part of this process involves supporting local priorities for certain councillors, such as planning matters or traffic management issues. In this sense, mayors often trade support for local issues to get a policy passed.

They have the ear of the premier and prime minister. Unlike any other member of council, the mayor has the ability to directly discuss policy matters with provincial premiers and, very often, the prime minister. Mayors, therefore, not only have the ability to gain high-level support for their initiatives, but they have the chance to work through inter-governmental funding or jurisdictional challenges prior to introducing items to council.

A dark-haired man sits among men and women at a round table, Canadian flags behind them.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to opening remarks at a meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities Big City Mayors’ Caucus, in Ottawa, in December 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Agenda can stall

A mayor’s policy agenda can slow or fail. Mayors lose council votes from time to time, and occasionally cannot find the necessary support for certain items. But they often get much of what they set out to accomplish passed.

The support they enjoy from council, the public, the premier or even their own staff is contingent upon their actions and the decisions they make in office. If the popularity of a mayor dips, the challenges they face may compound and their agenda could ultimately stall.

A man kneels in front of a group of people taking a selfie.
Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe leads a group selfie with members of the newly elected Ottawa city council in November 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby

For the most part, however, mayors are quite skilled at using both the formal and informal levers and resources at their disposal to fulfil their policy agenda.

Nothing outlined above comes easily, which is why it’s tempting for some to use new powers to eliminate the need to consult and find coalitions among council members. But the processes mayors use to build support — through research, consultation, careful design and negotiation — makes for better and more comprehensive local public policy.

Time will tell if Bill 39 will allow mayors to overstep this process, but it certainly changes the well-established dynamics of local policymaking.

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