Strong vs Weak Mayors: what does this really mean?

It is often said that Canada has ‘weak mayors’. What does this mean, and is it true?

The term comes from the United States, where ‘strong mayor’ and ‘weak mayor’ are comparative terms used to describe the level of power and authority held by mayors.

In ‘strong mayor’ cities, the mayor is the ‘chief executive officer’, often with unilateral authority to hire and fire senior staff, appoint people to key positions, approve budget expenditures, veto council decisions, and oversee the daily operations of the municipality.

In a ‘weak mayor’ system, political power is concentrated with the council, not with the mayor. The mayor, like every other member of council, has just one vote, and very little power independent of the council.

Now, it’s important to note that these terms are not finite categories; they are more like ends of a continuum. There is considerable variation in what mayors can do even within cities considered to have a ‘strong mayor’ system or a ‘weak mayor’ system (so if you’re imagining that every American mayor is just like Kelsey Grammer in Boss, thankfully that’s not quite the case). And, there is variation in how the terms are used, both in the literature and in practice. As one American City Manager recently told me, “we don’t really say ‘weak mayor’ anymore. Mayors don’t like it. We say ‘strong council’.”

So, does Canada have ‘weak mayors’?

Although on initial impression Canadian mayors may seem more like ‘weak mayors’ than like ‘strong mayors’, I would argue that this description is misleading at best, and inaccurate at worst.

Here’s why.

First, Canadian mayors have several characteristics that would not be considered features of a ‘weak mayor’ system in the United States. For example, in several provinces, our legislation provides that Canadian mayors are indeed the ‘chief executive officer’ of their respective municipalities (although this term has not been well defined – terminology will be the subject of a future blog!). Additionally ‘strong mayors’ in the United States are typically elected by citizens, while ‘weak mayors’ are often elected from within council. Therefore, the term ‘weak mayor’ isn’t a perfect match to describe mayors in Canada.

Second, the terms ‘strong mayor’ and ‘weak mayor’ mean something in the United States because they are comparative, and because they evolved to describe something specific in a specific context. There are at least five defined forms of municipal government in the United States, and they emerged over time for various reasons. Historically, the ‘mayor-council’ system was predominant in large American cities, with political power concentrated in the hands of mayors – powerful political bosses (think: Gangs of New York) prone to corruption and exploitation. The ‘council-manager’ form emerged in the early 1900s by reformers striving to make local government operate in a more ethical, rational and efficient manner, delegating authority to a manager who would make objective, professional decisions and be accountable to all of council. Both of these forms of government have continued to evolve over time, and there are now ‘strong mayor’ and ‘weak mayor’ variants within them. The point is: there is a rich history to the ‘strong mayor’ and ‘weak mayor’ terminology in an American context that doesn’t apply to Canada, so the terms lose some (if not all) of their meaning.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, describing Canada as having a uniformly ‘weak mayor’ system does not capture the variation that exists across Canada’s cities. Just look at the differences in provincial legislation in the powers assigned to mayors (or, hold off and wait, as there is much more to come on this topic in a later blog!). In some provinces, Canadian mayors can suspend employees, temporarily veto council decisions, or make appointments. There are also important institutional differences between cities, such as the presence of political parties and structure of executive committees, which alter the formal powers held by mayors. Saying that Canada has a ‘weak mayor’ system does not adequately capture the variation that exists in our country.

I think we can do better. We’ve borrowed the term ‘weak mayor’ from our American neighbours for long enough. It’s time for us to get our own terms. We need Canadian-made language to understand and describe our mayors, defined to capture what local political leadership looks like in our uniquely Canadian context.

 

Want to read more on this? Check out this 2017 CPSA paper:

Graham – CPSA Paper – May 2017