The Mayors Project started on a day like any other, in a meeting in a City Hall board room.
Except it wasn't like any other day. The Mayor had resigned that morning, effective immediately. He was facing criminal charges, and opted to step away from his role. The next municipal election was months away. A senior team of staff members met for an emergency meeting to discuss what needed to happen, now that the City had no Mayor.
"Well, let's start with - what does the Mayor do? We'll need to make sure someone is in place to cover off those things."
For a moment, there was silence. The group looked at one another. People started to name the obvious things: chairing council meetings, signing by-laws, sitting on various committees and boards. Less obvious items were raised: a large batch of cheques were being issued by the City, and they included the signature of the now resigned mayor. A plan was developed. Tasks were assigned. Some ideas to be proposed to City Council to name a replacement mayor were discussed. The meeting ended, and everyone went on with their day.
But something didn't sit quite right. The Mayor is the chief executive and official head of, in this case, a billion dollar corporation providing services which hundreds of thousands of people rely on every day. How was the role so undefined, and even unclear? Was the Mayor so inconsequential to a city that the role could be vacant, and work could go on as usual? Was the role of the Mayor really just to chair meetings and sign bylaws, or does the Mayor play a more important role in the life of a city?
These questions led to the Mayors Project.
I'm Kate Graham. I left this meeting and couldn't get these questions out of my head. I started researching the role of mayors in Canada - and found that there isn't much out there. The punchline of the existing research? The role of the Canadian mayor is unclear. Mayors are generally viewed to be ceremonial and "weak" -- which did not line up to my own experience having observed numerous mayors across cities over the years. Other cities, including down the road in Toronto, were also grappling with big questions about the role and power of their mayors. Ambiguity about what mayors do, what powers they hold, and to what extent they actually matter was rampant. Mayors themselves told me that they found that most people didn't really understand their job, and if they were being honest, they had questions too.
The truth is that the role of the mayor is unlike any other.
In every Canadian city, the mayor is an important figure. Mayors occupy the highest local political post, lead elected councils, serve as chief executives of municipal corporations, and are generally the most well known local official. In times of celebration and crisis, the mayor is the voice of their city. Mayors are praised for the successes and blamed for the failures of their cities. In many ways, mayors become living symbols of Canada’s cities.
Despite the significance of the position, remarkably little is known about the role of the Canadian mayor. There is no ‘job description’ for Canadian mayors; in fact, there are more than 50 pieces of provincial legislation in Canada prescribing duties of mayors, not including municipal bylaws. It is often said that Canada has "weak" mayors and yet the public believe that mayors are powerful. Even people who work most closely with mayors hold conflicting, and often unrealistic, expectations. A surprisingly small volume of literature exists on the topic.
I decided to focus my PhD research on the role and power of mayors in Canada. I researched the power of mayors in all Canadian provinces, including examining legislation, by-laws, and other arrangements. I wanted to compare this power "on paper" to power "in practice" by talking to mayors and those who work most closely with them. During the summer of 2016, I traveled to cities in every Canadian province and interviewed mayors, past mayors, councillors, city administrators, media and community members. I developed a new model for understanding mayoral power in a Canadian context.
One of the most basic findings of the study was that people don't know very much about Canadian mayors. It's a bit embarassing, actually. So I built this website. It's a quick and easy resource to learn more about the role of the mayor in Canada, meet people who are mayors, follow mayoral election campaigns, and hopefully engage in a conversation about how we can continue to strengthen the leadership of Canada's cities. This site was launched on July 5, 2018 -- so it's new. Bear with me as we get it built out. We're just getting started.
I don't believe we have weak mayors in Canada, but I do believe that we have weak cities. And I'd like to see that change - but perhaps not in the ways you'd expect. The Mayors Project is a place for learning, dialogue and debate about the leadership of our cities.
A few pics from my trip across Canada. See? Research can be fun.