Does a Strong Mayor Make a Difference?
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Does a Strong Mayor Make a Difference?

Study finds that cities with powerful mayors and those with weak ones represent voters equally well. Here's what that means for Toronto's upcoming election.

Do mayors actually affect how well city policy reflects what voters want? That’s one of the questions asked by UCLA’s Chris Tausanovitch and MIT’s Christopher Warshaw in a new research study of representation in municipal governments.

The pair examined 1,600 American cities and towns with populations of 20,000 or more. Some of these municipalities grant their mayors sweeping powers. Others are led by city managers and municipal councils, and have a mayor who serves more as a figurehead. By comparing each city’s popular political ideology (determined through opinions polls on federal issues) to its municipal policy outcomes, and controlling for factors such as population size, median income, median housing value, and ethnic diversity, they were able to create a rough idea of how well citizens’ political views are translated into local governing action.

What they found was that, although municipalities have established several different executive structures in an attempt to become more representative of citizens’ priorities, no single system is any more effective than the others. In general, municipal policy correlates with the political will of the people—with or without the help of a mayor.

The reasons suggested for this are not particularly surprising. In any system where at least part of the policy-making machine is elected, there is an obvious incentive for officials to please voters, whether through actual action or the appearance of action. And, in case you were wondering, Tausanovitch and Warshaw also found that political term limits had no discernable impact on representation either. Municipal action is often circumscribed by the policies of higher levels of government (think how big a role federal spending has played in Toronto’s transit debate), but even in the face of obstacles, elected officials will fight for what they think the populace wants.

There’s also the theory that people will move away from cities where the municipal ideology doesn’t match their own. That sounds a little dubious when you consider the many factors that go into choosing a place to live—though there certainly are cities that appeal more to families, or seniors, or ethnic minorities, and that appeal can be influenced by municipal policy.

Although Tausanovitch and Warshaw were studying U.S. cities, their findings on municipal representation can be applied here at home.

Toronto has what’s known as a weak mayor–strong council government. The real decision-making power lies with council, which is made up of elected politicians vying for public approval. According to the City of Toronto Act, council is charged with developing and evaluating the policies and programs of the City, deciding which services the City provides, representing the public and considering its well-being, and ensuring the transparency of the City’s operations.

Toronto doesn’t give the City Manager as much power as some of Tausanovitch and Warshaw’s subject cities do. The office, currently held by Joseph P. Pennachetti, is the highest in the City’s public service but ultimately reports to council. The manager advises but does not outrank the mayor.

The Mayor of Toronto, all power-stripping aside, has the important task of appointing chairs of municipal committees and members of the executive committee. The mayor’s duties also include selecting a deputy mayor and declaring states of emergency. But actual policy decision-making lies with council. In fact, the Big Job is largely symbolic. The mayor is head of city council, a role that extends mainly to ensuring council business is carried out smoothly. And though the mayor is also CEO of the City, that position is essentially an ambassadorship, with responsibilities such as representing and promoting Toronto at home and abroad.

Unlike prime ministers and premiers, the mayor doesn’t lead a party, meaning he lacks the official power to influence legislators’ votes. For instance, Rob Ford was most powerful early in his term when he was surrounded by a cabal of supportive councillors—Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East), Giorgio Mammoliti (Ward 7, York West), and Frances Nunziata (Ward 11, York South-Weston), for starters.

So it’s possible that Toronto would have similar policy outcomes with or without a mayor. So what can we conclude from this? Should we just pack in October’s mayoral election and save ourselves a lot of squabbling and fuss?

Well, no. The Mayor of Toronto still plays an important role—but it’s vital to recognize the exact nature of that role. The mayor is not meant to be a creator of policy as much as a sage and reasoned representative of the municipal government and the city at large. And in that respect, Ford has been an unquestionable failure. The constant refrain from the mayor and his supporters is that his personal problems have not stopped him from doing his job well. But if the main duties of the office are to represent Toronto and keep council on track, a mayor who bowls over councillors and becomes world-famous for frequent public intoxication is objectively not doing his job.

The most important of Tausanovitch and Warshaw’s findings is that, whether it’s a mayor or a manager or a council that decides a city’s policy, the real power lies with the public. The voters give municipal leaders their mandate, and those leaders want to get in good with voters. Toronto is abuzz about the mayoral race, but it ought to look hard at the council race, too. If people don’t like the decisions being made for this city, they should seek to change the real decision-makers.