Post #1 The “Weak Mayor” System – What it is and why it’s important to understand it in local governance
Before diving into the specific roles of mayor and council in a local government context, it’s important to look at the context of the governance system itself. What will follow in these weekly series of posts are my thoughts and general perspectives on local governance.
While it’s not perfect, the best traditional description of BC local governance has been that of a “weak mayor” system. It’s important to note that this is a reference to the nature of the governance system itself and not a reference to any specific elected officials. One could be a strong or weak mayor within the “weak mayor” system. I’ll have much more to say on the characteristics of being an effective mayor in a “weak mayor” system in later posts.
The term Weak Mayor” system is imported from the US and while it is not a 100% perfect description of our provincial context, it is one that has been generally used and it’s the best-fit descriptor, imo, for current local governance.
In our BC context, a mayor’s prescribed position is one of being equal with the rest of council members with a few more powers that are, on the whole, not overly significant in day to day or policy ongoings. I’m referring to the legal aspect of things here. In most situations, the power of the mayor is no more than other elected officials. There are some differences which I’ll look at in a following post.
The mayor’s power as being one-of-equals is important to understand on many levels. In general, it’s the role of the mayor to reflect the decisions of council to the community, staff for implementation and other levels of government. It is council as a whole that makes policy, sets budgets and gives direction to staff administration. Part of the operational role of the mayor is to convey those decisions.
It’s important to note that this one-of-equals aspect often doesn’t jive with the perceptions and indeed expectations of the public. The role of the mayor is an important and complex one with many high expectations by others but there is an inherent distinction between the prescribed role and that of the perceptions. In a further post down the line, I’ll look at the range of functional roles of the mayor and how one might assess the leadership skills best suited to advancing key files and issues.
The mayor as CEO: Periodically, a mayor may refer to themselves as one. The title is factually correct as it is indeed referenced in provincial legislation. The reality though is that while there are a few formal powers that go along with the designation, it isn’t similar to the connotation of CEO as most would generally conceive of it. To my mind, the term is best envisioned as a CEO-Light in terms of effective limited powers.
As mentioned, I’ll look further at these roles in a following post. For now, the role of mayor is one of equals with the overlay of facilitating the collective decision-making with the whole table of elected officials.
Next week’s post will be a deeper dive into these roles and contexts.