Canada’s lousy mayors

When municipal politics matter more than ever, why do so many cities end up with bad mayors?


'A depository for the truly mad'
O’Brien, Ottawa; McCallion, Mississauga; Robertson, Vancouver; Sean Kilpatrick/CP/ Vince Talotta/Toronto Star/ Jonathan Hayward/CP


In a sign of the season, in Ottawa this week, incumbent Mayor Larry O’Brien apologized for his first two years in office—a “complete disaster,” the mayor bluntly admitted. “I probably made every single major political mistake that was possible—I even made quite a few mistakes that, quite frankly, were impossible to replicate,” he continued. O’Brien couldn’t say whether he was Ottawa’s worst-ever mayor because, as he explained, he doesn’t know all of them. But the gaffe-prone mayor did want Ottawans to know how “sincerely sorry” he was for the way he’d run city hall.

What was remarkable was that this was not an exit speech, but a campaign speech. A year ago, the pugnacious ex-businessman was unsure voters would ever forgive him his bribery and influence-peddling charges. O’Brien was found not guilty, but the legal sideshow nevertheless garnered embarrassing headlines all over the country. Now, here he was again, having launched a re-election bid last month, complete with a recycled promise not to increase taxes. This notwithstanding the fact that taxes have jumped fully 14 per cent since he took office on a “zero-means-zero” tax increase pledge in 2006.

O’Brien does have competition. A record 20 Ottawans have paid $200 to run for mayor on Oct. 25, including O’Brien’s main contender: ex-MPP Jim Watson. But Watson, a former Ottawa mayor himself, has failed to excite Ottawans; although he’s leading in the polls, the race is such a dog’s breakfast that a disgraced mayor no one thought would show his face now stands a fighting chance come Oct. 25.

It’s a similarly uninspiring race in Calgary, where the city heads to the polls on Oct. 18. The mysterious businessman who fled Kenya to avoid corruption charges has dropped out, true, as has the urban chicken advocate. That leaves 15 candidates, including Ric McIver, the front-runner, and a fiscal hawk and self-described “economic refugee” from David Peterson’s Ontario in the ’80s. Those who know McIver know he has his own eccentricities: dubbed “Calgary’s Rob Ford,” he once refused to support a motion to open a line of credit, putting the city close to bankruptcy; outgoing Mayor Dave Bronconnier called him “Dr. No.”
The real Rob Ford, of course, gunning for the mayorship of Toronto on Oct. 25, has dominated the conversation in that city’s campaign: his decade-old DUI, his views on same-sex marriage and “Orientals,” a dismissed domestic-assault charge, an ejection from a Leafs’ game for public drunkenness: the list goes on, eclipsing serious debate on the future direction of the city, which is deeply in deficit.

In suburban Mississauga, Ont., meanwhile, “Hurricane” Hazel McCallion, who last month announced her intention to seek a 12th term as mayor on Oct. 25, while calling for “change,” has stared down her own share of controversy this year, with allegations of conflict of interest stemming from a development deal involving her son Peter. McCallion, who turns 90 next year and once complained her local ER was “loaded with people in their native costumes,” has again refused to run a campaign: no platform, no literature, no signs, no apparent road map for what promises to be a challenging term in office. After 30 years of hurtling growth, Mississauga’s vaunted debt-free status could be ended by 2012, when the city expects to tip into the red. There is little available land left to turn into a mall or a new housing development, and much of the city’s infrastructure is in need of repair. “We’ve asked Hazel for a debate, but she’s refused,” says mayoral hopeful Ram Selvarajah.

Municipal politics in Canada, comedian Rick Mercer one said, is a “depository for the truly mad.” Silly season, it seems, is upon us once again, as a stable of irascible populists, blowhards and eccentrics vie this month for the keys to some of Canada’s biggest cities. Voters, meanwhile, swamped with candidate lists, unsure of who stands for what—let alone the ins and outs of every candidate’s stance on the issues—too often simply choose to tune out. Just 39 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot in Toronto in 2006; in 2004, only 19.8 per cent of Calgarians bothered.

And who can blame voters? In London, Ont., incumbent Anne Marie DeCicco-Best—who once attempted to brand her city “All mixed up,” a slogan designed to showcase its cultural diversity—is again leading former MP Joe Fontana. After losing badly in the last election, Fontana said: “There is a benefit in not winning and that is because I am going to cancel my subscription to the London Free Press. I debated the Free Press more than the mayor.”

Or consider Amherstburg, Ont.’s mayor, Wayne Hurst. His re-election platform includes a pledge for a downtown public marina, but he refuses to divulge how it will be financed. “I don’t need to tell you how I’m going to pay for it,” says Hurst, who’s seeking a fourth term. “It’s my vision. I have a vision and I see it taking place in downtown Amherstburg.” A nice vision it may be, but it’s an odd one, considering Amherstburg couldn’t afford the marina it owned: months ago, it closed on the sale of the municipally owned Ranta Marina for $584,000, following years of controversy.

Against this backdrop of candidates—whose fitness for office you “really have scratch your head and wonder about,” says Myer Siemiatycki, an expert on municipal politics at Ryerson University—experts have begun quietly pushing for the introduction of political parties in Canada’s municipal arena, as in Vancouver. The deceptively simple reform could help voters determine who and what they are voting for; it would also go a long way to sidelining the inept, and injecting professionalism and organization into the unruly field. “The bottom line is parties are active gatekeepers in terms of who’s going to be able to get a nomination,” says Siemiatycki. Otherwise, the municipal arena has a tendency to turn into a free-for-all.

Rather than encouraging mature conversations and debates, crowded mayoral fields force candidates to out-shout their opponents, says Siemiatycki, noting Toronto mayoral candidate Rocco Rossi’s Mafia-themed campaign posters, designed to grab attention, he says, and little else. “When people walk into the ballot box they see nothing but a long list of names,” says Kennedy Stewart, a professor at Simon Fraser University’s school of public policy. Voters, he says, need help sorting through the “lists and lists and lists.” The party is a shorthand for the ideas and policies a candidate represents.

The problem is twofold, says Siemiatycki: “Because elections aren’t voter-friendly, we have very low voter turnout.” And even once the election is over, the system hardly encourages an effective or efficient council. It’s tricky to work out consistent alliances to push policies through council. Rather, says SFU municipal expert Patrick Smith, you have a “whole bunch of loose fish wandering around” cobbling together coalitions—or not. With a party system, mayors can whip their caucus into line, weakening narrow turf wars. Without it, that “how-does-this-affect-my-ward?” mindset, says Winnipeg councillor Jenny Gerbasi, can make it next to impossible to get mega-projects off the ground. “Council,” she says, “can lose sight of the bigger picture.”

Canada’s cities inherited the non-partisan civic tradition from 1890s America. The U.S. was then trying to eradicate corruption from local government. By the 1960s, many U.S. municipalities had abandoned the no-party model. Tokyo, Stockholm, Rome, Berlin and London, too, have parties. Canada, though, never bothered to revert back. The exceptions are Montreal and Vancouver. Both have party systems. In Vancouver’s last election in 2008, two bike-friendly local businessmen—one representing the Non-Partisan Association, the party on the centre-right, the other representing Vision Vancouver, the city’s centre-left choice—faced off. There were no cartoonish ad campaigns, no talk of strategic voting. Vancouver has no problem with entrenched incumbency: the city’s longest-serving councillor was first elected to the 10-person body eight years ago. Of Toronto’s 44 councillors, 14 have been there for 20 or more years. In Calgary, 86 per cent of incumbents were returned to office in the 2004 election, and 71 per cent in 2007.

Parties encourage accountability. If voters don’t think they’re going in the right direction, they can throw the bums out—as Vancouver voters did in 2008, returning an almost entirely fresh slate: Mayor Gregor Robertson’s Vision team. On the nuts-and-bolts level, parties also provide organizational structure: maintaining membership lists, identifying the vote, canvassing, and getting out the vote on election day.

Siemiatycki says cities have grown “way too big,” and the issues “far too significant,” to be left to the vagaries of individual candidates running on their own reputation and name recognition. Canada is among the world’s most “hyper-urbanized” countries, he adds: some 80 per cent of us live in cities, and one in three live in the urban areas of Toronto-Montreal-Vancouver—well above the concentration of big cities in the U.S., China or Britain. The sheer concentration of people translates to huge sums of money. Ottawa’s operating budget is $2.5 billion. Toronto’s tips $9 billion. Some voters, says Smith, may want to cut it to $8 billion, and lower their taxes; others may want to increase it to $10 billion. These, he says, are “ordinary, mature debates that should go on in a democracy.”

Ottawa’s O’Brien has admitted to Maclean’s he should “probably have had five years’ experience in municipal government before running for mayor.” But O’Brien’s mistake wasn’t his alone. Supports available to federal and provincial politicians—party research staff, the organization of government, with allies lined up behind their leader—are unavailable to municipal politicians, putting neophytes like O’Brien at a real disadvantage. While we all enjoy the spectacle of Rosie the Clown taking the stage on election night—or “Bubbles,” the cat-loving candidate with Coke-bottle glasses and an iPod full of Rush tunes, who is currently running for mayor of Orillia, Ont.—in this global age of cities, and in this hyper-urban country, the joke’s on us.