Demagogues and democracy

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“I just wish, at some point in time, councillors would show a little more integrity or credibility on the floor of council… It’s like every time we try to do something, there’s criticism, no matter what we do. I’d like to see councillors do the right thing. And in my opinion, these people are not doing the right thing. They’re hypocrites. They’re not telling the truth.”

Mayors Gone BadNo, that’s not Mayor Cooper speaking about our current council that continues to blindly clear cut its way through the town’s institutions and services, masticate our already battered reputation into spittle-and-chips, and bludgeon staff morale into pulpy submission.

It’s from Mayor Sam Katz of Winnipeg. He is quoted on page 125 in Mayors Gone Bad, a new book by Philip Slayton.

Mayors Gone Bad is an entertaining, provocative look at a handful of mayors across Canada who have ridden into office on a wave of populism and charisma, but who have generally failed miserably to live up to their promise. Some have fallen prey to the temptations that make headlines. Thus their terms in office have often created more of a mess than ever before.

Collingwood might have a future contribution if Slayton ever writes a sequel titled, “Deputy Mayors Gone Bad.”

Katz shares the spotlight with Rob Ford of Toronto, Peter Kelly of Halifax, Larry O’Brien of Ottawa, Gerald Tremblay of Montreal, Susan Fennell of Brampton, Gilles Vaillancourt of Laval, Joe Fontana of London and a few others. All of whom have been star performers in the media circus, and many of whose tales are seriously cringeworthy.

Some are bad in the sense of corruption, bribery, conflict, scandal and criminal charges, or too-cozy relations with developers, but most are bad through ineptness, ignorance, arrogance, entitlement and inexperience. Banal rather than venal. Demagogues whose weaknesses became all too evident when they tried to control the machinery of government.

Some, like Katz, were well-meaning, idealistic and optimistic when they got elected, only to discover the ugly truth of Canadian municipal politics: mayors are not the power, not the movers and shakers, not the sole source of authority they imagined. They can lead, but not rule, as Slayton writes.

Lofty goals and visions that accompany them on the campaign trail often fall prey to the slow grind of byzantine municipal bureaucracy, and woefully inadequate financing. Which leaves mayors in the Red Queen’s race: running as fast and hard as they can simply to stay in the same place.

Slayton has several valid points to make about the complex and challenging nature of municipal governance in his introduction and afterword, pointing out it’s often a confrontational relationship with higher tiers of government:

Canadian municipal government is a mess… As the monster is to Dr. Frankenstein, so the city is to the province… Senior levels of government will always make the cities dangle on the end of a string and pay a substantial price for any concession they are grudgingly given. The provinces are vigilant in guarding their political and economic control of municipalities.

Slayton thus joins Gord Hume in his call for a revitalization and structuring of both the laws that establish municipal governance, and the relationships with their provinces. Like Hume, his is vox clamantis in deserto, however, since provinces are singularly disinterested in fixing the system.

Slayton’s book is a mix of gawker-like exposé and strong political comment. He’s sympathetic to individuals in many situations where the media was critical and abrasive in its views. He understands that mayors are human, and susceptible to human foibles. He also appreciates that the average person wants to feel a connection with their government and will overlook faults in a hands-on mayor that the media won’t.

But he’s not terribly sympathetic to arrogance, sleaze or deliberate ignorance, especially on a group level. For example, he quotes:

“The mayor and councillors are supposed to provide oversight and demand updates on important projects. The administration withheld some important documents from council, but there was an astonishing lack of  curiosity among the entire group.”

No, that’s not an insightful editorial about Collingwood council taken from local media (we only wish our media were so unbiased it could take a critical look at our council table…). It’s a comment on Winnipeg city council from the Winnipeg Free press, quoted on p. 129. Yes, I know most of that quote could apply to Collingwood today, and you wouldn’t know it wasn’t unless the source was cited, but uncannily accurate as it is, it’s not about our town.

On page 149, Slayton comments:

Often, elected officials become suffused with self-importance.become a city councillor or a member of the legislature, get a big office and staffers, vote for or against budgets of millions or billions, debate complex policy issues (or attempt to), and you become too important to stand in the rain in a wrinkled suit, too important to spend time with individuals if there isn’t an election going on.

Eerie, isn’t it, how well that also fits our own council? But in fact, Slayton is writing about Rob Ford, who did stand in the rain, did meet with ordinary people when mayor, did return their phone calls.

Ford was the kind of mayor who, had he been on Collingwood council, would have driven over to the Collus offices and sat down with its staff to find out what was really going on. He didn’t think of himself as too important to do the job he was elected to do: serve the best interests and the people of his municipality. That’s a lesson we could learn here. One of many.

For those whose mayors are not crucified by Slayton’s pen, the book is also a mirror. The sort from the fairy tale of Snow White. It’s only a matter of time before the mirror starts saying someone else is the fairest.

It can happen anywhere because there isn’t even the minimal sort of vetting for municipal politics that comes through the partisan systems at higher levels (the lack of which he bemoans in his introduction). Anyone who meets the minimal standards can run for office. And win. There’s no competency test, nor any way to kick them out of office if they fail to live up to promises or prove incompetent or corrupt.

The problem he overlooks is that voters are often galvanized to vote against someone or something, rather than in favour of a vision, a goal, or a leader. In voting people out of office, you often replace them with less experienced, less dedicated, less competent people. As well we know.

Slayton defines those who seek for high office variously as “glory seekers,” “office seekers,” “idealists” and possibly even “psychopaths.” That latter description is somewhat, but not entirely, said in jest.

Slayton limits his observations to those in the mayor’s chair, ignoring the heated cauldron of council and its seething stew of ambition, pettiness, private agendas, personal vendettas, sadism, entitlement, greed, deliberate ignorance, sycophancy and self-righteousness. But perhaps that’s just here and doesn’t characterize councils elsewhere.

Still, you can see that what happens in the macrocosm of Canada’s biggest cities is reflected in its smallest. No municipality is free of these problems, just has them in varying degrees. One wonders what Slayton would think of the petty, dirty politics that characterize much of Collingwood’s recent political history. Are we but a microcosm of the larger municipal universe?

Slayton balances his ‘star’ (or anti-star?) performers with a chapter on a trio of good mayors – Nenshi of Calgary, Iveson of Edmonton and Robertson of Vancouver  – whose well-meaning efforts are hobbled by the same, ineffective governance and inadequate financial systems as the rest. I suppose this was just so you don’t think it’s an entirely negative outlook, but it further underscores the impotence mayors have across the nation. They are only as effective as the system lets them be, which isn’t very much.

Finally, Slayton treats us to a look at the mayors of Rekjavik, London (UK) and New York, not so much as yardsticks but as dessert after we’ve had our fill of the main course.

The afterword offers a contentious suggestion that provinces devolve power down to cities along some European lines. That’s not likely to happen, but it’s a discussion I’d like to have happen in public at Queen’s Park. For the 11 years I was on council, I listened to AMO presidents clamour for more money and more power from the province. For those same years I heard ministers promise to work with municipalities and help them out. Nothing much changed despite the honeyed words.

It’s both entertaining and sobering to read. I recommend it to anyone interested in municipal politics, especially to those in office.

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