Being cynical about municipal politics has been easy in the past decade, with one politician after another being mired in scandal.
In Mayors Gone Bad, Philip Slayton uses examples from across the country to chronicle the sad state of civic politics in Canada while proposing a solution for what he sees to be the main reason for the problem: a lack of any real power or money to do the job well.
As Philip Slayton records the recent history of Canadian municipal politics, most of the people governing the cities are at best ineffectual and at worst corrupt.
From the questionable activities of Rob Ford of Toronto and Sam Katz of Winnipeg, to the criminal charges against past mayors of Montreal and Laval, the story of city officials has been far from edifying.
Chapter by chapter, the author explains the many ethical failures among Canadian mayors, from borderline conflicts of interest, such as the Winnipeg mayor’s staff party at a restaurant that he owned, to more serious cases of bribery and extortion.
Several mayors have been arrested and tried for their actions, while others have managed to stay just barely within the law.
Yet despite the many examples of mayors who have abused their positions, Slayton sees reason for hope in several examples of “mayoral goodness,” which include former mayor Stephen Juba of Winnipeg, the three current mayors of Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver, as well as the leaders of Reykjavik, Iceland; London, England; and New York City.
The question of how civic politics has come to such a dire state is a major concern of the book.
Philip Slayton gives a possible answer to the question by exploring the lack of mayoral power in most Canadian cities and how that leaves most of these leaders as little more than figureheads who have to ask permission from the provincial government for almost everything that they want to do.
“Mayors cannot rule, but they can lead.” (p. 17) Lacking real power but still capable of using their influence for good or ill, many mayors have yielded to the temptation to misuse their position to benefit themselves and their friends.
Highly ethical and competent people are generally not interested in taking on a job of that kind, leaving cities in the hands of candidates who often have “stumbled into a job they weren’t fit to have.” (p. 2)
Despite the sad state of municipal politics in Canada, Philip Slayton sees a possibility for substantial change through a process that he calls “devo-max” in which provinces and the federal government would give the maximum amount of power possible to the cities, preferably granting charters whenever possible to promote maximum autonomy.
With the ability to raise money through taxes and to solve problems that they are best able to understand, mayors would finally be able to do the work necessary to help their cities thrive.
Mayors Gone Bad is a very readable book, full of detailed examples of the kinds of concepts the author wants to explore.
While some readers might question the validity of the author’s solution to the problem, given the recent scandals in various levels of government, the argument is presented thoroughly and coherently.
With the vast majority of Canadians now living in cities, giving municipal governments the authority and financial assets that they need to do the necessary work is, according to Philip Slayton, the “greatest political challenge now facing the country.” (p. 7)
With these types of changes and with active citizen involvement, real change might be possible.