City File: Passion Project

Hamilton needs a passionate leader with a vision for change.

By Ryan McGreal

Posted September 01, 2018 in Essays (Last Updated 00, 0000)

Like all Ontario municipalities, Hamilton has a "weak mayor" system of government. The mayor is more Board chair than CEO, a glorified councillor-at-large who presides over meetings and acts as the city's chief spokesperson. Our mayor has no power to set priorities, direct budgets, appoint administrators or veto motions. All those tasks fall to the Council as a whole, and the mayor has just one vote among 16.

So it's difficult to get things done - all you really have is influence. However, it is still possible to be an effective mayor. You must articulate a clear, inspiring vision for the city. You must champion that vision widely to build broad public support and enthusiasm. And finally, you must engage meaningfully with your council colleagues in order to marshal the votes to implement your vision.

Every great city starts with a compelling vision. A strong vision builds on the city's strengths, emphasizing and leveraging its unique qualities while addressing its particular challenges. A good vision is optimistic and inclusive, inspiring citizens to recognize and celebrate their common interests and goals. With strong community buy-in, the vision shapes the city's strategic plans. Those plans, in turn, direct the myriad day-to-day policy decisions that collectively shape the city's growth.

A city like Hamilton is a large, complex, diverse assemblage of various people, organizations, structures, features and interests. Without a unifying concept of our values and aspirations, governance is driven mainly by parochialism, inertia and fear of change. A city without a vision is stuck in the status quo, unable to seize opportunities or respond effectively to threats.

To take effect, the city vision needs broad public buy-in. It needs a champion to share, explain, defend and promote it at every opportunity. For the mayor, that means actively carrying the vision into the community and engaging people individually and in groups: community, business and advocacy organizations, neighbourhood hubs, service clubs, public events, coffee shops, town halls, media, and across every part of the city.

The other constituency the mayor absolutely has to engage is the rest of council. With just one vote, the mayor needs the support of at least eight other council members to get motions passed. At its most cynical, this engagement can take the form of horse-trading, but there is nothing wrong with the mayor regularly sitting down with each councillor to find areas of common ground in order to work toward a majority. Indeed, in a nonpartisan legislative body without platforms or party whips, it's the only way to get things done.

Of course, it's easier to build majority council support for a project that already has strong public support, but the mayor-as-champion needs to engage both the public and the councillors to ensure everyone aligns around the common vision.

This stuff matters. Back in 2014, then-mayor Bob Bratina famously told CHML host Bill Kelly, "I'm not a champion of very much in life," and his scant record of accomplishment reflects it. During his four years, he introduced almost no motions and rarely spoke during meetings. His one accomplishment, negotiating a compromise with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to accept a new stadium in the same location as the old one, advanced none of the city's strategic objectives around community building, economic development and promoting amateur sport.

The city did manage to make some progress under Bratina's mayoralty, mainly on projects important to individual councillors and campaigns driven by citizen groups. But major initiatives - particularly the light rail transit (LRT) project - stagnated in the face of apathy and outright obstruction. Indeed, a plan that launched in 2008 with unprecedented public enthusiasm has struggled to regain momentum since Bratina turned on it after campaigning in support of it in 2010.

In their 2012 paper "The North American Light Rail Experience: Insights for Hamilton," McMaster University researchers Christopher Higgins and Mark Ferguson warned that a project as big and transformative as LRT needs "a political champion" who "can help to realize success by marshaling resources, building coalitions, and resolving disputes. Coordinating institutions, streamlining processes, and minimizing red tape are seen as crucial in implementing TOD projects and are dependent on strong political leadership."

Incumbent mayor Fred Eisenberger, who is running for re-election, has at least been consistent and outspoken in his LRT support. However, he needs to do a lot more to champion his vision of smart growth, city-building and affordable housing across Hamilton. While LRT still enjoys majority public support, the narrative is under sustained attack by a small, highly motivated anti-LRT movement that has been working hard to undermine public confidence and trust, calling the LRT a "train to nowhere" and denying the project's many benefits.

Mayoral candidate Vito Sgro, considered Eisenberger's main challenger, does not have much of a city vision (a quality he shares with Bratina, for whom he worked as a campaigner). Sgro would hire an outside auditor to review the city's budget, replace our ward boundaries with the provincial riding boundaries, and ask the experts what to do about our transit system.

None of these are ideas are bad, per se - though it is bizarre to reject the expert consensus on our LRT plan while professing to defer to the experts on what should replace it - but 'Vote for me and I'll ask the professionals what to do' is not much of a rallying cry.

We have huge political challenges to overcome on citywide transit - like phasing out area rating, which Sgro has said he would not touch until after reforming the ward boundaries. Without a passionate leader to champion an inspiring vision for change, fear and inertia will continue to maintain the status quo.

First published in Hamilton Magazine, late Summer 2018.