Mayors Gone Bad
By Philip Slayton
Viking, 277 pages, $32
Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/6/2015 (2282 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Regardless of geographic location, there's a fishy smell around many mayor's offices in Canada.
According to author Philip Slayton, a keen observer of human foibles, it's because municipal leaders work within a level of government susceptible to rot and in dire need of a makeover.
Philip Slayton graduated from the University of Manitoba in 1965, is a former Rhodes scholar, taught law at McGill in the 1970s and was a corporate lawyer. He has become a recognized academic and award-winning legal columnist who helped popularize jokes about the legal profession in his 2008 bestseller Lawyers Gone Bad, exposing warty underbellies of those entrusted with the laws of the land.
He now proclaims: "Canadian municipal government is a mess" -- no laughing matter for taxpayers stunned to realize an elected office could be occupied with the likes of a former Toronto mayor better suited for late night talk-show shenanigans.
In Mayors Gone Bad Slayton combines skilful analysis with engagingly lucid writing, showing how constraints built into municipal power structures cause some mayors such political frustration that pragmatism often trumps morality.
This is a carefully crafted, well-documented book, where profiles of questionable characters inhabiting halls of power are sandwiched between opening and closing chapters revealing Slayton's strong views on "the connection between the low calibre of municipal politicians and their institutional powerlessness."
He combines polemics, biographies and narratives sprinkled with tasteful humour, resulting in a thoroughly engrossing book that also compares Canadian mayors with those in other countries.
Readers experience a cross-country whirlwind tour of mayor's offices occupied by once-popular politicians, beginning with former Halifax mayor Peter Kelly, much beloved until his brain hiccup over the executorship of a friend's estate stripped him of any "moral authority."
Political auras dim, writes Slayton, when "a dearth of constitutional powers and an inadequate treasury" make some mayors easy prey for unscrupulous land developers and criminally minded construction firms.
Several mayors from Quebec are profiled, including Michael Applebaum of Montreal, whose short tenure ended in 2013 when he was arrested at his house, taken away in handcuffs and charged with "fraud against the government, conspiracy to commit breach of trust and conspiracy to commit municipal corruption."
It's no surprise this former Manitoban would compile one of the book's longer chapters on former Winnipeg mayor Sam Katz, twice re-elected even though his entire political career was dogged by accusations of conflict of interest and favouritism.
Slayton acknowledges Winnipeg Free Press reporter Bartley Kives' dogged pursuit of impropriety in the mayor's cosy relationship with a major real estate development firm and a hand-picked city chief administrative officer who just happened to be a former real estate agent and a personal friend.
A real estate management review commissioned by city council revealed instances of costly mismanagement, which Slayton quotes Kives as having described as "a repudiation of Sam Katz's city hall."
Slayton balances badly behaved mayors with some western mayors identified by the Globe and Mail as "a western triangle of mayoral goodness."
He identifies this group as Naheed Nenshi of Calgary, Don Iveson of Edmonton and Gregor Robertson of Vancouver, adding: "Maybe now, with Brian Bowman the new mayor of Winnipeg, the western triangle... has become a quadrangle."
Slayton's ideas for better municipal governance invite criticism, especially his view that "ultimately the cities can be and should be more powerful than the provinces."
Charter cities are a key component in his recommendation that Canada adopt a process called devo-max, which advocates "the devolution of powers and status from a superior to an inferior level of government" that would be similar to municipal systems in some European countries.
According to Slayton, increased political and financial clout are what makes mayoral misdeeds rare in cities such as Reykjavik, Iceland where its eccentric former mayor, Jon Gnarr, "a devotee of punk rock and a self-described anarchist" as well "occasional cross-dresser," was nevertheless widely respected for his municipal leadership.
Slayton emphasizes Canadian municipal problems stem from grossly inadequate revenue sources that can't effectively address a huge infrastructure deficit, a condition exacerbated by flawed characters in offices: "Little or nothing redeems these mayors. We are well rid of them."
Interestingly, he isn't as hard on Sam Katz and Rob Ford, calling them bewildered, conflicted and even comical mayors who "tried, in their own odd ways, to do what they thought best."
Joseph Hnatiuk is a retired teacher in Winnipeg.