Skip to content

LETTER: Strong mayor powers as a tool in the toolbox 'worth examining'

Reader James Nowak has some thoughts on Mayor Guthrie's approach to strong mayor powers
2022-05-17 typing pexels-donatello-trisolino-1375261
Stock photo

GuelphToday received the following letter from James Nowak about Strong Mayor Powers in Guelph.

Mayor Guthrie has characterized the strong mayor powers as “a tool in a toolbox”. On the surface, this seems like a rather value-free euphemism, but it’s not. I think it’s worth examining this statement because doing so helps us understand the nature of these powers and the way that Mayor Guthrie sees them.

The meaning of a tool (and, in the case of strong mayor powers, the exclusive right to use that tool), is never neutral. It’s long been known that the presence of a given tool influences the perceptions of the tool user: The range of available tools dictates the range of solutions one sees to a given problem; and, more importantly, it shapes the kinds of problems one is able to see.

Strong mayor powers will encourage the mayor (present and future) to see opposition, public opinion, and the voices of city counsellors as problems to be solved, instead of perspectives to be considered and worked with. Furthermore, they will incline the mayor to ‘solve’ these ‘problems’ through veto and the other undemocratic powers he is about to receive. Of course, that won’t happen all the time, but these powers will exert a consistent and permeating influence of the way the mayor exercises his power and understands his role.

Another way of putting it: To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The man is the mayor; the hammer is the strong powers; and the nail is the democratic input from councilors and citizens. I’ll agree with Mayor Guthrie’s euphemism that these powers are “a tool in the toolbox” as long as he agrees with all of the above properties of tools and their consequences. Tools, especially these new strong mayor powers, are not neutral.

But Mayor Guthrie already knows this. Indeed, he warned in no uncertain terms about the corrupting influence of strong mayor powers in a statement he made to council during the Fall 2022 election:

“Giving one person the authority to solely guide the direction of an entire municipality may seem like a fantastic idea when you are that person, or maybe aligned with that person, but political lines are fleeting.”

The exact thing he warned against – that strong mayor powers would “seem like a fantastic idea when you are the person (getting them)” – has happened. Now that they are being offered to him, the unequivocal moral and political objections he raised against them have, mysteriously, vaporized.

I hope that someone will remind Mayor Guthrie of his previous warnings, and hold him to account. His assertion that the offer of these strong mayor powers would make them “seem […]  fantastic when you are that person” does not equate with his euphemism that they are simply “a tool in a toolbox”. I understand that granting these powers was not the mayor’s idea: The Province is putting the tool in the mayor’s box. But this only increases the need for him to publicly reject these powers, and to refuse to ever use them. Specifically, he should reaffirm the strong mayor powers motion at tomorrow’s council meeting. It would be a symbolic gesture, yes; but it would demonstrate that the mayor still opposes powers which he previously characterized as “fantastic” and which he claimed would turn the input of counsellors into “an imaginary display of democracy”.   

James Nowak
Resident, Ward 3