Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Why Elected Mayors Matter - A View from North America

This blog kickstarts our discusion on elected mayors so please feel free to post your comments on the efficacy of elected mayors for Scottish cities. Further info can be accessed here.


While not always a positive measure of success, an interesting observation on the importance of Mayors can be seen in children’s cartoons on television. A number of cartoons features “The Mayor” – from “the Powder-Puff Girls,” to “Sponge Bob Square Pants” and “The Simpsons” cartoons, mayors are an accepted, expected and understood symbol of the life of a city.

And not just for children

In multiple polls and interviews, children and adults overwhelmingly can’t remember who their elected representatives are. U.S. Senators, U.S. Members of Congress, state legislative representatives all draw empty stares and occasional shocking wild guesses. However, an overwhelming number of respondents in America consistently seem to know at least two of their elected officials – they know who the President is, and they know who the mayor is.

Why is this true for mayors?

The services local government provides – the basic nuts and bolts services of what matters in daily life – from parks, public safety, water, sewer, streets, electricity, local transit and many others are provided by cities. Mayors are the heads of the organization that matters most to the majority of residents.

When it comes to the things most people need, depend on and see daily, those services are provided by local government. Local government is the form of government seen and touched by the majority of Americans and because it is so accessible, it is also perceived to be the most accountable.

Unlike the President, most mayors are seen locally throughout their communities frequently and people have almost unlimited access to their mayors. From the smallest city to the largest city I have worked with (Sacramento has a population of 465,000), all the mayors I work with all shop in grocery stores and farmer’s markets; ate in local restaurants and stood in line at retail stores. All were easily recognized and almost everyone felt comfortable approaching and talking with their mayor.

Allow me a moment to digress and explain that there are several governance differences in how cities operate in the US. Without getting bogged down in too much detail, there is a strong mayor system; a strong mayor - strong city manager model; and a model where the office of mayor rotates annually between elected councilmembers and the City Manager has the lead role in the administration of the city. Regardless of the city structure, the mayor is seen as the voice, face and leader of the city and the larger community outside of the geographic borders or the incorporated city.

There are layers of local government in the US – counties, cities and elected special districts (water districts, school districts, transit districts). With all the layers of local government, people look to one person to be the voice of their community, and regardless of the size of a city, that person is the mayor.

In times of celebration, tragedy and in moments of community challenges – the spokesperson for the city and often for an entire region in the case of a large city is the mayor. It is expected and the presence and direction of the mayor can calm residents, provide information and consistently, regardless of whether that city is strong mayor modeled city or any of the other models of how cities operate.

An example of this is what happened in Sacramento when I was Chief of Staff to Mayor Heather Fargo on the terrible tragic day of September 11, 2001. After news of the attacks against the World Trade Center and Pentagon occurred, Sacramento’s Mayor, City Manager, Police and Fire Chiefs; our team rapidly had a press conference to have the Mayor go live on television with several other public officials and appropriate public safety staff to reassure the city and the entire Greater Sacramento region.

The mayor, as the most identifiable spokesperson, established calm by first recognizing the unprecedented tragedy that had occurred and asked residents to be calm by providing information. At the live press conference Mayor Fargo stated known facts at that moment (10:00 a.m. PDT) and reiterated several times that the city was fully in contact with all appropriate state and federal agencies. Other officials including the police and fire chiefs also spoke, but they reiterated the mayor’s message. The mayor promised and provided frequent updates as frequently as possible or necessary as news or information became available.

Not only was the mayor able to establish the key message that the city was connected and evaluating what it needed to do but also played a crucial role in preventing violence. During the subsequent press conferences, the mayor talked directly about the safety of Sacramento’s Muslim community and other racially and culturally diverse at risk to be potentially targeted for retaliation due to the shock of huge tragedy.

Mayor Fargo reminded all residents that Sacramento is a racially, culturally and religiously diverse city and any threats of violence would not be tolerated and aggressively responded to by the Sacramento Police Department. As the recognized leader of the city, the message was repeated many times and there were no reported instances of racial or cultural violence in the days following September 11, 2001.

An elected mayor is a voice for the community and when voters believe city government is accessible and accountable, it is largely because of the accessibility of the mayor, city council and the immediacy of services provided by cities. The accountability and trust comes from the fact that an elected mayor has to go before the voters for re-election. The belief in direct accountability comes from the direct availability of voters to vote for another mayor and in some cities to also recall an elected mayor under specific instances.

I now work with the League of California Cities and in the cities I work with – the smallest, Point Arena, has a population of 495 and the largest, Santa Rosa, a population of 156,268 – mayor’s are known, accessible and the best symbol of all that is positive about direct elections and a connection voters understand. Elected mayors are sometimes celebrities, sometimes have to deliver bad news, and are frequently seen in the aisles of grocery stores with melting ice cream as they are way-laid by residents complaining or unhappy about a city service or activity. But it is that melted ice-cream moment that captures the importance elected mayors provide to their residents and why local government polls so high in national and state polls for trust and accountability.

Yes, the cartoon version of mayor in “The Simpsons,” Mayor Quimby, is a stereotype of a corrupt, big city mayor. But even in this popular television city, everyone knows the mayor and it is the mayor who is at every important event occurring in the fictional American City.

Chuck Dalldorf
Regional Public Affairs Manager, League of California Cities


  1. On behalf of Mike Falchikov:

    "I am a long-standing opponent of elected mayors for the following reasons:
    (1) Little evidence of grassroots enthusiasm in England - in fact 25 of only 37 councils where a referendum was even held voted no
    to the proposition of an elected mayor. Apart from the special case of London, only 11 localities now have a mayor - Stoke-on-Trent having voted to get rid of its mayor with 3 others where the continuation of the mayor is under consideration.
    (2) Under existing legislation, mayors have little freedom to change established council structures and no freedom to raise extra
    (3) Most successful mayoral candidates are established local councillors, often ex-council leaders, who would do just the same
    job as conventional council leaders.
    (4) Little evidence that the institution of mayor in itself leads to
    better or faster decision-making or improved public profile.

    Elected Mayors (at least as established under Westminster law) are just another New Labour think-tank pet project - no real
    people power, just a little style and virtually no substance. Stop going down this blind alley and start some discussion about giving real powers back to councils and local communities.

    I'd be happy to offer you some ideas about that!"

  2. Mike,

    "Little evidence of grassroots enthusiasm (for Mayors) in England" - ask Londoners if they would give up their Mayor! Our support is for Scotland's cities, not for all town halls, and if Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee and Inverness want to be seen as World Cities then an elected Mayor is one sure fire way of raising profile.

    If we were to create Mayors for Scottish cities we would give them the power they need to carry out the job, including the ability to raise revenue. If Edinburgh had an Elected Mayor the congestion charge would be funding the Trams as part of an integrated transport network serving the whole City Region.

    In other countried Mayoral candidates are serious politicians, often with an eye on a bigger prize, able to use their time (if successful!) as a Mayor as a springboard onto the national political stage. Its a great way to introduce some element of quality control into MSP/MP selection!

    Ross Martin
    CSPP Policy Dircetor