The Most Misunderstood Positions in Local Government: Mayor & Councillor
Updated: May 19, 2021
The Top 5 Biggest Misconceptions about the Roles of Mayor and Councillor
It is a municipal election year in Alberta, Canada! It is also time for local voters to make choices that will impact their residential and business taxes, the condition and maintenance of infrastructure, along with the availability of services in their respective communities.
As there are many out there still considering whether to run, in addition to candidates who have already thrown their hat in the ring, its an opportune time to discuss the roles of mayor and councillor.
These roles are often misunderstood by those who stand for election and by those who vote. As a result, newly elected officials often face undue pressure, there is potential for conflict between elected officials and administration, and the public is often left confused and frustrated.
This misunderstanding and the associated confusion is often about what mayors and councillors do and how they do it. The Alberta Municipal Government Act (MGA) is basic in defining what each respective position entails and is not explicit in how good governance should be implemented, leaving much to interpretation, and an individual’s ethics and values. In fact, full job descriptions for the positions of mayor and councillor are scarce across Canada.
So, what are the biggest misconceptions about the roles of mayor and councillor? Below is a top five list of examples which are especially prevalent during election time:
1. The mayor is in charge of the municipality
In Alberta, municipalities have what is known as a “weak mayor” system because the mayor has little formal legislative authority. The mayor, or chief elected official, has no more legal authority than any other member of council in the municipal decision-making process. The mayor casts one vote just like any other councillor. The mayor has no authority to make decisions that bind the council or the municipality; only a vote of full council can bind the municipality.
2. Council or a councillor can fire members of administration
The chief administrative officer is the one and only employee of council. This is the only member of administration that council (as a group) can fire. The chief administrative officer is responsible for the administration’s human resources (unless there are municipal bylaws in place that state otherwise).
3. Council or a councillor can change a municipality’s internal operations and services to run like a private business
Council’s primary relationships as a governing body are outside the organization—with the community whose welfare and interests it serves— rather than inside the organization, with administration. Also, Council’s primary responsibility is to define the services, facilities, and other benefits that, in its opinion, are desirable for all the community—rather than directly controlling the implementation of programs and policies inside the municipal organization. The chief administrative officer is responsible for how operations and services are run.
4. An individual councillor can direct the actions of administration
The council speaks authoritatively when it passes an official motion at a properly constituted meeting. Statements by individual councillors have no authority. When the council speaks, it is with “one voice” or not at all. “One voice” does not however require unanimous votes nor does it prevent individual councillors from informing the group with their views and insights. But it does require all councillors, even those who lost the vote, to respect the decision that was made. This principle applies to how council and councillors exert authority over administration - collectively rather than independently.
5. It is the mayor’s or councillor’s job to represent an individual
The mayor and council are elected by the popular vote and are expected to represent the will of the community with a commitment to good governance and efficient service delivery. They are not expected to be experts in the subject matter of municipal operations, such as snow removal, potholes, or land development. They rely on administration for subject matter expertise and to provide customer service to individuals. Mayor and councillors must keep in touch with attitudes of the whole community, both positive and negative. They must continually evaluate and look beyond the individual to determine:
If residents are excited enough about a new service or amenity to pay for it.
How strongly residents and stakeholders are in support or opposed to a new bylaw, policy, service, development, or amenity.
Is it a small vocal group, or a true groundswell of approval or opposition to a new bylaw, policy, service, development, or amenity?
What is the role of Council, the Mayor, and Councillors?
Purpose & Powers of Municipal Government
To understand the roles of council, the mayor, and councillors, it helps to know what the purpose and powers are of municipal government.
Municipalities exist to manage and make important decisions about the local services, programs, facilities, and infrastructure that communities, residents, stakeholders, and local businesses rely on. As a government body, a municipality is expected to establish local laws, make decisions about taxes and the community’s finances, plan for the future, and to protect local resources. The municipality must provide certain services and may choose to deliver many additional services. The MGA directs what services a municipality must provide and may also affect how services can be delivered. Enabled through the MGA, a municipality has broad, flexible powers to help achieve local goals.
The MGA provides municipal government with natural person powers for the purpose of exercising their authority. Natural person powers give municipalities similar flexibility to that of individuals and corporations in managing their organizational and administrative affairs. These powers may help a municipality – without the need for more specific legislative authority – enter into agreements or acquire land and equipment.
Objectives of Municipal Government
To fulfill their purpose, municipalities must satisfy a complex array of political, economic, social, and environmental objectives over the short, medium, and longer term. This subjects municipalities to a different set of external and internal constraints and incentives than those found in the private sector, all of which impact its governance arrangements. Across Canada, municipalities have common mandates and provide similar services. In general, they have the following basic objectives:
Provide for good government, including physical, social, environmental, and fiscal health, and sustainability.
Recognize the community’s demographic diversity, while breaking down barriers, deconstructing biases, fostering, and promoting an inclusive, respectful, and welcoming municipality for all, one that is free from all forms of discrimination involving race, religion, gender, physical ableness, or sexual orientation. Building and maintaining communities where everyone has the right to live, work, do business, and recreate in an environment that asserts and supports their fundamental rights, personal worth, and human dignity.
Effectively and seamlessly deliver local public services, including water, sewer, roads, police and fire protection, parks and recreation services and other things that Council considers, necessary or desirable for the community.
Regulate individual and entity conduct to protect the safety and greater good of the community - such as building inspection, licensing of businesses, animal control, bylaw enforcement, noise control, zoning, and land use.
Respond to the community's needs and desires by formulating partnerships with other stakeholders and permitting maximum participation of its citizens at the local level.
To work collaboratively with neighbouring municipalities to plan, deliver, and fund intermunicipal services.
Maintain a taxation system and provide for stewardship of assets. Taxation and other income streams are often separate from, and have little causal relationship with, expenditure and service streams.
To deliver the objectives of municipal government, it is a combination of efforts by municipal council and administration. Council governs and the chief administrative officer implements objectives and policies, by providing functional control over the finance, administration, and operations of the municipality.
The Role of Municipal Council
Council is the governing body of the municipality and is the custodian of its powers. It is a continuing body, notwithstanding changes in membership through the election process.
In brief, the duties of municipal councils can include:
Responsible for carrying out the powers, duties, and functions expressly given to it under the MGA.
Responsible for establishing strategic direction, policy, evaluating, and monitoring the implementation of programs, and authorizing the revenue collection and expenditures required to fund the Municipality's operations.
Set out new policies and examine current procedures.
Review and populate roles with agencies, boards, and committees annually.
Promote cooperative relations with other agencies – government, not-for-profit and private sector
Approve agreements with other agencies that involve sharing the authority and resources of the organization.
Consider organization goals, community demographics, the will of the public, and available resources, existing legislation, current policies, and jurisdiction when making decisions.
Provide effective resolutions, with clear expectations and direction.
Ensure all information is available to make an informed decisions.
Ensure a linkage between the budget process and the strategic plan.
Seek community and stakeholder input before significant planning, policy, or strategic decisions are made.
Assess the performance of the chief administrative officer.
Develop an understanding of the key stakeholders and the unique demographic, political, business, social, and environmental factors affecting the success of the municipality
How Councils Exercise their Powers:
The MGA requires that council only exercise the powers of the corporation in the proper form, either by bylaw or resolution passed, at a regular or special meeting when a quorum is present.
It is important to understand that individual members of council cannot make a valid and binding commitment on behalf of council. All such actions must be made as a collective judgment by a quorum at a properly constituted council meeting.
The MGA states that council must not exercise a power or function or perform a duty specifically assigned to the chief administrative officer or a designated officer, within the MGA, another enactment, or bylaw.
The MGA describes pecuniary interest and sets out the procedures that the mayor and councillors must follow if a matter of pecuniary interest comes up at a council meeting or a committee of whole meeting. These rules are designed to protect the public interest while ensuring that the work of council is not adversely affected by an individual’s election to council. For more information regarding pecuniary interest, please refer to the Pecuniary Interest for Municipal Councillors reference document from Alberta Municipal Affairs (2017).
The Role of Councillors and the Mayor
Council is composed of individual councillors including the mayor who is also known as the chief elected official. The MGA specifically refers to duties of councillors and the chief elected official, but the role of members of council in practice often extends well beyond what is explicitly defined.
What does the MGA say?
The MGA prescribes the following duties of a councilor:
General duties of councillors
(a) to consider the welfare and interests of the municipality as a whole and to bring to council’s attention anything that would promote the welfare or interests of the municipality;
(a.1) to promote an integrated and strategic approach to intermunicipal land use planning and service delivery with neighbouring municipalities;
(b) to participate generally in developing and evaluating the policies and programs of the municipality;
(c) to participate in council meetings and council committee meetings and meetings of other bodies to which they are appointed by the council;
(d) to obtain information about the operation or administration of the municipality from the chief administrative officer or a person designated by the chief administrative officer;
(e) to keep in confidence matters discussed in private at a council or council committee meeting until discussed at a meeting held in public;
(e.1) to adhere to the code of conduct established by the council under section 146.1(1);
(f) to perform any other duty or function imposed on councillors by this or any other enactment or by the council.
Above and beyond the MGA, from a governance perspective, and often found in municipal bylaws, policies, and guidelines, councillors can have the following duties (depending on the size, needs, and requirements of the municipality):
Provide governance of the municipality, while the chief administrative officer manages.
Model inclusive behaviour and language and not participate in discriminatory conduct related to race, religion, gender, physical ableness, or sexual orientation.
Participate generally in developing and evaluating the policies and programs of the municipality, while respecting that delivery of operations and services are under the purview of the chief administrative officer and administration.
Act as a council liaison with another agency at the request of the mayor of council.
Provide timely reports to council on committee or agency liaison activities. Avoid identifying with/representing committee or agency issues (lobbying on behalf of the committee or agency) to council as much as possible.
Liaise with the chief administrative officer or the designated Administration on committee or agency matters.
Obtain information about the operation or administration of the municipality from the chief administrative officer.
Represent the interests of council based on existing policies, budget, and the strategic plan.
Report incidents of discrimination or harassment in any form (racial, religion, gender, physical ableness, or sexual orientation), experienced or witnessed, immediately to the Mayor (or their designate) or the chief administrative officer (or their delegate).
Understand and utilize Robert’s Rules of Order in council and committee meetings.
Review agenda materials provided and ask questions of administration both before (through appropriate channels) and during the council meeting.
Understand how to interpret the municipality’s budget.
Express knowledge gaps to the chief administrative officer and any needs for training.
How about the Mayor?
In accordance with the MGA, the mayor must preside when attending a council meeting, unless a bylaw provides otherwise. They must also perform any other duty imposed under the MGA or any other piece of legislation.
The Mayor’s position is predominantly ceremonial and they exercise leadership mainly through influence. Because the mayor chairs council meetings, they are often restricted in their ability to take part in debate. By making the deputy mayor the chair of the committee of the whole or other council committees, it allows the mayor to delve into and have influence in the creation of policy or content of upcoming decisions.
What does the MGA say?
The MGA prescribes the following for the chief elected officer:
General duties of chief elected official
154(1) A chief elected official, in addition to performing the duties of a councillor, must
(a.) preside when in attendance at a council meeting unless a bylaw provides that another councillor or other person is to preside, and
(b.) perform any other duty imposed on a chief elected official by this or any other enactment or bylaw.
(2) The chief elected official is a member of all council committees and all bodies to which council has the right to appoint members under this Act, unless the council provides otherwise.
(3) Despite subsection (2), the chief elected official may be a member of a board, commission, subdivision authority or development authority established under Part 17 only if the chief elected official is appointed in the chief elected official’s personal name.
Any Mayor will tell you that they do so much more than this. In addition to performing the Councillor's duties above, and those defined in the MGA, the Mayor’s duties can include (depending on the size, needs, and requirements of the municipality):
A. Structure and Scope of Role
The Mayor reports to the public – the residents and provides leadership by being a figurehead for the municipality, chairing council meetings, and managing council. This position refers to and/or consults with council and the chief administrative officer.
B. Figurehead for the Municipality
Key representative with regard to ceremonial responsibilities.
Act as the primary spokesperson for the municipality unless that duty is delegated to another Councillor or the Chief Administrative Officer.
Primary liaison with senior elected officials from regional municipalities, the Province of Alberta, the Government of Canada, and Indigenous Councils.
Reaching out and engaging with the community and beyond, attending in-person events on weekdays and weekends including:
Economic development events - new business openings, business walks, chamber events, etc.
Awards and recognition events
In conjunction with the chief administrative officer, the mayor ensures that council and administration are appropriately represented at official functions and meetings with stakeholder groups and members of the public.
C. Chairs Council Meetings
Chairperson of council meetings. Monitors meeting effectiveness and encourages councillor input. Facilitates decision-making processes to seek informed consensus by ensuring good debate and adequate information is available.
Ensures administration’s advice and recommendations are available and presented for Council’s decision making.
Ensures clear direction for preparing policy from council to administration.
Ensures discussion takes place regarding resource implications prior to a council decision.
Provides timely reports to council on committee, agency, intermunicipal, Indigenous, and provincial liaison activities.
Ensures Members of Council’s regard for organizational values and appropriate behavior.
Mediator of internal Council Issues.
Ex-officio member on various boards and committees.
Keeps Council informed on upcoming internal and external meetings.
Acts as the main information connector amongst council Members.
There is a great amount of misunderstanding and confusion regarding the roles of council, the mayor, and councillors in Alberta. A top five list of examples has been provided, but it is likely that many elected officials and members of municipal administrations could significantly extend this (more examples invited in the comments section!). The above has described the MGA requirements for these roles and the additional unnamed duties that elected officials often undertake.
To clarify the roles of council, the mayor, and councillors, municipalities could benefit from developing a governance manual that defines positions, expectations, and protocols. While not mandated, these manuals can provide transparency and understanding for all involved.
There are many resources available for municipal governance. Here are some that will be particularly useful during municipal election time in Alberta:
Alberta Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Current Version)
Alberta Municipal Affairs (2017). What Every Councillor Needs to Know! A Council Member Handbook [This document superseded: Alberta Municipal Affairs (2017). Now That You’ve Been Elected – A Handbook for Elected Officials)]
Alberta Municipal Affairs (2017). Pecuniary Interest for Municipal Councillors
Alberta Municipal Government Act (Current Version) – For the most recent version, please type Municipal Government Act into the “Search by title/keyword” text box.
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