City Councillors: Think Like a Mayor

I would hope every city councillor has at least an inkling of ambition to be mayor of the whole city. With that ambition in mind, now is the time to practice having a city-wide focus.

By Frances Murray
Published January 30, 2015

As a big fan of municipal politics, I have to say that I don't think a career as a city politician would be for me. In my job, meetings are necessary but can become onerous, boring, meaningless and soporific. Luckily, my work doesn't require attendance at many meetings.

However, meetings are almost the definition of the job for city councillors. Sitting in meetings, listening to reports, listening to advocates for various causes, listening to each other... zzzzz.

So I am grateful to our City Councillors. They take on the job, campaign to be re-elected and receive very little appreciation for their efforts.

Criticism is plentiful and everything they do in city council meetings is under a magnifying glass. I'm sure there are many satisfying aspects to their role as a public servant, but the meeting thing...yeesh!

Now that acknowledgement of their tough job is out of the way, I'm onto the advice portion of this essay. But first some history.

This city, Hamilton, is a conglomeration, actually an amalgamation, of suburban/rural wards and inner-city wards. Because we have an escarpment, nicknamed the "mountain", inner-city wards are referred to as the "lower city". And it's safe to say, that many in the upper city look at the lower city as truly "lower".

In the 1950s, downtown streets were converted to one-way, light-coordinated thruways in order to move suburban workers through to industrial jobs on the waterfront.

With this change and the gradual cultural shift to suburban shopping malls, downtown suffered and was gutted. Neighbourhoods remained, but many were bulldozed almost out of existence before neighbourhood associations intervened to save the remaining heritage stock.

Starting in 2001, the balance of urban council seats was forever unbalanced with the provincial government's imposition of amalgamation, where Hamilton and its surrounding communities were combined into a larger metropolis, giving heavy influence to suburban/rural councillors and their residents.

Despite this, another cultural shift has brought new life to the lower city. Partly due to low real estate prices and old buildings, arts aficionados began to buy properties on James Street North and the rest of the lower city, fixing up the buildings and adding value.

People began to visit downtown again for the monthly art crawls and some people realized they missed urban life. Downtown slowly rose from the ashes, but is doing so with almost no help from city councillors outside of the lower city.

Despite the economic advantage of encouraging a prosperous downtown, potentially relieving the tax burden on everyone, suburban and rural councillors continue to strangle efforts to create walkable/bikeable streets, improve transit service and protect heritage.

Sprawl development on the edges and road-building continues to be heavily subsidized, mortgaging our future for maintenance of auto-centric housing options.

It's understandable that job security for city councillors is a concern. I worry about keeping my job too. However, City Councillors, to be good at their jobs, have to be ambitious and drive for progress, both for their city and within themselves.

I would hope every city councillor has at least an inkling of ambition to be mayor of the whole city. With that ambition in mind, now is the time to practice having a city-wide focus.

Yes, you have to address concerns brought forward by citizens in your own ward, but it's also your job to educate people who complain about downtown initiatives.

Why are you scared to tell people that a thriving downtown is good for everyone? That a light rail transit (LRT) line through the lower city has the potential to encourage commercial growth and the corresponding commercial taxes that we need in order to survive?

How many people actually call your office to complain? I suspect that it's only 10 - 20 people who call repetitively. Name recognition will carry you as the incumbent in the next election unless you do something truly perfidious.

If you don't display leadership now, why would I ever vote for you to be mayor of my city? If you can't use your council vote to show leadership on important city-wide files like transit and complete streets, there is no way I'll ever trust you to show leadership when you sit in the mayor's chair.

If you don't have the ambition to be mayor, you should still act as though you do for everyone's sake. It's important for the health of the whole city that you take your head out of your ward-centric focus and realize that the economic future of this city is important to all residents, both suburban and urban.

If we could go back and talk to early decision-makers, we would urge them to build a subway system when they still had a chance. It's too late for that, but we now have an opportunity to build a light rail transit (LRT) system on-ground, giving us the most up-to-date service enhancements on our busiest transit corridor.

It's a difficult decision, a scary decision to support when "your" residents don't necessarily support it. But for this city, LRT is the correct decision.

Other transit enhancements are important as well, not only for us in Hamilton, but globally as we move into an era of climate change and the necessity to cut back on fossil fuel use for our own survival.

Just two years ago, Council unanimously supported the Rapid Ready report, which plans LRT as part of a comprehensive city-wide transit plan. The facts have not changed. The evidence is the same.

The question Councillors have to answer is: Do I want to lead, making the right decisions for the next 100 years, or am I only worried about the next election in 2018?

This city and its future is bigger than an individual Councillor and the next election. My plea is: think big, dream big.

Picture being born today, right now. In 50 years, what decision do you think you will wish City Council made the day you were born?

We'll be dead and it won't matter any more who won the 2018 election, but our children and their children will benefit from the courage Council displays now.

And I guess that's the crux of this essay: be courageous.

First published on Frances Murray's website.

Frances was born in Toronto and has lived in various places since that time returning to her urban roots in 2010 by moving to downtown Hamilton. She is developing a keen interest in urban issues with a focus on improved walkability and bikeability.


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By LeeEdwardMcIlmoyle (registered) - website | Posted January 30, 2015 at 12:03:55

clamorous applause

Frances, as usual, you raise a very valid point that needs to be addressed to everyone working/serving in City Hall today, and that is: Where are we going as a city, and who will lead us there?

If we insist on going forward by moving backwards, or simply stepping back when the call goes out to lead the charge, it dooms future generations to suffer more of the short-sighted planning that this city has endured for almost a century, simply because it was easier to let things happen as they were. We weren't really in control of our collective destiny back then, but we are now, if we can just learn to see past the end of our own noses to recognize real, tangible opportunities to climb out of the hole we find ourselves in.

The amalgamated City of Hamilton needs to start thinking as one city. That requires leadership and courage in the face of uncertainty. The courage to give your constituents what they need, rather than just giving them what they think they want. Councillor Aidan Johnson said it at the GIC meeting where we lost our Bus Lane: Needs as needs, and Wants as wants. We need to learn to tell the difference, and to encourage everyone to manage their expectations and push for a common goal that will benefit everyone in time. We built bridges and mountain accesses and our entire waterfront... our entire city, really, by coming together and forging ahead. This divisiveness we see in Council today is only going to leave our grandchildren looking back on us with shame, because of the lost opportunities we continually squandered in the name of playing it safe.

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By BeulahAve (registered) | Posted January 30, 2015 at 12:26:24

Excellent open letter that should be sent to every Councillor. [But don't say it was published on RTH moniker: I fear that some Councillors are beginning to have a knee-jerk negative reaction to any views voiced by a certain band of individuals, even if those individuals are informed and educated (and correct!).]

I love the point that elected officials have a responsibility to educate their constituents. I would love to see more of that. Unfortunately, many politicians are not all that knowledgeable themselves. This is not to meant to be a dig at Hamilton Council; this is true at all levels of government.

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By ItJustIs (registered) | Posted January 30, 2015 at 12:52:30

Great article. (I'd had it sent my way yesterday by someone persona non grata on this site, and appreciated it on the original blog.)

Here's my suggestion:, Ryan, whomever...should get Mayor Eisenberger's reaction to it. Point-by-point. Because you've got someone to whom what you've written is already applicable. (Given that the Mayor's election campaign was run on what I referred to as 'a platformless-platform', this would be especially apropos.)

Better than a simple paper response, it might be nice to have a video segment produced. In the Mayor's office. I'm sure that Hamilton's Journalist Joey Coleman would be more than enthusiastic to provide the technical end of things.

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By Crispy (registered) | Posted January 30, 2015 at 15:53:53

When Hamilton proper was amalgamated with the local towns to create The City of Hamilton, the councilors should have been made at large and the ward system should have been scrapped. Unless this happens they will be quite happy cruising along as incumbents, thinking only of their own wards, and saving their own skin at the expense of the City as a whole.

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By rhetoric (anonymous) | Posted January 30, 2015 at 17:55:33

"Neighbourhoods remained, but many were bulldozed almost out of existence before neighbourhood associations intervened to save the remaining heritage stock."

Really? Do tell how "many were bulldozed almost out of existence".

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted January 30, 2015 at 18:03:24 in reply to Comment 108603

One well-known example is York Boulevard, where the city expropriated and demolished most of the buildings along the street in its 1976 widening and re-design:

"Widening of York Boulevard, which involved expropriating hundreds of homes and businesses, was completed."

Another example is the many blocks downtown where buildings were demolished and replaced with nothing (i.e. surface parking or vacant lots).

More debatably, much of northern Durand's housing stock was bulldozed to build apartment buildings ... although that is really the case of one neighbourhood being removed and replaced with a new very different one (at the loss of heritage buildings, but at the gain of density, albeit not mixed use).

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2015-01-30 18:07:22

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted February 02, 2015 at 09:17:44 in reply to Comment 108604

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted February 04, 2015 at 09:20:32 in reply to Comment 108665

This is what York street looked like before the city created york boulevard: york st 1967

And all of those businesses had houses behind them that were also razed

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted February 06, 2015 at 01:57:33 in reply to Comment 108717

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By fmurray (registered) | Posted February 04, 2015 at 09:00:43 in reply to Comment 108665

There's a book called "Durand, A Neighbourhood Reclaimed" by Russell Ellman. You could read that, but it's hard to find. The library may have a copy. It's about the systematic "block-busting" that was taking place in the Durand during the 60's and early 70's and was the reason for the formation of the Durand Neighbourhood Association.

Some might say that the big apartment buildings now existing are a good replacement for the beautiful heritage homes that were knocked down because the apartment buildings house a lot more people. That could be, but the fact is that we've lost some really beautiful Victorian and earlier homes - our built heritage.

And the fight goes on -- for example James Street Baptist (partially lost), and 1 St. James Place (saved) are recent examples.

And the York Boulevard modernization was the destruction of a neighbourhood. If you see early pictures of York, it was lined with shops and houses. I don't know the history of that area, and can't tell you the reasons the city gave for making it look the way it does now, though I imagine it was for road-widening.

There was a lot done in this city in the name of "urban renewal". You should look up some history as it's quite fascinating.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted February 06, 2015 at 02:00:19 in reply to Comment 108716

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By fmurray (registered) | Posted January 31, 2015 at 11:45:02 in reply to Comment 108604

Thanks, Nicholas.

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By Stever (anonymous) | Posted January 30, 2015 at 21:51:24

"Neighbourhoods remained, but many were bulldozed almost out of existence before neighbourhood associations intervened to save the remaining heritage stock."

- Except in Ward 3 where city staff want to demolish a perfectly good (actually excellent) Jimmy Thompson pool.
- There's a special Heritage Committee Meeting on Thursday February 5th to discuss, Room 264 at 12:30pm.

"It's understandable that job security for city councillors is a concern."

- Sorry, but I think that's incorrect. In fact, there's never been a more secure job. Thousands of people contributing to their salary via property taxes, low voter turnout and a replaced Blue Box gets a career (=lifetime) worth of votes.

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By fmurray (registered) | Posted January 31, 2015 at 11:52:11 in reply to Comment 108613

RE: Councillor job security I agree that what you say may be the reality, but there's always a very good chance that someone with more charisma will come along to unseat an incumbent. This risk probably shrinks after three or four terms, but I don't think a one or two-term councillor feels all that secure.

That's just my perception.

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By Stever (anonymous) | Posted February 02, 2015 at 13:41:30 in reply to Comment 108631

Sorry, i think that may be optimistic, maybe even naive, Hamilton has a long history of multiple term councillors with very few incumbents at the councillor level being defeated

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By Stever (anonymous) | Posted January 30, 2015 at 21:54:38 in reply to Comment 108613

Also, I should have mentioned I believe they already think like Mayors, Mayors of their Wards.

And at the end of the day getting re-elected in their wards is all that matters to them (look at the tenure). Well, that and lining their pockets which goes hand in glove.

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By RobF (registered) | Posted January 31, 2015 at 11:21:10

Frances, great essay. I hope all councillors consider the message. There is too much it's better to be conventionally wrong than unconventionally right floating as practical (political) wisdom at our city hall. I see this in the speed at which the bus-lanes were removed ... days literally to do it, because it's easy to understand how the status quo works and should look like. Contrast this with the caution and foot-dragging that occurs around bike lanes and one-way street reversions back to two-way. Cost is not the issue, political will across council is (hence, the sudden claims of congestion the minute any attempt to change our streets is made ... common-sense logic - less road space for cars, more congestion - vs. what we've learned since the 1960s - more road space for cars generates more demand for driving and makes other modes of transport less appealing and/or viable).

Incidentally, for those that like political satire watch old episodes of the BBC comedy "Yes Minister". The surest way for senior staff to stop Minister Hacker from doing something is to tell him he's making a courageous decision. Sad, but true. It's why it's so hard to break the cycle of poor decision-making at council vis-a-vis a road diet, complete streets, and enhanced transit ... it's easy to complain about congestion than make decisions that cause short-term disruption (for some) for long-term benefit (for many).

Comment edited by RobF on 2015-01-31 11:23:08

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By Inanity Galore (anonymous) | Posted January 31, 2015 at 17:09:30

At least FMurray tried to be novel about it but descended to same level of urbangookiness. Of course all councillors need to be mindful of all parts of the city, but so do people who just want downtown to thrive need to know that perspectives of mountain and suburban councillors count also. That's the point being missed I think

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By fmurray (registered) | Posted February 01, 2015 at 14:27:01 in reply to Comment 108646

"Urbangookiness" - I like the new word!

One of the issues we deal with in this city, is that one council seat = one vote and majority rules. That's democracy, right? However, suburban and rural councillors often vote together, making every initiative for downtown a huge fight (or boiling the ocean as Ryan calls it). I believe downtown councillors have to work twice as hard and have ten times as much evidence for their motions as do suburban or rural councillors.

Believe me, I'm fully aware of the "perspectives of mountain and suburban councillors". Their perspective has dominated this city for many, many years. Now the urban voice is being heard and people in the outlying areas say, "Why is everything about downtown? Those people get all the attention. I never go downtown! We NEED an infinity skating rink, or a bocce court, or a $23 million road enhancement. And we NEED it now."

Sorry, did that sound bitter? Just trying to let you know, the point has not been missed.

Thanks for reading.

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By Urbangooky (anonymous) | Posted February 03, 2015 at 08:58:00 in reply to Comment 108658

Frances, you have been a Spectator for too long. Their nutty views have skewered perspective. That's the point that's being missed.

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By fmurray (registered) | Posted February 04, 2015 at 13:18:42


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By jason (registered) | Posted February 08, 2015 at 22:58:28

Oh look. Red tape being tossed in the air at young entrepreneurs trying to add to the quality of life in Hamilton. Shocking.

But get rid of an entire transit lane? We can do that 17 seconds after the council vote.

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By another angle (anonymous) | Posted February 09, 2015 at 09:19:02 in reply to Comment 108893

I met with this guy and he's got an abraisive personality. He's really demanding and makes claims that he's working with people and agencies that actually have nothing to do with him. He's been going to cash strapped charities asking them for money so I would be very suspect about his claim about being "ready to hit the ground". Where are they getting bikes? Who maintains them? Who insures the program? Does this fall to librarians? It's easy to tell the paper "we are ready to go" but I don't blame city hall for being timid about jumping on board with this because there's no proof that the program details are actually worked out

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