The power of local government lies in the hands of Council as a whole. Many people incorrectly assume that the Mayor holds greater power than Councillors, which is simply not true. The Mayor, for lack of a better word, is the figurehead of Council. While Council can grant the Mayor greater authority by bylaw, there is no obligation on the part of Council to do so. Therefore, the Mayor does not have the authority to make unilateral decisions on behalf of Council or the municipality as a whole. If he or she acts outside of the legislation, the individual can be held personally liable for those decisions.
The Municipal Government Act (the “MGA”) is the legislation that governs municipalities in Alberta. It clearly articulates the roles and responsibilities of both Councillors and Chief Elected Officials (Mayors).
Specifically, Section 153 of the MGA states that Councillors have the following responsibilities:
- 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;
- to participate generally in developing and evaluating the policies and programs of the municipality;
- to participate in Council meetings and Council Committee meetings and meetings of other bodies to which they are appointed by the Council;
- 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;
- to keep in confidence matters discussed in private at a Council or Council Committee meeting until discussed at a meeting held in public;
- to adhere to the Code of Conduct established by the Council under section 146.1(1);
- to perform any other duty or function imposed on councillors by this or any other enactment or by the Council.
Councillors cannot opt out of these responsibilities and, equally important, the Mayor cannot prevent Councillors from exercising these responsibilities. The only exception is where there are sanctions that can be applied to both the Mayor and Councillors under Council’s Code of Conduct for inappropriate behaviour.
The MGA is also explicit in terms of the responsibilities of the Mayor, stating that in addition to performing the duties of a Councillor, a Mayor must:
- preside when in attendance at a council meeting unless a bylaw provides that another councillor or other person is to preside, and
- perform any other duty imposed on a chief elected official by this or any other enactment or bylaw (MGA, s. 153).
Therefore, unless legislation or a bylaw explicitly provides otherwise, the Mayor does not have any greater decision making authority than other members of Council. While the Mayor typically chairs Council meetings, it is ultimately up to Council to determine who should chair these important meetings as the role of the chair is to facilitate the healthy and respectful debate amongst Councillors. In particular, Council can utilize its Code of Conduct to remove the Mayor from the chair if the Mayor is not conducting themselves in accordance with the requirements of that bylaw.
The MGA is also explicit in that Council may only act by resolution or bylaw. A bylaw or resolution of council is not valid unless passed at a Council meeting held in public at which there is a quorum present. (MGA, s. 180-181). By explicitly stating how Council, as a collective, may make decisions, this further illustrates the absence of authority that the Mayor has to make independent decisions without the support of Council. Furthermore, the recent changes to the MGA support the ability for both Council and residents to hold elected officials accountable. Given the “weak” Mayor system employed in Alberta, ensuring the accountability of this important position becomes increasingly important when Mayors choose to make unilateral decisions that are outside the scope of their legislative authority.