This May, twelve English cities will hold referenda to decide whether to switch to a local government system that includes a directly elected mayor. (Liverpool City Council decided in February to elect a mayor without the referendum.)
The U.K. government recently intimated that cities that pass the referendum will be "well placed" to receive new control of money to invest in transit, job training, and high speed broadband. As voters weigh the alternatives, it may be instructive to review lessons learned from the long history of directly elected mayors in the United States, where, in general, the mayor acts as chief executive of the city, with the city council exercising legislative powers:
A high profile figure can attract investment
A new report from the McKinsey Global Institute shows that 259 of the largest cities in the United States are responsible for 10 percent of global GDP. Having a leader who can represent your city, draw the strings of economic development strategy together, and give leadership to the process is invaluable. Face-to-face meetings with a single, identifiable, and affable leader of a city simply can’t be replaced.
A mayor can speed up projects that otherwise get bogged down in bureaucracy
Projects, programmes, and policy ideas take time to filter through the various legislative committees of a city council or the silo-ed departments of a city government. While these processes filter out some of the more half-baked ideas before implementation, the system also leaves many worthy projects to wither on the vine. A mayor alone has the perspective of looking out for the entire city, not to mention the ticking clock of a subsequent election as an incentive to break the usual logjams.
A locally elected leader better understands the infrastructure needs of communities
Cities and mayors are well poised to direct effective and efficient regional infrastructure investments, but are frequently hindered from doing so by national or state laws and systems. Despite the fact that cities are increasingly the units of global economic competition, reforms to give city governments more authority on infrastructure are still needed. Strong mayors are the best chance that cities have to advocate for the flexibility of funding and programmes that will allow communities to be masters of their own infrastructure.
Many of these advantages depend upon leveraging the personality power of the mayor to the city’s benefit. Of course, there are downsides of such strong personalities in government as well. Boisterous leaders can attract investment, speed up projects, and coordinate infrastructure, but they can also be obnoxious, megalomaniacal, and even sometimes outright corrupt. If voters approve the new mayoralties next month, several British cities will find themselves coming to terms with the positive and the negative characteristics of these strong leaders. On balance, these forces have greatly benefitted U.S. cities, making them into some of the most vibrant and economically successful places on the planet. But if the U.K. elects new mayors, just remember: however much you may disagree with a sitting elected official, he (or she) stood before the voters and won their backing. As such, the mayor represents the electorate, and by extension, the people of your city. And there will always be another election.
Jess Zimbabwe is Executive Director, Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use at ULI.