The issue: Power to the mayor

Wim Derksen (1952) is Professor of Public Administration at Erasmus University Rotterdam. He was awarded his doctorate in 1980 for his research into mayors and the office of mayor. In addition to his scholarly work, Professor Derksen assists several government authorities as an academic advisor, currently as academic director of the Cities Academy (Stedenacademie). He was previously chief scientist at the Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment and director of the Netherlands Institute for Spatial Research in The Hague.


In the future, political power must shift away from national tiers of government towards mayors of metropolises. Is this a logical development or a pipe dream of political scientists? Public administration expert Wim Derksen discusses the mayor as a strong leader or an administrative loiterer. ‘I am in favour of increasing the responsibilities of elected mayors.’


Text: Daan Rutten

Als burgemeesters zouden regeren (Nieuw Amsterdam, 2014), the recently published Dutch translation of American political theorist Benjamin Barber’s much-discussed ‘If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities’ (Yale University Press, 2013), is on the table. Together with other authors like Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley (‘The Metropolitan Revolution’), Barber sees that major cities rather than nations are becoming the main stage of politics. While national politicians prattle on endlessly about ideology, it is the mayors who must deal directly with the demands and needs of citizens. Mayors are therefore far more successful at bridging divides and implementing pragmatic solutions. Barber’s praise is not limited to modern mayors like hyperactive Michael Bloomberg (New York). He is also very positive about Ahmed Aboutaleb (Rotterdam) and Job Cohen (Amsterdam).

Wim Derksen shakes his head as he leafs through the pages of Barber’s book that are dedicated to the ‘mayors of the Low Countries’: ‘Doesn’t Barber know that these mayors that he presents as examples have very little political power and are rather undemocratically appointed by the Crown?’

So you do not share Benjamin Barber’s vision of the future? 
‘I agree with him on his social and economic analysis that urbanisation is on the rise worldwide and that cities are becoming more important. I do not agree, however, that political power should be concentrated in cities and that all major decisions should be made by mayors. I understand the attraction of Barber’s book, which is strongly influenced by the difficult situation in the United States, where Democrats and Republicans are stalemating each other. A mayor like Bloomberg therefore sees an opportunity to fill the power vacuum. To thinkers like Barber, such a mayor therefore comes across as a strong leader who can rise above party politics. I also understand why Dutch mayors are currently doing their best to highlight Barber’s book. In my opinion, they should indeed be given more responsibilities. They should not blow matters out of proportion, however. Like many works of mainly American political theorists, Barber’s book is full of  sweeping statements that sound like the utopias of a fervent Jehovah’s Witness. It’s a seductive story that is a danger to democracy.’

Granted, the author makes his case in rather bold strokes. However, Barber is actually making a case for facilitating doers who solve problems that they encounter in the city in a practical and down-to-earth way. In other words, he is not a supporter of pompous visionaries who defend their pristine ideologies at all costs. As the bickering of national politics continued, Bloomberg imposed a limit on soft drink size and banned the sale of tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21...
‘It certainly seems good, but Barber is missing the point. In themselves, the measures taken by Bloomberg can be beneficial to the city’s residents. It is not about whether someone happens to do something good, however, because doing something good does not in itself say anything about how the system of which the mayor is a part functions. The point is, whether or not there are enough  checks and balances to counter undemocratic intentions. Bloomberg was an excellent mayor who had a good sense of what the people of his city wanted. But what if a mayor is more authoritarian with respect to a city’s residents?’

Do you consider the assertion of Barber and like-minded scholars that mayors are closer to the people to be an anti-democratic one?
‘Yes, I do. It is a bit like the populist leader who claims to know exactly what the people want, because he knows them so well. Members of a society always have different views and priorities, however and we’ve known since the Second World War about the ultimate effects that ‘strong leaders’ can have. For my part, I would rather have no progress at all than progress that is led by some kind of “super administrator” who implements rigorous decisions like a manager of a one-man business. Although fundamental ideological debates in a democracy may be cumbersome and take time, they serve a purpose. Most things simply cannot be solved in some kind of black-and-white, purely businesslike way. Nevertheless, political choices must be made when dealing with key issues. The economic crisis is an example in this respect. Economists are aware that it is better to inject capital into an economy during a time of crisis. At the same time, however, it is much easier to pass austerity measures during such a time, because citizens sense the urgent need for action and reform. This is also a truth. So what is wisdom? It is a political choice that cannot be reduced to an unequivocally rational and businesslike decision.’

Rob van Gijzel, the mayor of Eindhoven, also spoke in VPRO Tegenlicht, the TV programme in which Barber was interviewed. As a mayor, he feels that he is much more involved in matters in a direct sense than when he was in national politics and supports the idea of giving far greater political power to mayors.
‘Again, I understand that mayors are getting carried away by the idea. It’s important to keep things in perspective, however. Members of local government often tend to overestimate their own roles and start assuming that they constitute some kind of national parliament in miniature. Why, for example, is Eindhoven’s knowledge industry doing so well? Two key moments account for its strong performance. The first was when Philips relocated from Zaltbommel to the city. The second was when Philips left Eindhoven and opened the physics lab to other companies. The cross-pollination that ensued had an extremely favourable effect on business activities in Eindhoven. Why, as Barber states, is Detroit doing so well again? It is doing so well precisely because prices have fallen to such an extent that the city has again become an attractive place to companies. These developments have little to do with politics as such. Van Gijzel goes on and on about how great his Eindhoven is doing. It is also the case, however, that his officials regularly step on the brakes and advise him to temper his message.’

Nevertheless, you recognise the need to strengthen the authority of mayors.
‘Certainly. Dutch mayors are currently in a very difficult position. As shown by the case of Aboutaleb and the Hook of Holland riots, they are held to account for everything. At the same time, they are not elected and are often kept on a short leash, so to speak, by the aldermen of the municipal executive. The committee of inquiry interviewed Job Cohen about the difficult and controversial construction of Amsterdam’s North/South Metro Line. Cohen said that although he was aware of all the problems, it was not within his remit to do something about them. Aldermen had the authority and were responsible for the project. Following his term as mayor of Rotterdam, Bram Peper once expressed that powerlessness by describing the position of mayor as akin to being ‘an administrative loiterer’. I am in favour of increasing the responsibilities of mayors. To do so, we have to shift to a system of elected mayors. A mayor elected by the people would have a mandate from the people to carry out his or her political programme for the city. As is common in Belgium, such a mayor could even take the place of an alderman and manage his or her own specific portfolio. As an elected chair, such a mayor could also bring his or her own team of aldermen when taking office. The municipal council would then function as a monitoring body with respect to the mayor’s performance of duties. A system of this kind would also bring us somewhat closer to Barber’s model. Mayors would still have to deal with a democratic decision-making process, however and would not by any means have the power to act independently to the extent proposed by Barber. We must also ask whether a system of elected mayors would produce mayors like Aboutaleb and Cohen, mayors praised by Barber. As well as he is doing as a mayor, my own view is that Aboutaleb probably does not have the charisma required to win voters. And we all know what happened to Cohen when he entered national politics. His “keeping everything together” brand of politics suddenly stopped working.

The issue is a section in Erasmus Magazine, the opinion and information magazine of Erasmus University Rotterdam, in which an EUR-academic responds to a current-social issue.