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17 years of Rob Burton

First in a series of articles on Oakville's mayor since 2006
Town of Oakville
Town of Oakville

Oakville News sat down for a wide-ranging discussion with Mayor Rob Burton on a variety of topics we will be publishing as a weekly series over the next several weeks, beginning with this first article.

Over two days, Burton took several hours out of his busy schedule to speak to Oakville News. We came away with a clearer sense of what kind of mayor we have and how he sees the management of our community. With more than three years before the next election, this was a rare chance to address issues without a campaign underway.

An important part of our mission at Oakville News is to help residents be engaged in their community. We expressed our concern at the low election turnout in October 2022, and the mayor agreed. He pointed out that election turnouts municipally are traditionally low in communities like ours.

Burton receiving the Prince of Wales Award | Town of Oakville
Burton receiving the Prince of Wales Award | Town of Oakville
Topic 1:  Would political parties at the municipal level help get more people engaged?

The conversation got interesting as the mayor wanted to shed light on the nature of municipal politics and compared being mayor to being the CEO of a branch plant company.

Your statutory job is to execute the plans of your head office, he explained, and to provide leadership to council. In the case of Oakville or any other town or city in Ontario, the head office is Queen's Park. Legally, it is crystal clear that they set policy. Wryly, Mr. Burton remarked, "If they want our opinion, they'll give it to us."

Federal and provincial elections confer more power, but in the case of municipal elections, voters are conferring powers limited by provincial governments as to what level of local services will be provided, subject to provincial veto. This is not inspiring stuff and doesn't really engage electors, he said.

Because the main municipal issue is administration and level of services, and there aren't parties, we think many voters don't feel they know enough to make an informed choice: and that's part of the job we at Oakville News have set ourselves. We hope this series, and others in the future, will help you better engage with your municipal representatives between elections and be better equipped to evaluate the job applicants at the next set of interviews, i.e. election campaigns.

"Perhaps," the mayor suggested, "it is not such a bad thing that people who recognize they are uninformed don't weigh in on the decision."

It was pretty clear that Burton doesn't think the idea of political parties in the administrative world of municipal government makes much sense, which puts him at odds with this recent Globe and Mail editorial, which suggests such a move might make it easier for voters to choose between candidates.

In fact, it seems he feels the duty of the branch plant CEO (mayor) and council is to work with the head office, i.e. Queen's Park. At least, that is a fair conclusion if we can take as signals his recent move to distance himself from Liberal partisanship, give the key to the town to Premier Ford and even attend his fundraiser (as he did with previous premiers). He points out the town statutorily had to obey the Liberals' legislation too.

Given the vassal-like relationship of the municipal to the provincial government, we think he has a point here. All the introduction of political parties at the municipal level might do is convey a false impression of powers. And that would only further confuse the issues for voters, who already often attribute far more control over town affairs to the mayor and council than is legally the case.

The legal status of the town, conferring as it does responsibility without authority, creates a whole set of problems we will explore in greater depth in the rest of this series.

Local journalism holds local government to account. Remember, there is no "loyal opposition" to do that at the municipal level. If you are glad we are here to do that, maybe consider kicking in a couple of bucks to help. And supporting our local advertisers!