The Mayor in Bristol has been making waves - first with his approach to his first budget earlier this year and subsequently with his plans for a rapid roll-out of Residents' Parking Zones across the city - regardless of the needs or wants of residents in various disparate parts of the City. Whilst some parts of the City undoubtedly did need local schemes, many patently don't.
As the only City to have opted for a Mayor in last year's referendums, the workings of Bristol will come under political and academic scrutiny over the next few years. Opinion will, I'm sure, continue to be divided on the pros and cons of the Mayoral model (or, as this piece in The Economist suggests, the rights and wrongs of the City Mayor model).
Whatever side of the argument you're on (and I'm not in favour of having a Mayor), it would be good if lessons could be learned from the way things have gone so far in Bristol. In particular, I wish the current Mayor would make more time for Council meetings and pay more attention to his fellow representatives and Scrutiny processes.
It was on this subject that I wrote to the Bristol Post last week - although the letter wasn't published there:
I read with interest the letter from the Lib Dem Deputy Leader, Christian Martin, published on the 15th July 2013 (‘“Unclear” over Security Issues’). It seems to me that the ability to schedule scrutiny and other meetings of the council in the knowledge that the Mayor would be free to attend would aid the wheels of democracy in the City.
Whilst the Mayor’s drive to get on and do things is, in many ways, commendable, he seems not to realise that being at the helm of a council is not the same as being the director of one of his businesses. The executive power of the council may be vested solely in him but there are 70 other duly elected Councillors. The Mayor must respect their role in the decision making process if he is not to be a dictator, and the council not to be a mere talking shop: he must recognise that he has a moral (if not legal) responsibility to submit to the questioning and scrutiny of Council.
As things stand, Mayor Ferguson makes much of how he listens - but his behaviour tells a different story. First with the budget and subsequently with the proposed Residents’ Parking Zones, the Mayor’s approach has been to seek to railroad decisions and avoid full transparency in the process. When the approach fails, he then concedes ground and argues he was listening all along - despite all evidence to the contrary.
With the furore over RPZs now put to bed, the Mayor has an opportunity to repair fractious relationships with Councillors and opening up his diary would be a good first step. Doing so would be a sign of leadership; as well as demonstrating a willingness to demonstrate accountability and openness - another two of the Bell Principles that he cited as key to his vision for an Independent Mayor.
Without a change in the way the Mayor and the Council relate to each other, the city risks falling into the "fortress culture" that the Mayor said he wished to break. Having promised to encourage “meaningful citizen participation”, he has some way to go in achieving this aim. As things are, members of the public attending council meetings and committees are likely to find the Mayor most noticeable by his absence.
N.B. This was an abridged form of a longer blog post, which you can read on Google Drive, here.