Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts
Somewhere deep down most people do know: the city council is the highest administrative body of a city. The council members set out the main policy lines and supervise their implementation by the Mayor and Aldermen. But it often doesn't feel that way. The mayor you see everywhere, the person who is the face of the city, surely that person must also have some influence?
It is not so strange that many people think that this is the case, says Klaartje Peters, professor of Local and Regional Governance. “Firstly, it is the city's most visible official. Research has shown that almost half of the inhabitants of a municipality know who their mayor is. This applies to a much lesser extent to aldermen and council members. Secondly, the job comes with a lot of ceremony. The mayor is the one who wears the official chain of office, who chairs council meetings, who congratulates married couples on their sixtieth anniversary. And when something great or something really terrible happens to an inhabitant, the mayor will comment on it on the news.”
What probably also contributes, is the fact that the situation in the countries around us is very different. In Flanders, for example, the mayor is officially appointed by the king, just like here, but it is customary that he or she is the party leader of the winning party in city council elections. “He or she puts together a team, chooses – in consultation with the coalition – the aldermen.”
In the Netherlands the mayor has absolutely no influence on this process. When the city council elections have been held on 21 March, Annemarie Penn-te Strake will not attend the coalition negotiations. “She will be kept informed as a matter of courtesy, but will not partake in discussions on policies, on who will become alderman or on the distribution of portfolios. Her own portfolio is determined by law: public order and safety. Sometimes mayors are assigned an extra portfolio, but this is often a topic that is politically not very interesting. Regional collaboration, for example.” The fact that Penn-te Strake is the chairperson of the bench of Mayor and Aldermen, does not mean that she is the boss there. “She can give her opinion behind closed doors, and the authority that she has acquired has weight and counts, of course, but if the aldermen say ‘this is what the coalition agreement states’, then she will have to accept that. Unless the votes are equally divided; then she casts the deciding vote.”
Another difference with other countries is that in the Netherlands the mayor is not the head of the civil service. That is the city manager. So, there is no point in having a quick chat with the mayor, because your parking permit is taking so long. “She doesn't know the civil servants concerned and doesn’t discuss matters with them.” This is also different in Flanders. “With a group of students, I carried out research last year into the role of the mayor in the Netherlands, Flanders and Germany. The mayor of Riemst told us that he always has a notebook in his inside pocket. That is where he writes down these kinds of requests. Back at the office he sends off an ‘official assignment’ to the civil servants. He was proud of the fact that on that day he had sent his 5,000th official assignment. Civil servants in the Netherlands would find it very strange and feel uncomfortable if they suddenly received such an e-mail.”
The Flemish mayor of course also has his reasons: he needs to be re-elected in four years’ time, if he wants to keep his job. If the Netherlands were to switch to a system with an elected mayor, the position would change here as well. Something that might well happen, according to Peters. “I'm not sure if it is a good idea, but the role of the mayor has changed in the past few years. He or she is looked upon more critically. People expect vigorous action when it comes to things like closing drug houses – something that comes under the portfolio of public order and safety. As a result of that they are threatened more often, criminals also see the mayor as the boss of the city. All of this clashes with the task of bringing people together, being above the parties. Someone who has been elected, has a real mandate. The question is how long the present situation will remain tenable.”
Myth busters is a series in which academics shoot down popular myths on complex topics