The position of the mayor in local government is weak because he is to all intents and purposes selected by the municipal council. This explains why in recent years so many mayors have vanished from the scene, or not got a new term, after conflicts with the council. In addition, the increasing powers the mayor is being granted are not in balance with his limited mandate. This is why an elected mayor would be far preferable. This would satisfy both drawbacks, claims Hans Engels of the University of Groningen, incidentally also a member of the Senate for D66.
The curious withdrawal of Peter Rehwinkel from Groningen, the sudden departure of Ab Meijerman from Veendam, and a few months ago the dumping of Sicko Heldoorn by Assen – they are not incidents that can be compared but what they have in common is that in the old system these mayors would probably still be in office. Then they would have been appointed by the Crown, without any involvement by the municipal council and they would not have had to pay much attention to the opinions of that council.
That all changed in 2001. Since then, although the mayor is still formally appointed by the Crown, the recommendations of the municipal council are what weighs in the scale. This also applies to the granting or not of a subsequent term and possible premature dismissal.
‘This situation creates two complications’, states Engels. ‘The legal status of the mayor is particularly weak, because if the municipal council suddenly starts talking about disrupted relationships, it can force him to resign via a recommendation to the Minister. So, if a new municipal council is elected, or the atmosphere is poor, the mayor can become the victim. In addition, the decisive role played by the council means that the position of mayor has become a political issue. In the current dualist system he should stand outside the influence of the council, whether appointed or elected by the voters.’
Engels does not expect enthusiasm for a mayor’s post to grow due to this vulnerable position. Heavyweight candidates will certainly not be interested, although that is increasingly what a mayor is expected to be. ‘We’re long past the stage of mayors who cut ribbons and function as “a man of the people”. He or she must also be an governmental heavyweight and be able to cope with administrative and official relationships. A mayor would be able to develop much better if his fate did not lie in the hands of the council. His position would be stable, and he or she would be able to answer the council back. Heavyweight candidates would certainly want to be able to do that, so they will be less interested in this job.’
Another problem according to Engels is that the mayor’s mandate bears no relationship to his powers. ‘Those powers are constantly increasing, for example in the area of public order. However, his formal position, appointed by the Minister, implies a very thin mandate in constitutional terms. So a mayor has to make tough decisions, but if he does not do that well, he has to justify himself to the council and can even be sacked.’
In constitutional terms, there are two solutions to resolving the problem of weak mayors, states Engels. ‘In the dualist system his position must be made independent of the council. So we either have to return to the straightforward Crown appointment of the past, or move on to an elected mayor. I have a preference for the latter option, but then free of political partyism. However, I think that we will end up having a mayor publically selected by the council, without relying on a appointment by the central gevernment. This may conflict with dualism, but it is certainly better than the current situation.’
Engels does not think that anything needs to be changed in the redundancy pay for mayors who throw in the towel, precisely because their position has become so much weaker. ‘There is not a single reason to change the regulations. Mayors run a significant risk. You can easily be sacked for political reasons without being guilty of anything. I’m disgusted at all the talk of lining one’s own pockets, though there are ways of dealing with the regulation that are much more tactful than that chosen by the departing mayor of Groningen.’
Hans Engels (1951) associate professor of Constitutional Law at the Faculty of Law of the University of Groningen and professor by special appointment in municipal law/municipal studies (Thorbecke chair) at Leiden University. Outside the university world he is mainly active in public administration and as deputy judge in the judiciary. He used to be an alderman and deputy mayor in the now defunct municipality of Eelde, chair of the municipal council in Zuidlaren and chair of D66 in the Provincial States of Drenthe. He has been a member of the Dutch Senate for D66 since 7 September 2004.
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