To Mayor or not to Mayor? That was the question the new Midsomer Norton Town Councillors found themselves wrestling with as the first agenda item at their very first meeting, earlier this month. Writes Ian Nockolds in an opinion piece for The Journal:

In recent years the Mayor has appeared to be a largely ceremonial position, yet this rather superficial understanding of the role belies the fact that the Mayor also acts as Chairman of the Town Council. Far from ceremonial, this is a strategic leadership position that enables the holder to exercise significant influence over Councillors, Council Staff and Council meetings.

In February of last year, Midsomer Norton Town Council approved the Town Mayor’s Handbook, a five-page document that set out the role of the Mayor, their “Civic Insignia and Regalia” and their relationship with the Clerk and Deputy Mayor. However, this document is somewhat contradictory, suggesting that whilst the “Town Mayor has the same rights and duties as a local council Chairman”, the role is “neutral and not party political”.

Given that no political parties are represented on the Town Council, this later point is hardly controversial. However, when the powers of the Chairman are detailed, as they are in the Town Councils Standing Orders, it is hard to make the case that the role is neutral.

The most eye-catching benefit of being Chair is that the position carries the casting vote, placing decisive authority in the holder of the office when a vote is tied. Yet the role of Chair carries many more powers including the ability to:

λ consider the wording of an “improper” motion with the Clerk to decide if it should be included in the agenda

λ convene an extraordinary meeting at any time

λ permit councillors to speak more often, or for longer than the allotted 5 minutes in a debate

λ decide during a debate when a motion has been “sufficiently” discussed

λ change the order of the meeting agenda

λ decide the order of speakers at any meeting

λ  review the performance and conduct the annual appraisal of the Town Clerk

Supporters of the role of Mayor argue that it gives the Town Council a certain cachet, whilst opponents suggest that a Rose by any other name would smell just as sweet. The principle of first amongst equals may well appeal to the current crop of Town Councillors, but to paraphrase George Orwell, all Councillors are created equal, but some are more equal than others!

Perhaps this prompts a wider debate over the role of the Councillors themselves. Are they delegates or representatives? Are they elected to reflect public opinion or do we expect them to use their own judgement on the public’s behalf? That debate can wait for another time, but what will be interesting to see is how the new Mayor, Gordon Mackay, chooses to shape his term of office. How he presents himself to the public and his colleagues and how he chooses to use the considerable powers at his disposal.                                            

Ian Nockolds