The elected mayor has come one step closer

In november 2018 it was finally accomplished: the appointment of the mayor was ‘deconstitutionalized’, a long word for the removal from the Dutch constitution. Thirteen years after the Easter crisis the political party D66 made a step towards realizing one of its important goals, the introduction of the elected mayor.

Changing the constitution is complicated and takes a lot of time, because the House of Representatives and the Senate have to approve the change twice. The House can only give its second approval after a new election. In both the House and the Senate a majority of two thirds of votes (instead of half plus one) is required for the second approval. Of course, this created an extra barrier for changing the appointment procedure for the mayor.

It is important to know how mayors are appointed currently to understand the discussion. According to the Municipalities Act the municipal council writes a profile for the mayor and candidates can apply for the job with the King’s Commissioner (Dutch: Commissaris van de Koning, CvdK in short). The CvdK informs the nomination committee of the council about who applied and whom he/she considers suitable for nomination. The comittee can decide to include candidates deemed unfit by the CvdK in its procedure. The comittee informs the CvdK and the council of its findings. The council then recommends two candidates to the minister for the appointment. In principle the minister follows the recommendation and the order in which the candidates are listed. The minister can ignore the recommendation, but only for grave concerns and with motivation.

The Municipalities Act isn’t clear on the “order in which the candidates are listed”, but if I understand correctly it is meant that the minister appoints the candidate who is listed first. At least that is what is written on the website of the ministry of Internal Affairs. This website differs on details with the Municipalities Act. For example, it states that the council doesn’t send the recommendation to the minister directly, but to the CvdK who then forwards it to the minister with his/her advice.

It should now be clear that the appointment of the mayor is a very shady and nontransparent process. The council can in theory choose the candidate it wants, but the CvdK has a lot of influence on the process. In the Provinces Act we can read that the CvdK is appointed in a similar manner as a mayor, after a recommendation by the States-Provincial, the legislative assembly of the Dutch provinces. Why does the CvdK have to interfere with the appointment of mayors? The appointment of ministers is also done by the political parties which form the government after House elections, without external interference. Besides, the political signature of the CvdK can be very different from the political signature of the municipal council. Imagine a council in the province of Zeeland, part of the bible belt and filled with Christian parties. They have to deal with a CvdK, Han Polman, of the very progressive party D66. Maybe this man is very objective, but I can imagine that the political differences can lead to a very manipulative interference with appointment procedures for mayors.

There also is a huge difference between the political parties which occupy municipal councils and the party membership of appointed mayors. In the results of the last municipal elections, the local parties won in most municipalities. Yet, 83 percent of al mayors are members of respectively the VVD (30%), the PvdA (27%) and the CDA (27%). In Amsterdam, GroenLinks is the largest party and Femke Halsema of the same party was appointed as the mayor, but in Utrecht Jan van Zanen of the VVD is mayor while the council’s ruling coalition consists of GroenLinks (largest party), D66 and ChristenUnie. There is a huge gap between the political signature of the council and the mayor. The appointment of the mayor for six years and that appointment not being synchronous with the council elections makes the gap even larger.

Then there is the important question, why would would you want to elect the mayor? The most important responsibilities of the job lie in public order and security. Some, especially the mayors themselves, consider this a technocratic affair devoid of politics. The cliche that mayors stand “above the parties” is used often. But is that the case? Femke Halsema (mayor in Amsterdam and left-wing GroenLinks member) doesn’t prioritize enforcement of the burqa ban. Pauline Krikke (mayor in The Hague and member of the right-wing VVD) scorns demonstration rights. It seems logical to me that for example the enthusiasm for the legalization of marijuana and a fireworks ban run along similar lines in the left- and right-wing political scale, even though I can’t find evidence for that. This illustrates that public order and security do have a political signature.

Apart from that the voters could punish or reward a mayor by refusing or granting them a new term. I think many inhabitants of The Hague’s Scheveningen district would want to do away with Pauline Krikke after her blunder with the bonfires during the last New Year’s Eve. Without the means to do so, I can see it happen that Krikke gets another term or a job as mayor elsewhere.

The Dutch Association of Mayors had written a letter to the Senate before the vote to, surprise, convince them to vote against the change of the constitution. They may be right that you can’t consider the function of the mayor in isolation from the other bodies in the municipality. But their statement that a problem analysis and vision of the future for the position of the mayor should be made first doesn’t hold. The appointment of the mayor was only moved from the constitution to the Municipalities Act, nothing has changed de facto yet. Now we can have the discussion on the problem analysis and the vision for the future. If we had waited for that first, the process would take much longer due to the complicated change to the constitution. There would have been a complete lack of progress. Again they boast of the “independent position, above the parties and between the inhabitants” of the mayor. I think I’ve made it sufficiently clear such a claim is very dubious. The letter breathes demophobia, the fear that they can no longer get their appointments for mayor positions through the ‘party cartel’ (to use the words of the populist right-wing Forum for Democracy party).

How should it be done? Outside the Netherlands there is plenty of experience with elected mayors. I imagine the job can be shaped in analogy to the prime minister at the municipal level. That would make the mayor the political leader of the college of mayor and aldermen. Just like the House of Representatives, the coalition of governing parties in the municipal council can decide amongst themselves who becomes the mayor and the term for the mayor matches that of the council. Direct election by the inhabitants could work, but then there might be a risk of the mayor not being able to collaborate with the coalition if the mayor’s job takes on a more political character. Now the question is if and when D66 and other parties can finish the job and compose legislation to actually change the appointment procedure.

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