Municipal governments play a crucial role in the Canadian political system, serving as a democratic mechanism to address public problems at the community level. Municipalities are governed by a stable executive body—the council—which is empowered by electoral mandate to make and enforce binding decisions for the population and territory within its jurisdiction, and these decisions are backed up by the police powers of the state. Elected officials debate and sanction policy proposals in a legislative chamber, the proceedings of which are transparent and accessible. A public treasury generated largely through local taxes and fees is used to fund chosen priorities, and a permanent, politically neutral bureaucracy implements the decisions of the political executive. Local politicians, motivated by a need to attract and sustain electoral support, are sensitive to public opinion and responsive to the demands of individuals and pressure groups, who use various channels to articulate their interests and employ a range of tactics to communicate their policy preferences. In sum, municipal governance has most of the structural features found at higher levels of government that enable the effective translation of public needs and wants into legitimate courses of action.
Municipalities differ from other levels of government in several important respects, however. First, unlike the federal and provincial governments, whose legal powers are enumerated in Canada's constitution, municipal governments have no sovereign authority: their powers, functional responsibilities and access to sources of operating revenue are specifically delegated by provincial statute (Sancton, 2000). Second, provincial legislation often imposes legal and financial obligations on local governments, which are expected to serve as administrative agents in implementing provincial policy directives (Fowler & Siegel, 2002, pp. 8–9). Third, municipal policy decisions are subject not only to legal challenge by aggrieved parties who perceive them to be ultra vires, but also to political challenge by those who seek to shift the locus of decision-making by appealing to provincial authorities to intervene (Frisken, 1997). Fourth, due to their closer proximity to residents and stakeholders, municipal policymakers are less insulated from the narrow interests of small groups of outspoken citizens who represent extreme views on issues (Trautman, 2016). Finally, due in part to provincial legislation that requires open meetings, the policy process of municipal governments is more open to public participation and scrutiny (Siegel, 1994).