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An alderman is a member of a municipal assembly or council in many jurisdictions founded upon English law. The term may be titular, denoting a high-ranking member of a borough or county council, a council member chosen by the elected members themselves rather than by popular vote, or a council member elected by voters.
Similar titles exist in Germany and in Scandinavian countries, such as the German Ältermann, the Swedish Ålderman and the Danish Olderman, which all mean "elder man" or "wise man". It is possible that this harkens back to tribal societies, but since these often lie before written history, it is unknown how far back it goes. An Olderman could be a retired chieftain, or otherwise important member of the tribe that had retired due to old age. It has the advantage of retaining the knowledge of the old leader within a field, without challenging the new leader.
Many local government bodies used the term "alderman" in Australia. As in the way local councils have been modernised in the United Kingdom and Ireland, the term alderman has been discontinued in a number of places. For example, in the state of Queensland before 1994, rural "shires" elected "councillors" and a "chairman", while "cities" elected a "mayor" and "aldermen". Since 1994, all local and regional government areas in Queensland elect a "mayor" and "councillors." (The Brisbane City Council has always had a "Lord Mayor"). An example of the use of the term alderman was in the City of Adelaide. Aldermen were elected from the electors in all the wards.
Historically, in Canada, the term "alderman" was used for those persons elected to a municipal council to represent the wards. As women were increasingly elected to municipal office, the term "councillor" slowly replaced "alderman", although there was some use of the term "alderperson". Today, the title of "alderman" is rarely used except in some cities in Alberta and Ontario as well as some smaller municipalities elsewhere in the country that retain the title for historical reasons.
In the Republic of Ireland, the title was used by the first person elected in a multi-seat local government ward. The Local Government Act 2001 abolished the title as part of a modernisation of local government, and as such, none of the Councillors elected in the local elections of 2004 or later holds the title Alderman.
Although the term originated in England, it had no clear definition there until the 19th century, as each municipal corporation had its own constitution. It was used in England, Wales and Ireland (all of Ireland being part of the U.K. from January 1801 until December 1922), but was not used in Scotland. Under the Municipal Reform Act 1835, municipal borough corporations consisted of councillors and aldermen. Aldermen would be elected not by the electorate, but by the council (including the outgoing aldermen), for a term of six years, which allowed a party that narrowly lost an election to retain control by choosing aldermen. The act was changed in 1910, so that outgoing aldermen were no longer allowed to vote. Aldermen were finally abolished under the Local Government Act 1972 in 1974, except for London boroughs where the position was abolished in 1978. County councils also elected aldermen, but not rural district and urban district councils.
Councils can still create honorary aldermen, often a reward for long service. This award is used much more often in Northern Ireland than in England or Wales. Northern Ireland councils may additionally designate a quarter of their councillors as aldermen.
In the City of London, aldermen are elected for each ward, by the regular electorate, and until recently for life. They form the Court of Aldermen. To be a candidate to be Lord Mayor of the City of London, it is necessary to be an alderman and to have been a sheriff of the City of London.
"Alderman" is used for both men and women and may be prefixed to a person's name (e.g., Alderman John Smith, Alderman Smith or, for women, Alderman Mrs (or Miss) Smith).
"Board of Aldermen" is the governing executive or legislative body of many cities and towns in the United States. The term is sometimes used instead of city council, but it can also refer to an executive board independent of the council, or to what is essentially an upper house of a bicameral legislature (as it was in New York City until the 20th Century). Its members are called "Alderman" or "Alderwoman", while in the State of Wisconsin, the gender neutral term "Alderperson" is officially used. Some cities, such as Chicago, mix the two terms, thereby having a city council composed of aldermen. Some states such as Pennsylvania established aldermen in the 19th century to serve as local judges for minor infractions. Pennsylvania's aldermen were phased out in the early 20th century. In this manner depending on the jurisdiction an alderman could have been part of the legislative or judicial local government. Boards of Aldermen are used in many rural areas of the United States as opposed to a larger city council or city commission.
Alderman is abbreviated as Ald., e.g.,
Ald. Danny Solis (25th) has overhauled the zoning application to spell out the purpose of the zoning change and identify everyone with an interest in the property -- including limited partnerships and liability corporations.—Chicago Sun-Times, 10 Feb 2010
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