A city commission government is a form of municipal government in which individually elected officials serve on a small governing board, called a commission, that exercises both legislative and executive powers to govern the municipality. The commission contains a specified number of members, often 5 or 7. Usually, commission members are elected on an at-large basis, rather than from wards or districts. Apart from the legislative role of the commission, each commissioner is administratively responsible for at least one specific aspect or department, such as fire, police, public works, health or finance. One commissioner may be given the title of mayor or chairman/woman. This position is largely symbolic apart from presiding over meetings. The commission form is sometimes referred to as the Galveston Plan, after the town in Texas where it originated in 1901.
The commission form is one of the five historical forms of municipal government in the United States. The others are mayor-council, council-manager, open town meeting and representative town meeting. A city's form of government and distribution of powers may be determined by state law, the city's charter or local ordinances. The commission form of government is rarely used today in the United States. According to surveys by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), as of 2011 only 1% of cities use the commission form of government.
Advantages and disadvantages
The first commission government was implemented in Galveston, Texas in 1901. It came about as a reaction to the Galveston hurricane of 1900. Business leaders did not believe the current city council was effective enough to provide a proper recovery effort. They desired a more centralized, efficient governing body, and successfully lobbied the Governor to appoint a commission. The commissioner positions were soon altered to be elective. This structure of government spread rapidly throughout Texas and other states between 1901 and 1920. Initially, it was embraced by progressives and reformers already pushing for a structure that was more centralized, combined legislative and administrative authorities and had at-large elections. However, progressives also sought to implement developing theories of scientific management and principles of business administration into local government. The rise of the council-manager form of government met this central aim, and soon eclipsed the commission form.Below are some often cited advantages and disadvantages of this form of local government.
- Those who favor this structure for government contend that because power is concentrated in one set of individuals, decisions can be made quicker without all the “checks and balances” that typically delay action in the other structures;
- Has worked well in emergency situations;
- Simple organizational structure; and
- Swift direct implementation of policy.
- Unfortunately, time has often proven this form of government does not live up to its stated benefits. Rather than quicker decisions, there is more often deadlock and inaction with department heads acting in the narrow interests of their own department rather than the city government as a whole;
- It often lacks effective leadership since leadership is shared at a departmental level;
- Lack of strong, effective political leadership
- It encourages departmental parochialism, making general administrative reorganization difficult to achieve.
- Mayor-council government
- Council-manager government
- Open town meeting
- Representative town meeting
- General law local government
- Chartered local government
- Home rule
- Center for Government Research, "Models of City Government"
- City Mayors Foundation, "Mayors play the central role in US municipal government"
- National League of Cities, Forms of Municipal Government
- ICMA Municipal Form of Government Survey 2011 Summary
- Texas State Historical Association, "Commission Form of Government"
- http://icma.org/en/icma/knowledge_network/blogs/blogpost/130/Stereotypes_in_CouncilManager_Governments_part_1_of_5 ICMA, "Stereotypes in Council-Manager governments"]
- South Carolina Civic Project