In a council-manager government, an elected city council, which serves as the city's primary legislative body, appoints a chief executive officer called a city manager to oversee day-to-day municipal operations, to draft a budget and to implement and enforce the council's policy and legislative initiatives.
Most council-manager governments also feature a mayor, who is usually elected at-large and holds the distinction of officially representing the city on the state, national and international levels. However, unlike in a strong mayor-council government, the mayor is a regular voting member of city council with little or no exceptional legal privileges that may distinguish him or her from other council members.
One of the best ways to understand council-manager governments is to see the different characteristics and responsibilities of the city-manager, city council and mayor. All three work together to balance and pass a budget, to draft and enforce legislation, to provide basic city services and to oversee city departments and appoint departmental heads.
- Appointed and dismissed by city council.
- Responsible for drafting and proposing a balanced city budget.
- Responsible for amending the city budget as dictated by city council.
- Responsible for appointing departmental heads and directors (sometimes with the approval of city council).
- Responsible for implementing and enforcing council policies and legislative initiatives.
- Elected to two or four year terms either by district or at-large.
- Responsible for appointing a city-manager.
- Responsible for drafting and passing legislation and city ordinances.
- Responsible for approving the city budget proposed by the city-manager.
- Generally elected at-large to two or four year terms.
- Votes at city-council meetings.
- Does not possess veto powers.
- Officially represents the city on the state, national and international levels.
The city-manager is not an elected position. Rather, the holder of this office serves at the pleasure of the council, which retains the legal right to dismiss and replace the city-manager. The hiring process for a city-manager is comparable to that of a corporate CEO. It begins with general discussions amongst city council members, often in consultation with voters and professional consultants. After an a hiring notice is drafted and distributed to professional organizations, the process then moves to a multistage interview process that includes a review of applications and onsite interviews with qualified candidates. The process ends with a vote taken by city council.
The origins of council-manager government in the United States can be found in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Then, most cities utilized a weak mayor-council form of municipal government in which all executive, legislative and administrative powers were invested in city councils. Though most of these governments also featured a mayor, the role was primarily a ceremonial one with duties that included ribbon-cutting events and presiding over official city events such as festivals and parades.
In the late nineteenth century, cities began experimenting with other types of municipal government. In fact, a reform movement took hold in cities all throughout the United States in response to what many saw as the inefficiency of early weak mayor-council governments and their failure to break the power of the political bosses and machines that, at the time, dominated American politics. One development that emerged out of this reform movement was the strong mayor-council government, in which executive and administrative power was removed from city council and placed in the hands of an at-large elected mayor. Another development, however, was the council-manager government in which city councils were required to hire a professional administrator, who would be responsible for municipal finances, the implementation and enforcement of law and basic city administration.
Council-manager government is a highly popular form of municipal government, especially in cities with populations between 10,000 and 500,000 citizens. Based on quinquennial data gathered by the International City/County Management Association, as of 2011 approximately 59% of cities in the United States utilize the council-manager system (See Figure 1).
Political scientists and policy analysts have viewed the popularity of the council-manager form of government as indicative of a growing trend toward professionalization in municipal administration. State laws and transparency and accountability organizations are often cited as the catalysts of this trend.
- International City/Council Management Association, "Professional Local Government Management," accessed on November 26, 2014
- National League of Cities, "Forms of Municipal Government," accessed on November 26, 2014
- DeSantis, V.S. & Renner, T. "City Government Structures: An Attempt at Clarification," in State & Local Government Review, Vol. 34, No. 2, Spring, 2002 (pages 96-97)
- Kweit, R. & Kweit M.G. (1999) People and Politics in Urban America. London: Routledge (pages 181-185)
- Goldfield, D. (2007) Encyclopedia of American Urban History. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publicans, Inc. (pages 454-456)
- Frederickson, G.H, Logan, B. & Wood, C., "Municipal Reform in Mayor-Council Cities: A Well Kept Secret," in State and Local Government Review, Vol. 35, No. 1, Winter, 2003 (pages 7-9)
- International City/County Management Association, "Municipal Form of Government Survey Summary 2011," accessed on November 18, 2014
- International City/County Management Association, "Municipal Form of Government Survey Summary 2006," accessed on November 18, 2014
- Moulder, E. "Municipal Form of Government: Trends in Structure, Responsibility, and Composition," in The Municipal Year Book 2008. Washington, D.C.: International City/County Management Association, 2008 (pages 27-28)
- Frederickson, G.H, Logan, B. & Wood, C., "Municipal Reform in Mayor-Council Cities: A Well Kept Secret," in State and Local Government Review, Vol. 35, No. 1, Winter, 2003 (pages 10-12)