Mayor-council governments generally feature an elected executive officer called a mayor and an elected legislative body that is most often known as the city council. Depending on a city’s history or its relationship with the surrounding county, however, the legislative body might go by another name such as an urban-county council, a common council, a board of supervisors or a metro council. Similarly, the number of city council members varies widely. The Madison Common Council, for example, consists of twenty members, while the New York City City Council consists of fifty members.
In a mayor-council government, the mayor and city council work together to balance and pass a budget, to draft and enforce legislation and to oversee city departments and appoint departmental heads. But the dynamics of how the mayor and city council work together depend on the type of mayor-council government that a city uses.
Strong vs. weak mayor-council
Mayor-council government can be broadly divided into two types: strong and weak. The difference centers on the scope of the mayor’s executive authority and legal power.
Strong mayor-council governments reflect the organization of most state governments. The mayor is the city’s chief executive, while city council is the city’s primary legislative body. The general characteristics of the strong mayor-council governments are as follows:
- The mayor may appoint and remove departmental heads.
- The mayor drafts and proposes a budget to city council.
- The mayor possesses veto or line-item veto power.
- The mayor officially represents the city on the state, national and international levels.
- The mayor exercises oversight of the city’s day-to-day operations.
- The mayor enforces city laws and ordinances.
- The mayor is not a member of city council.
In a weak mayor-council government, the executive authority of the mayor is less expansive and more power is shared with the city council. The general characteristics of the weak mayor-council government are as follows:
- City council appoints and approves departmental heads.
- City council (usually in consultation with the mayor or an appointed administrative officer) drafts a budget.
- The mayor possesses limited or no veto power.
- The mayor officially represents the city on the state, national and international levels.
- The mayor shares oversight of the city’s day-to-day operations with city council, an appointed administrative officer or both.
- The mayor works together with city council, an appointed administrative officer or both to enforce laws and ordinances.
- The mayor may be a member of city council or the presiding officer of city council.
There are, of course, forms of mayor-council government that deviate from the strong and weak models. A 2002 study published in the State & Local Government Review, for instance, noted that strong and weak mayor-council governments can each be divided into at least two subcategories:
- (1) Strong mayor-council with an appointed chief administrative officer
- (2) Strong mayor-council without an appointed chief administrative officer
- (3) Weak mayor-council with an appointed chief administrative officer
- (4) Weak mayor-council without an appointed chief administrative officer
The city of Fresno, California offers an illustrative example of subcategory 1. In Fresno, the mayor possesses many of the features that distinguish the strong mayor-council form of government such as veto powers and the authority to draft and propose a budget; but the mayor also appoints a chief administrative officer who is responsible for appointing department heads and overseeing the day-to-day operations of the city.
The city of Houston, Texas offers another form of mayor-council government that deviates from the basic strong vs. weak dichotomy. In Houston, the mayor holds the executive authority and legal powers typical of the strong mayor-council government, but also presides over city council meetings and retains the right to vote at council meetings.
The origins of mayor-council government can be found in the administration of late medieval and early modern English towns. Between 1200 and 1500, some towns obtained municipal charters from English lords or the royal government that granted local elites – exclusively males – the right to elect a mayor and a city council, who were responsible for regulating trade and overseeing local law and order.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the British colonial administration established this same system of municipal government in its North American colonies, albeit with at least one notable difference: while colonists elected their own council members, colonial governors reserved the right to appoint mayors.
Following the American Revolution in the late eighteenth century, local governments in the United States maintained the mayor-council system that they inherited from the British, though the responsibility of appointing mayors shifted from colonial governors to the elected members of city councils.
Throughout much of the early nineteenth century, most American cities and towns utilized the weak form of mayor-council government described above. The position of mayor was predominantly ceremonial and symbolic, while the councils, on the other hand, wielded considerable legislative, financial and executive power. But, as early as the 1840s and 1850s, some cities were already transitioning toward a strong mayor-council government. The scope of mayoral executive authority was growing and several cities began electing mayors at-large instead of allowing city councils to appoint mayors from their own ranks. By the early twentieth century, strong mayor-council governments could be found in many of the country’s largest cities.
What drove this transformation?
Historians generally cite two different factors that shaped the development of strong mayor-council governments throughout the course of the nineteenth century. One was the influence of Jacksonian democratic principles, which advocated for a strong executive branch of government. A second was the inefficiency of early weak mayor-council governments and their failure to break the power of the political bosses and machines that dominated early twentieth-century American politics. Many viewed a strong, elected municipal executive as a key to streamlining the legislative process and curbing political corruption (see the image and caption on the right).
The rapid rise of strong mayor-council governments, however, was short-lived. At the same time that cities throughout the United States were looking to elect strong executives in order to alleviate the political and legal problems of the early twentieth century, the commission and council-manager forms of municipal government were also growing in popularity. Consequently, strong mayor-council government was no longer the sole option for reform and many urban reformers began turning to these other new options.
In the twenty-first century, the strong mayor-council system and reformed versions of the weak mayor-council system remain mildly popular forms of municipal government, especially amongst cities with populations below 10,000 and over 500,000. But many cities with populations between 10,000 and 500,000 have moved toward council-manager government.
Based on quinquennial data gathered by the International City/County Management Association, as of 2011 only 33% of cities in the United States use mayor-council government in one of its various incarnations (see Figure 1). Conversely, approximately 59% of cities utilize the council-manager system.
When we take a look at additional data from the International City/County Management Association, we see that the popularity of mayor-council government has, in fact, been in a state of steady decline, dropping from 53% in 1981 to 33% in 2011 (see Figure 2). Moreover, it has been argued that many mayor-council governments are increasingly employing chief administrative officers, whose powers and responsibilities vary widely from city to city.
Policy experts and political scientists have described these trends as indicative of a shift toward professionalization in municipal administration. State laws and transparency and accountability organizations are often cited as the catalysts for this shift.
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- City of Fresno, "Government," accessed on November 19, 2014
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