Cities 101 -- Forms of Local Government

State capitol building
State capitol building

Background

A municipal charter is the legal document that defines the organization, powers, functions, and essential procedures of the city government. The charter also details the form of municipal government, of which there are historically five forms: council-manager, mayor-council, commission, town meeting and representative town meeting.

Council-Manager

Characteristics include:

  • City council oversees the general administration, makes policy, sets budget
  • Council appoints a professional city manager to carry out day-to-day administrative operations
  • Often the mayor is chosen from among the council on a rotating basis    

This is the most common form of government. According to surveys by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), this form of government has grown from 48% usage in 1996 to 55% usage in 2006. It is most popular in cities with populations over 10,000, mainly in the Southeast and Pacific coast areas. Some examples are Phoenix, Arizona; Topeka, Kansas; San Antonio, Texas, and Rockville, Maryland. 

Mayor-Council

Characteristics include: 

  • Mayor is elected separately from the council, is often full-time and paid, with significant administrative and budgetary authority
  • Depending on the municipal charter, the mayor could have weak or strong powers
  • Council is elected and maintains legislative powers
  • Some cities appoint a professional manager who maintains limited administrative authority

This is the second most common form of government. It is found mostly (but not exclusively) in older, larger cities, or in very small cities, and is most popular in the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest. Cities with variations in the mayor-council form of government are New York, New York; Houston, Texas; Salt Lake City, Utah, and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Commission

Characteristics include:

  • Voters elect individual commissioners to a small governing board
  • Each commissioner is responsible for one specific aspect, such as fire, police, public works, health, finance
  • One commissioner is designated as chairman or mayor, who presides over meetings
  • The commission has both legislative and executive functions

The commission form of city government is the oldest form of government in the U.S., but exists today in less than 1% of cities. Portland, Oregon operates under a city commission form of government.

Town Meeting

Characteristics include:

  • All voters meet to decide basic policy and elect officials to carry out those policies

Although the town meeting form of government is generally viewed as the purest form of democracy, because it allows all eligible voters a voice in local policy decisions, it is practiced in only about 5% of municipalities. 

The town meeting form of government is found in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

Representative Town Meeting

Characteristics include:

  • Voters select a large number of citizens to represent them at town meetings, where only they can vote
  • Each town meeting must be announced with a warrant that provides the date, time and location of the meeting and specifies the items to be discussed
  • The selectmen are responsible for implementing policy

This form of government is found in less than 1% of cities, almost exclusively in small, New England municipalities, such as Lexington, Massachusetts. 

Current Trends

Recent examinations of government structure indicate that these forms of government are less distinct that they once were. This is due, in part, to the common practice of incorporating structural features from other forms into one's current form. This mixing is also attributed to local responses to socioeconomic, demographic, and political changes. The most common mixing occurs across the two most prevalent forms, mayor-council and the council-manager. In instances when changes are made to form and structure, the more common reasons for making such a change include increasing or decreasing the number of council members, modifying the method of electing the mayor, and changing the authority of the mayor.        

The Form of Government in Selected Large Cities

Listed below is the form of government for a selected list of large cities in the United States. Note the geographic variation as well as the variation even within an individual state.

Northeast Cities and Mid-Atlantic

  • Boston, MA, Mayor-Council
  • New York, NY, Mayor-Council
  • Philadelphia, PA, Mayor-Council
  • Washington, DC, Mayor-Council
  • Baltiimore, MD, Mayor-Council

Southern Cities

  • Memphis, TN, Mayor-Council
  • Nashville-Davidson, TN, Mayor-Council
  • Louisville-Jefferson Cty, KY, Mayor-Council
  • Charlotte, NC, Council-Manager
  • Jacksonville, FL, Mayor-Council

Texas Cities

  • El Paso, TX, Council-Manager
  • Fort Worth, TX, Council-Manager
  • San Antonio, TX, Council-Manager
  • Austin, TX, Council-Manager
  • Dallas, TX, Council-Manager
  • Houston, TX, Mayor-Council

Midwest Cities

  • Chicago, IL, Mayor-Council
  • Detroit, MI, Mayor-Council
  • Indianapolis, IN, Mayor-Council
  • Columbus, OH, Mayor-Council
  • Milwaukee, WI, Mayor-Council

Rocky Mountains and West

  • Los Angeles, CA, Mayor-Council
  • Phoenix, AZ, Council-Manager
  • San Diego, CA, Mayor-Council
  • San Jose, CA, Council-Manager
  • San Francisco, CA, Mayor-Council
  • Seattle, WA, Mayor-Council
  • Denver, CO, Mayor-Council
  • Portland, OR, Commission
  • Las Vegas, NV, Council-Manager
     

Sources

Barnes, William R. "Forms and Structure of Municipal Government in the United States." Presentation to the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, Edinburgh, Scotland, October 24, 1991.

DeSantis,Victor S. and Tari Renner. "City Government Structures: an Attempt at Classification." State and Local Government Review, 34(2) (Spring 2002).

Frederickson, H. George, Curtis Wood, and Brett Logan. "How American City Governments Have Changed: The Evolution of the Model City Charter" National Civic Review 90(1) (2001).

Frederickson, H. George, and Gary Alan Johnson. "The Adapted American City: A Study in Institutional Dynamics."  Urban Affairs Review 36(6) (July 2001).

Krane, Dale, Platon Rigos, & Melvin B. Hill, Jr. Home Rule in America: A Fifty-State Handbook. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2001.

Moulder, Evelina. "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.

National League of Cities. Choices of the Citizenry: Forms of Municipal Government. Washington, DC: National League of Cities, May 1989.

Svara, James H. "The Shifting Boundary Between Elected Officials and City Managers in Large Council-Manager Cities" Public Administration Review 59(1) (January-February 1999).

Svara, James H. Two Decades of Continuity and Change in American City Councils. Washington, D.C.: National League of Cities, September 2003.

 

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