What a City Council Is and What It Does

Two people on a dais, one talking into a microphone
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A city council is a group of duly elected officials who serve as the legislative body of a city. Council members—also known as a town council or board of aldermen—are tasked with representing the interests of their constituents. In addition to proposing, passing, and ratifying laws and ordinances, city councils manage budgets and investigate city agencies when necessary.

How Council Members Are Elected

Although the requirements for service may vary from city to city, most metropolitan areas have fundamental age, citizenship, and residential requirements and representation is subject to term limits, which also vary from one jurisdiction to another. 

Council members can be elected in single-member districts or at-large, or in some combination of the two. When council members are elected from single-member districts, the city is divided geographically so that citizens can vote in only one district. This system helps ensure that the issues and problems specific to one part of town are brought to the attention of the entire council. 

All citizens may vote for each city council member race when council members are elected at-large. This system can lead to parts of town being ignored by the city council. When voter turnout is low, it is easy for well-connected, affluent citizens to be elected in at-large races.

When cities employ both methods, some members are elected from a district, and others are elected at-large. Under this method, there is usually more single-member district seats than at-large seats. Some cities place term limits on city council members. When a council member has served the maximum number of years or terms, the council member is prohibited from running for a city council seat in the next election cycle.​

How City Council Members Interact With the Mayor

How a city council interacts with a mayor depends on the city’s form of government. In the council-manager system, the mayor is a “first among equals” member of the city council. Depending on the city charter, the mayor may be elected by the citizens or chosen from among sitting council members. In the strong mayor system, the mayor is the chief operating officer of the city government. Councils enact laws and policies that the mayor carries out. Some mayors have veto power over council decisions. The mayor’s influence often exceeds the mayor’s official powers.

How City Council Members Legislate

Generally, most city councils follow a similar process for developing and enacting legislation. The ball gets rolling with council committee meetings where council members talk about the proposed legislation, which is followed by a meeting with the mayor to determine which bills will be submitted for consideration.

Subsequent to that, the council holds meetings that are open to constituents, who are given the opportunity to weigh in, after which the council decides which bills end up being approved and which get defeated. 

After the council approves the proposed legislation, the bills are then presented to the mayor who reviews them and then signs or vetoes the legislation initiatives. If the council disagrees with the mayor’s decision, they have the ability to override the veto. Once approved by everybody, the clerk publishes the legislation, and the laws or ordinances go into effect.