Learn About the Council-Manager Form of Government

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In the council-manager form of city government, the city council makes laws and broad policy decisions for the city manager and staff to carry out. According to the International City/County Management Association, the council-manager form of government “combines the strong political leadership of elected officials with the strong managerial experience of an appointed manager or administrator.

All power and authority to set policy rest with an elected governing body, which includes a mayor or chairperson and members of the council, commission, or board. The governing body, in turn, hires a nonpartisan manager who has very broad authority to run the organization.”​

Use of the Council-Manager Form of Government

The council-manager form of government was created to fight corruption and unethical behavior by fostering professionalism, transparency, responsiveness, and accountability. To the greatest extent possible, council-manager cities and counties separate the political nature of law and policy making with the apolitical nature of implementation.

This form of government is used in cities and counties large and small. Most small cities use the council-manager form of government. Some large cities have retained a strong mayor form of government to effectively deal with immense political pressures that come with a large population.

While this form of government was created in the US, its use has spread to other countries. Local governments in Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the United Kingdom have adopted the council-manager system.

Manager

Under the council-manager form of government the city manager functions as the chief executive of the government organization. Like a private sector, CEO does for a company, the city manager oversees the day-to-day operations of the city and serves as the chief advisor to the city council.

In directing daily operations of the city, the manager is responsible for ensuring effective and efficient government service. Every city employee ultimately answers to the city manager, so the manager has the right to hire and fire staff as appropriate and allowable by law.

As the council’s chief policy advisor, the city manager recommends city policy for consideration by the council. The manager has a professional obligation to give complete and unbiased information to the council. The manager consults with department heads and the city attorney to ensure the advice he or she gives is sound.

Council

The city council is the legislative body for the city. Its role is to adopt laws and policies to govern the city. The council leaves implementation up to the city manager and the rest of the city staff.

While the particulars of how council members are elected vary by city, members are always elected by the city’s residents. Direct election ensures that council members are responsive to the people who voted them into office.

Mayor

In most situations, the mayor is a voting member of the city council who has no more authority than any other council member. The mayor presides over council meetings and performs ceremonial duties as outlined in the city charter. Effective mayors exert more influence than their official authority gives them.