A Breakdown of How Your Local Government Operates

A local politician preparing to give a speech.

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City governments provide many services to their citizens. They fight fires, solve crimes, pick up household garbage and repair potholes just to name a few things.

They accomplish these tasks by employing individuals to perform specific job functions. No matter what the size of a city government, it needs people in charge who have the authority to set a vision, make big decisions and direct how vision and decisions are to be implemented.

Citizens do not have the time to study an issue and cast a ballot each time a decision needs to be made, so citizens elect mayors and city council members to represent their interests in city matters. These elected people are charged to act in accordance with the authority provided to their offices.

How a Council-Manager Gets Elected

Who exactly is in charge depends on which form of government a city organizes itself under. The form dictates which elected and appointed offices must be filled and how the individuals holding those offices interact with one another. The two most common forms of city government are the council-manager and strong mayor systems.

In the council-manager form of government, the city council members are elected by the citizens. The members can be elected by districts, at large or in some combination of the two. The city council adopts and amends local ordinances within the boundaries of state law and the city’s founding document usually called the city charter.

Duties of the Mayor and City Manager

The mayor is most often directly elected by the citizens, but the process of choosing a mayor varies from city to city. The mayor presides over the city council, but other than some ceremonial duties, the mayor has little or no more power than any other council member. The city council hires a city manager to make the day-to-day decisions and direct city staff. The manager advises the council on big decisions, but those decisions are ultimately made by the council. Local voters hold council members accountable for those decisions.

In the strong mayor form of government, the city council still makes the big decision; however, the mayor is a much more influential figure. City manager positions do not exist in strong mayor cities. Like the city manager in the council-manager system, the mayor makes day-to-day decisions and oversees city staff. But unlike the mayor in the council-manager system, the mayor in a strong mayor system has more power than an individual council member. In some cities, the mayor has veto power over council decisions.

A mayor may choose to appoint a deputy mayor to handle internal issues while the mayor focuses on politics and external affairs. If the mayor aligns all or most city staff under the deputy mayor, the deputy mayor functions much like a city manager.

The Role of Voters

Voters are ultimately in charge in either form of government. Elected and appointed officials must be cognizant of the city’s political environment. Failing to predict the political fallout from decisions accurately can bring a quick end to an elected official’s time in office or a city manager’s tenure in a particular city.

Department heads feel the political implications of a city’s form of government. These directors either report to the city manager in the council-manager system or the mayor in the strong mayor system. While city managers keep politics in mind, they are public administrators by profession and therefore tend to have a better understanding of operational issues and can better advise their direct reports on handling operational problems.

Lower level staff may not notice a difference since their primary objective is to keep their immediate supervisors satisfied. Who is in charge becomes a much more subjective issue the lower down the organizational chart. The parks and recreation director certainly know the city’s power structure, but a recreation coordinator may have no idea how the wheels of local government turn.