Does the Structure of Local Government Matter?

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December 7, 2017
Benjamin Zimmermann

Depending on where you live, the overall successes or failures of local government are typically pinned on either a city manager or mayor. City managers exist in a council-manager form of government and mayors in a mayor-council, or “strong mayor” government. Since many U.S. residents are not intimately familiar with government organizational structures, nor do many critically compare them, this distinction is not widely known. What are some of the differences between these forms of government, and to what extent should aspiring leaders in local government weigh these differences while pursuing career opportunities?

Structures of Local Government

Just as there are different subtypes of government entities at the state level – commonwealths and states – there are also varieties of local government. While commonwealths and states are functionally no different, at the local level these differences have implications for organization and administration. The International City/County Management Association (ICMA) classifies local governments into five forms: council-manager, mayor-council, commission, town meeting, and representative town meeting. Council-manager and mayor-council are the two most prominent.

Comparing Council-Manager and Mayor-Council Structures

Council-manager governments feature a popularly elected council that is responsible for policy making. This council then elects one of its own members to be the chairperson (sometimes referred to as the mayor) and appoints a city manager to oversee the city’s daily operations. In this arrangement, city managers are empowered to make appointments and critical managerial decisions. A main benefit of this form of government is that the day-to-day operations are largely insulated from politics. In a 2006 survey, 55% of city governments identified as council-manager, making it the most common form of local government in the U.S.

The next largest subtype of local government is the mayor-council structure, which in 2006 comprised 34% of U.S. city governments. Mayor-council governments also have an elected council, but a popularly elected mayor provides executive leadership rather than an appointed city manager. The mayor often appoints a city administrator or managing director to oversee daily operations. Since this administrator or director is selected by the mayor, their tenure is prone to align with the mayoral cycle. This is in contrast to the council-manager structure, where the city manager appointment is not necessarily tightly aligned with any political cycle.

Functionally speaking, a chief administrator or managing director in a mayor-council form of government may sound the same as a city manager in a council-manager form of government, but this is not the case. In the former, the appointee reports to the popularly elected mayor. In the latter, the city manager reports to the council more broadly. In the mayor-council form of government a mayor can make managerial changes swiftly, so the chief administrator is incentivized to perform well in the eyes of the mayor. Alternatively, council-manager governments are designed to encourage city managers to perform to the liking of a larger group of elected officials with diverse priorities – the council. The implication being that city managers are often more stably positioned to execute their work.

Generally speaking, mayor-council governments are more prominent in older and larger cities, as well as cities located in the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest. In fact, of the 30 largest U.S. cities, only nine are council-manager, with all but one of those nine cities being in California, Nevada, Arizona, or Texas.

Does the Form of Government Matter?

The 103rd ICMA Annual Conference recently took place in San Antonio. Founded in 1914, ICMA is the preeminent association through which city, town, and county managers can access key resources, products, and services to help them better manage their governments. With more than 10,000 members, ICMA continues to impact government management practices throughout the world. ICMA’s primary membership is public-sector professionals in council-manager structured governments.

Longtime ICMA members are well-versed in the various forms of local government and often prefer the council-manager structure. However, several conversations led me to note that many first-time attendees at the conference, who are admittedly less experienced, did not hold such strong preferences.

In response to a newer member noting they had not lived in a council-manager city, an aspiring city manager from California responded, “so you’ve never lived in a well-run city?” The comment was half in jest, but the Californian clearly believed there was a good bit of truth behind it. In a separate conversation, someone questioned the potential for mayor-council cities to be managed responsibly: “I just don’t understand how anyone can be comfortable living in a city without a city manager. Without one, who in the world can be relied upon to balance short and long-term interests of citizens?”

It is evident that many ICMA members revere the council-manager government structure. As a new generation of city managers seek to help lead their cities into the future, it is important for public leaders to evaluate what form of government is best suited for their city. It is a complex question but one necessary for aspiring public-sector professionals to consider as they begin their careers.

A Governing article from 2012 notes that cities are not set in their existing government structure; in fact, many municipal governments have changed forms since the 1940s. As cities grow, particularly those with populations hovering under 100,000, many opt to change from mayor-council to council-manager. The logic being that good management is a professional skill, and not one that all politicians wield well. Conversely, many of the U.S.’s largest cities have switched from council-manager to mayor-council.

Cities with both forms of government are beginning to more fully understand their strengths and weaknesses. In an attempt to attract more tenured public-sector management professionals, more and more mayor-council cities are using managing directors and city administrators. Similarly, many council-manager governments recognize that strong political leadership is an asset not to be neglected. Aspiring local government leaders should not become wed to either form. Rather, they must critically assess the merits and drawbacks of any structure of government, and actively pursue managerial solutions that enhance the performance of their own government, whatever its structure may be. 

Fels Institute of Government

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