What You Need to Know about How City Councils Work to Create Policy


Many people would like to get more involved in politics, especially at the local level. Local decision-makers have an extremely large impact on our everyday lives even if this form of politics does not receive as much media attention as it does on the federal level.

One of the biggest hurdles to getting involved with local politics is understanding how these smaller systems work. Cities can have their governments set up in several different ways, so it is important to figure out the type of legislation in place where you live as well as the main figures influencing decisions.

However, one of the key parts of government in any city is the city council. The city council consists of elected officials who collectively act as the legislative body for the jurisdiction. Members of the council represent the voices of their constituents in proposing, passing, and executing local laws and ordinances. Also, city councils are responsible for managing the budget and investigating city agencies.

The Process of Becoming a City Council Member

The exact requirements necessary to run for city council vary, but most have laws about age, citizenship, and residency. Virtually all city councils have term limits, as well, but these too can vary between jurisdictions. Cities may have single-member districts or hold at-large elections.

In single-member districts, the city is divided geographically and citizens vote for a council member to represent their specific district alone. This system ensures that different parts of the city all get a voice in the government. For at-large elections, all citizens in the city vote for candidates who, in turn, represent everyone living there. Unfortunately, this system can lead to disproportionate power.

Another possibility is holding both district and at-large elections. With this method, there are typically more single-member district seats than at-large. This system ensures that all geographic parts of the city get a voice while providing representatives who are responsible for thinking of the city as a whole.

The Relationship between the City Council and Mayor

City councils interact with the city’s mayor, but how this is done depends on the chosen form of government. A common choice is a council-manager system, which counts the mayor as first among equals members of the city council. In most cities, the mayor is an elected official, although some jurisdictions require the mayor to be chosen from the sitting council members.

Another is the strong mayor system, in which the mayor acts as a chief operating officer of the government, meaning they carry out the laws and policies created by the city council. Mayors may or may not have veto power in this particular setup. Often, the influence of the mayor is much greater than their actual power.

How Council Members Create New Laws

Despite these differences, the majority of councils follow a very similar process in terms of creating and enacting legislation. Typically, the entire process starts with committee meetings. Council members bring issues to the table during these meetings and talk about proposed legislation. After the committees weigh in on the possible policies, the council will meet with the mayor and collectively decide which bills should be given more consideration. Then, they hold meetings that are open to constituents living in the city. At these meetings, residents offer their opinions and thoughts on the bills. Attending these meetings is a great way to get involved with local politics and influence new policies in your city. Following these meetings, the council collectively decides on which bills get approved and which need revision.

Once the council approves a piece of proposed legislation, the bills are then presented to the mayor, who reviews them. Depending on the policies of the city, the mayor will sign them into law or veto them. In cities where the mayor can veto the decision, the council can override it. During this process, there may be revisions to the legislation that makes it more acceptable to all interested parties. Once everyone agrees to pass the legislation, the clerk will publish the final policy with the date at which it goes into effect.

Other Responsibilities of Council Members

Beyond legislation, council members have a responsibility to be advocates for their districts (or all citizens if they are at-large representatives). Council members need to respond to constituent requests and bring their concerns before the entire council for further consideration. For example, citizens may ask for the construction of new parks or the repair of dilapidated streets or sidewalks. Council members can secure some tax revenue for repairs in the event of a natural disaster and act as liaisons with their constituents during the repair process. Sometimes, council members also approve zoning laws and other building code issues depending on the level of influence and power they have in a particular jurisdiction.

Published by Rachel Lader

Rachel Lader recently completed her Juris Doctor (JD) on a scholarship at New York Law School. While earning her degree, she participated in a study abroad program at Birkbeck, University of London. Complementing her education, Rachel Lader has worked in multiple internships in the legal sector.

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