For many people, political knowledge starts at the federal level and perhaps extends down to the state, but getting involved with local politics can be harder to grasp. Part of this problem is that many different ruling figures and bodies have power at the city level, including the mayor, the city council, and the city administrator.
It can get even more complex, as many cities have different structures for their municipal governments. These structures dictate how the different figures and bodies interact with each other, as well as how they are selected. The first step in getting more involved with local politics is to figure out which kind of government your municipality has.
The Mayor-Council Form of Municipal Government
The mayor-council form of municipal government has emerged as one of the most popular in the United States. This is the form of government used by Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and other major cities. With this form of municipal government, the mayor is elected by the general public and serves as the chief administrative officer for the government. A council is elected as well, though this can happen either at the district level or via an at-large election. Some cities have both at-large and district-specific councilmembers, which ensures that the needs of all neighborhoods have representation. The council acts as the legislative body for the city and has the authority to create and initiate city policies. Then, the mayor has the responsibility to execute these policies. While the mayor oversees council meetings, they only vote in the event of a tie.
The veto power of a mayor in this system is dependent on the specific policies of the city. Often, the city charter spells out veto authority. Mayors may have no veto power or may be able to stop legislation provided that the council does not override it with a specified majority. Mayor-council cities often have city administrators who serve under the mayor and focus on city management so that the mayor can have more of a political leadership role and contribute to policy development.
The Council-Manager Form of Municipal Government
Another popular system in the United States is the council-manager form of government, which has been embraced by Phoenix, Dallas, San Jose, Austin, and other major cities. With this system, the city’s residents elect a city council, which holds all responsibility for policymaking. The council then appoints a city manager, who has administrative responsibilities. This manager can offer policy advice while directing the city’s daily operations. In addition, the manager oversees all city personnel and has the power to appoint and remove employees. The council-manager form prevents the council from interfering with the manager’s administration. However, the city manager can be removed by a majority vote from the council at any time if that body deems the manager’s work unsatisfactory.
The council-manager setup is meant to mirror how a business is run. The board of directors is similar to a city council and the city manager is like a CEO. These cities still have mayors, but they are typically selected from and by the council itself. However, sometimes, the mayor does get elected directly by citizens. The mayor is the head of the city for ceremonial purposes but does not have actual administrative responsibilities.
The Commission Form of Municipal Government
The third most popular type of municipal government in the United States is the commission form. The best example of this type of government is Portland, Oregon. The commission form used to be much more popular in the 20th century, but the council-manager structure has since taken prominence.
With a commission form, commissioners are elected by the general public. These commissioners work together to function as the legislative body of the city. However, each of the commissioners also stands as the head of a specific city department. For example, there is often a commissioner of public safety, who doubles as mayor, as well as a commissioner of finance and a commissioner of public works. These titles can vary between cities.
Importantly, while one of the elected commissioners will have the title of mayor, that person does not have any additional power compared to the other commissioners who have been elected. The mayor in this setup has no veto power nor any administrative responsibilities outside of the department that he or she oversees. All decisions are made based on a majority vote involving all commissioners.
Other Forms of Municipal Government
Outside of these major forms of municipal government, there are a few less-common structures found throughout the United States. For example, some cities have a town meeting structure, in which all voters weigh in on basic policy decisions and the elections of officials meant to carry out policies. While this may be the purest form of democracy in the entire list, fewer than 5 percent of municipalities in the United States use this structure.
Another option is the representative town meeting, in which voters select representatives who then vote on policies and for elected officials. Fewer than 1 percent of cities in the United States use this structure, and virtually all of them are small towns in New England.