Council-Manager or "Strong Mayor"
THE CHOICE IS CLEAR
Everyone wants strong political leadershipneighborhoods,
civic leaders, and the business community included. And today's
complex communities cannot succeed without the guidance of effective
mayors who provide a sense of direction and contribute to the
smooth functioning of a local government.
But communities also need thoughtful, dedicated
council members, who work with the mayor to establish appropriate
policy, and competent, professional managers to carry out those
policies. None of the three are mutually exclusive; they can and
do work together in many of the country's successful council-manager
Today council-manager government is the fastest
growing form of government in the United States; it frees up the
elected body to establish policy, which is carried out by an appointed
manager and an administrative staff. The manager is accountable
to the entire council for the satisfactory implementation of council
policy and the day-to-day administration of municipal affairs.
There are compelling reasons why many of the
nation's most successful cities and towns have adopted council-manager
government rather than the "strong-mayor" form. Council-manager
government encourages neighborhood input into the political process,
diffuses the power of special interests, and eliminates partisan
politics from municipal hiring, firing, and contracting decisions.
People who take time to learn the facts about
council-manager government are likely to join the ranks of those
who favour this popular form. Consider the following when deciding
which form of government is best for your community:
Neighborhoods Strengthen Their Voice
The council-manager form encourages open communication
between citizens and their government. Under this form, each member
of the governing body has an equal voice in policy development
and administrative oversight. This gives neighborhoods and diverse
groups a greater opportunity to influence policy.
Under the "strong mayor" form, all
political power is concentrated in the mayor, which means that
other members of the elected body relinquish at least some of
their policy-making power and influence. This loss of decision-making
power among council members can have a "chilling" effect
on the voices of neighborhoods and city residents.
The Power of Special Interests is Diffused
Under the council-manager form of government,
involvement of the entire elected body ensures a more balanced
approach to community decision making, so that all interests can
be expressed and heardnot just those that are well funded.
Under the "strong mayor" form, however, it's easier
for special interests to use money and political power to influence
a single elected official, rather than having to secure a majority
of the city council's support for their agenda.
Merit-Based Decision Making Vs. Partisan Politics
Under council-manager government, qualifications
and performanceand not skillful navigation of the political
election processare the criteria the elected body uses
to select a professional manager. The professional manager, in
turn, uses his or her education, experience, and training to appoint
chief department head positions and oversee the local government's
delivery of services. In this way, council-manager government
maintains critical checks and balances to ensure accountability
at city hall.
Functioning much like a business organization's
chief executive officer, the appointed professional manager administers
the daily operations of the community. Through a professional
staff, the manager ensures the effective provision of services
and enforces the policies adopted by the elected body. He or she,
in turn, uses merit as a criteria for making all hiring and personnel
Appointed local government managers have no
guaranteed term of office or tenure. They can be dismissed by
the council at any time, for any reason. As a result, they constantly
must respond to citizens and be dedicated to the highest ideals
of honesty, integrity, and excellence in the management and delivery
of public services.
Under the "strong mayor" form of government,
the day-to-day management of community operations shifts to the
mayor, who generally lacks the appropriate training, education,
and experience in municipal administration and finance to oversee
the delivery of essential community services. Also, under the
"strong mayor" form, the temptation is strong to make
decisions regarding the hiring and firing of key department head
positionssuch as the police chief, public works director,
and finance directorbased on the applicant's political
support rather than his or her professional qualifications.
Many Successful Cities Use Council-Making Government
Council-manager government works! It balance
diverse interests, responds quickly to challenges, and brings
the community together to resolve even the toughest issues.
Currently, more than 71 million Americans live
in council-manager communities, and the system continues to flourish.
This form of government is used by thousands of small, medium,
and large jurisdictions, including San Antonio, Texas; San Diego,
Sacramento, and San Jose, California; and Phoenix, Arizona. Consider
San Jose, California (pop. 835,500)
Long viewed as the "capital" of Silicon
Valley, San Jose uses the council-manager form of government to
successfully manage diverse interests in an environment of rapid
residential and commercial growth.
Phoenix, Arizona (pop. 983,392)
In 1993, Phoenix captured the international
Bartelsmann Award for being one of the best managed cities in
the world. Today, the city continues to maintain its reputation
as a model U.S. community.
Boulder, Colorado (pop. 85,127)
One of the nation's most beautiful and environmentally
conscious communities, the city of Boulder successfully balances
environmental quality with a vibrant business climate.
Dayton, Ohio (182,044)
Dayton enhanced the process of involving citizens
in community decision making by creating neighborhood-based priority
boards to deal with key funding, service and neighborhood issues.
History Argues for the Council-Manager Form of
For more than 80 years, the most popular choice
of U.S. communities has been council-manager government. During
the past dozen years, for example, an average of 44 U.S. cities
annually have adopted the council-manager form, while an average
of only two per year have abandoned it.
Council-manager government, however, was not
always an option. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there
was widespread corruption, graft, and nepotism among U.S. cities.
The stories of New York City's Tammany Hall and Kansas City's
Pendergrast machine are only two examples of the misuse of local
government power during this time.
By the early 20th century, reformers were looking
for ways to return control of municipal government to citizens.
Those reformers advocated the council-manager structure of government
to eliminate the corruption found in many cities. With its emphasis
on professional training and accountability, the council-manager
form of government was adopted by a number of cities in the 1920s
Since that time, council-managers government
has become the most popular form of U.S. local government among
communities with populations of 5,000 or more. It took years to
diffuse the power entrenched in turn-of-the-century city political
machines and special interests. Today, however, citizens throughout
the U.S. have resumed control by adopting or retaining council-manager
government in their community and enjoying representative democracy
at its best.
Prepared by the California City Management Foundation
Funded partially by the ICMA Fund for Professional