What is the council-manager form of government?

 
Basic description

In Washington state, council-manager government combines the strong political leadership of elected officials with the strong administrative experience of a professional manager. All power and authority to set policy rests with an elected governing body, the city council, which includes an elected mayor as a voting member of the council. The governing body in turn hires a nonpartisan manager who has broad authority to run the executive branch of city government, including managing all city staff.

In Washington, the council-manager form of government for code cities like Langley is governed by Chapter 35A.13 of the Revised Code of Washington.

The name “council-manager” suggests that the council-manager form has no mayor. In fact, the role of an elected mayor is an essential part of the council-manager form, with the mayor’s role focussed on community leadership. Please see “What are the main differences between the two forms?” for more on the mayor’s role and how he or she is elected.

The council-manager form is distinctly different from a parliamentary system, where the chief executive (prime minister) and the department heads (ministers) are usually elected members of parliament. In the council-manager form, there are no elected officials in the executive branch, which helps staff avoid getting caught up in disputes between elected officials.

The closest parallels to other types of organizations are with businesses and membership organizations where:

  • the voters are like the shareholders or members
  • the council is like the board of directors
  • the mayor is like the chair of the board
  • the city manager is like the CEO or executive director

Of course, because council-manager is a form of local government, it has all of the public process and other state-law requirements that are unique to governments.

History

The council-manager form was developed in the U.S. in the early 20th century, with Staunton, Virginia credited as the first city appointing a city manager in 1908. Staunton was moved to adopt this innovation because their system of direct management by elected officials simply wasn’t getting things done. Others liked what they saw in Staunton and the form spread to other cities.

Popularity

After over a hundred years of use, it is now the most common form of government for cities with populations of 2,500 or more. It is as modern and as American as other early 20th century innovations like cars, airplanes, and electric appliances.

Over 4,000 cities in the U.S. use the council-manager form, including 135 cities with populations of less than one thousand, 301 cities with populations between one and two thousand, and 3,647 cities with populations of two and a half thousand or more. More than 92 million people live in these cities. (Please see “Is Langley big enough for the council-manager form?” for more details.) This council-manager form is also in use by more than 370 counties nationwide.

In Washington, council-manager is the most popular form for mid-sized cities and the most common form adopted by newly incorporating cities (16 to 1) and by cities changing from another form (20 to 10). The following chart gives the statistics from MRSC for changes of form in Washington cities from 1970 to 2009:

 

Type of change To Council-Manager To Mayor-Council
Incorporating 16 1
Changing from Commission 3 2
Changing from Council-Manager 8
Changing from Mayor-Council 17
Totals 36 11

 

Next: What are the main differences between the two forms?