City Council

What is a City Council?

Two people on a dais, one talking into a microphone
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Definition

A city council is an group of citizens who are individually elected to serve as the city’s legislative body.

Election of Council Members

City council members can be elected in single member districts, at-large or in some combination of the two. When council members are elected from single member districts, the city is divided geographically so that citizens can vote in only one district. This system helps ensure that the issues and problems specific to one part of town are brought to the attention of the entire council.

Ethnic minority candidates are more often elected in single member districts than in at-large races.

All citizens may vote for in each city council member race when council members are elected at-large. This system can lead to parts of town being ignored by the city council. When voter turnout is low, it is easy for well-connected, affluent citizens to be elected in at-large races.

When cities employ both methods, some members are elected from district and others are elected at-large. Under this method there are usually more single member district seats than at-large seats.

Some cities place term limits on city council members. When a council member has served the maximum number of years or terms, the council member is prohibited from running for a city council seat in the next election cycle.

Interaction With the Mayor

How a city council interacts with a mayor depends on the city’s form of government.

The duties of the mayor and council dictate how they will interact with one another.

In the council-manager system, the mayor is a “first among equals” member of the city council. Depending on the city charter, the mayor may be elected by the citizens or chosen from among sitting council members.

In the strong mayor system, the mayor is the chief executive officer of the city government.

Councils enact laws and policies that the mayor carries out. Some mayors have veto power over council decision. The mayor’s influence often exceeds the mayor’s official powers.

Compensation for Service on the Council

Very few cities pay their city council members living wages in exchange for their service. Payments for service on the council are generally small tokens of appreciation that typically amount to no more than a few hundred or few thousand dollars a year.

Also Known As

  • Town council
  • Board of aldermen

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