The Most Common Forms of City Government

Five Ways a City Can Organize Itself

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City governments may take several shapes. No matter what the form of government, city governments should be responsive to the citizens. The form of government a city adopts depends largely on the size of the city. The larger the city, the more decisions must be made by representatives rather than the population as a whole. The most common forms of city government are explained below.

Council-Manager

The council-manager form of government is the most common form of city government in the US.

Under this form of government, the legislative body is made up of elected officials, and the day-to-day operations are handled by a professional administrator.

The city council functions as the city’s legislative body adopting laws and ordinances as allowed by federal and state law. Council members are elected by the city’s citizens as prescribed by state and local law.

The council-manager form of government is also known as the weak mayor form of government because the mayor has no more power than any other member of the city council. Depending on local law, the mayor may be elected to the position by the citizens or may be chosen by the council members.

The city manager is a career public administrator who serves as the chief executive officer of the city’s bureaucracy. The manager is also involved in the city council’s decisions as the group’s chief advisor. The manager provides expertise and insight that the average citizen elected to city council is unlikely to have.

Once decisions are made by the council, the manager implements them regardless of whether he or she agrees with the decision.

Strong Mayor

The strong mayor form of government is most often employed in larger US cities where the mayor must be a political player on the state and national level. Strong mayor cities vary in precisely how much power the mayor wields in comparison to the city council, but in general, the strong mayor form resembles the US federal government in how the President and Congress interact.

The mayor is the chief executive officer of the city. There is no city manager as there is in the council-manager form of government. Instead, city department heads report directly to the mayor.

The city council serves as the legislative body. The mayor’s interaction with the council is determined by local laws. In some cities, the mayor presides over the council and in other cities the mayor has nothing to do with official council actions. Some cities give the mayor the veto power over council decisions.

Commission

The city council serves as both legislative and executive branches of government. City department heads report to the commission rather than a mayor or manager.

Town Meeting

In a town meeting form of government, all the town’s citizens gather at least once a year to adopt city laws and policies. At this same meeting, ​a group citizens or an individual is selected to run city operations. This form of government is only for the smallest of cities.

Representative Town Meeting

A representative town meeting city government functions the same as the town meeting form of government except that the town’s citizens elect a smaller subset of the population to participate in the meeting.

Citizens who do not participate in the meeting may still attend.