The council–manager government form is one of two predominant forms of local government in the United States; the other common form of local government is the mayor–council government form, which characteristically occurs in large cities. Council–manager government form also is used in county governments in the United States and the governing body in a county may be called a council, a commission, freeholders, aldermen, and such. The council–manager form also is used for municipal government in Canada and in Ireland, among many other countries, both for city councils and county councils.
Under the council–manager form of government for municipalities, the elected governing body (commonly called a city council, city commission, board of aldermen or board of selectmen) is responsible for the legislative function of the municipality such as establishing policy, passing local ordinances, voting appropriations, and developing an overall vision. County and other types of local government follow the same pattern, with a different title for the governing body members that matches the title of the body.
The legislative body, which is voted into office by public elections, appoints a professional manager to oversee the administrative operations, implement its policies, and advise it. The position of “mayor” present in this type of legislative body is a largely ceremonial title, and may be selected by the council from among its members or elected as an at-large council member with no executive functions.
The city manager position in this form of municipal government is similar to that of corporate chief executive officer (CEO), providing professional management to the board of directors. Council–manager government is much like a publicly traded corporation. In a corporation, the board of directors appoints a CEO, makes major decisions and wields representative power on behalf of shareholders. In council–manager government, the elected council appoints a city manager, makes major decisions, and wields representative power on behalf of the citizens. The city manager is, in turn, responsible for hiring a city staff to carry out implementation of city ordinances.
This system of government is used in 40.1% of American cities with populations of 2,500 or more, according to the 2011 Municipal Yearbook published by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), a professional organization for city managers and other top appointed local government administrators/CAOs.
History in the United States
The concept of the council–manager form of government was a product of a confluence of the prevailing modes of thought during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Probably the foremost influence was the Progressive Movement; following along the thought lines of the movement, the municipal reformers of that time wanted to rid municipalities of the pervasive “political machine” form of government and the abuses of the spoils system. The thought was to have a politically impartial administrator or manager to carry out the administrative function.
Another influence was the “Scientific Management” movement, often associated with Frederick Winslow Taylor. The focus of this movement was to run organizations in an objective, scientific fashion to maximize efficiency, among other things.
A third influence behind the council–manager idea was that of the organizational structure of the for-profit corporation, with its board of directors, which hires a professional CEO to run its operations.
Sumter, South Carolina, has the distinction of being the first city in the United States to implement council–manager government successfully, although Staunton, Virginia is credited as the first American city appointing a city manager in 1908. Some have traced the first occurrence of the manager position to as early as 1904 in Ukiah, California, however, but it seems clear that all experts in the field credit the Staunton position as the one, which began to focus the light on the fledgling profession and caught the eye of Richard S. Childs, who would become known, somewhat, as the “father” of the council–manager form of government and the Model City Charter. The first large city to adopt the council–manager form was Dayton, Ohio, in 1913.
Currently, thirty-eight of Virginia's thirty-nine cities have a council–manager form of government, with the capital, Richmond, being the only exception. Richmond switched to a strong-mayor–council plan in 2004, after having had a council–manager system since 1948, as many large cities have because of their greater areas and populations.
The council–manager system has grown considerably in popularity since the start of the 20th century. In 1935, ICMA recognized 418 U.S. cities and seven counties using the system.
The council–manager form of government developed, at least in part, as a response to some perceived limitations of the city commission government form. The council–manager form became the preferred alternative for progressive reform, and after World War I, very few cities adopted the commission form and many cities using the commission plan switched to the council–manager form.
By 2001, 3,302 cities with a population over 2,500 and 371 counties used the council–manager system. Phoenix, Arizona is the largest city in the United States to retain council–manager government.
Indeed, much has been written over the last decade regarding the variety of hybrid forms of local governments that have evolved from the two pure forms (council–manager and mayor–council). The cities that have modified their organizational structure from one of the pure forms now commonly are termed “adaptive” community organizations.
These variations necessitate a delineation of the distinguishing features of the council–manager form of government. ICMA has listed at least three defining characteristics that distinguish a truly council–manager government:
- All governmental authority rests with the council, or other sovereign elected body, except for certain duties that are assigned by charter or other law to the manager, however, the manager always is employed at the pleasure of the elected body.
- The appointed executive, a manager, officially is allocated the executive or administrative functions in codified form, minimum functions not being at the whim of a mayor, for example.
- The manager must be responsible to, hired by, and can be dismissed only by the entire council, not one individual, such as a mayor or chairperson.
“Model City Charter”
The Model City Charter (MCC), published by the National Civic League, formerly the National Municipal League, is closely associated to the council–manager form of government. The Model City Charter is in its eighth edition, adopted in 2003. Since its second edition, adopted in 1915, the model charter for municipalities has recommended this council–manager form of government.
History in the Republic of Ireland
Following the turmoil of World War I (1914–1918), the 1916 rising, the Irish War of Independence (1919–1921), and the Irish Civil War (1921–1923), the Irish government found it necessary to remove the members of several local authorities and replace them temporarily by paid commissioners.
Both Dublin and Cork city councils were so removed. In both cities, there was a body of opinion that the services provided by the councils were delivered more efficiently and fairly under the commissioners than under the previous system, where the executive function had been, in effect, vested in the councils and their committees.
In 1926, a committee of commercial and industrial interests in Cork came together to consider a scheme of city government. Having regard to the city's experience of commissioners and recent experience in the United States a council–manager plan of city government was proposed.
After discussion between the minister for local government and local representatives, the minister, Richard Mulcahy, introduced as a government measure, the Cork City Management Bill (1929) and it became law despite opposition. The minister proposed and the Oireachtas enacted similar provision for Dublin City in 1930. Similar laws were passed for Limerick in 1934 and Waterford in 1939 under the Fianna Fáil government.
Under the County (Management) Act (1940), which was brought into operation in August 1942, a county manager is the manager of every borough or town in that county, but since the 1990s, has the power to delegate these functions to any other officer of that borough or town council.
The system was modified also in subsequent legislation, particularly the City and County Management (Amendment) Act (1955), which made some adjustments to give greater power to the council members, and the Local Government Act 1985, which provided for the council–manager system in Galway City once detached for local government purposes from Galway County.
The above acts have been replaced since that time, in substantially the same form, by the Local Government Act 2001.
- Svara, James H. (2008). Strengthening Local Government Leadership and Performance: Reexamining and Updating the Winter Commission Goals. Public Administration Review, December 2008, Special Issue, vol 68, pp S37–S49.
- ICMA information brochure
- ICMA forms of government
- Local Government Management, ICMA
- 2011 Municipal Yearbook
- Stillman, Richard J. (1974). The Rise of the City Manager: A Public Professional in Local Government. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
- "Staunton, Virginia: Birthplace of the Council Manager Form of Government". City of Staunton. Archived from the original on November 20, 2005. Retrieved 2008-11-11.
- Ammons, David N. and Charldean Newell. (1989). City Executives: Leadership Roles, Work Characteristics, and Time Management. State University of NY Press.
- "From the Mayor's Office". City of Phoenix. Archived from the original on 2008-08-22. Retrieved 2008-09-04.
- Carr, Jered B. and Shanthi Karuppusamy. "The Adapted Cities Framework: On Enhancing Its Use in Empirical Research" Urban Affairs Review, 2008, pgs.875–886.
- Svara, James H. and Kimberly L. Nelson. “Taking Stock of the Council–Manager Form at 100”. Public Management Magazine, August 2008. ICMA Publications
- Svara, James, on National Civic League Website
- Public Management Magazine, ICMA, February 2003, Vol 85, Number 3.
- City Mayors feature on US council managers
- International City/County Management Association
- National Civic League