Form of Government

Form of Government
Frequently Asked
What is the council-manager form of government, which
is used today by so many cities, towns, and counties?
Council-manager government combines the strong political
leadership of elected officials with the strong managerial
experience of an appointed manager or administrator. All
power and authority to set policy rests with an elected
governing body, which includes a mayor or chairperson
and members of the council, commission, or board. The
governing body in turn hires a nonpartisan manager who
has very broad authority to run the organization.
Born out of the U.S. progressive reform movement at
the turn of the 20th century, the council-manager system
was designed to combat corruption and unethical activity
in local government by promoting effective management
within a transparent, responsive, and accountable
Since its establishment, the council-manager form has
become the most popular structure of local government in
the United States. The form is also widely used throughout
the world in countries such as Canada, Australia, the
Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.
How does council-manager government work?
The elected council or board represent their community
and develop a long-range vision for its future. They
establish policies that affect the overall operation of the
community and are responsive to residents’ needs and
To ensure that these policies are carried out and that
the entire community is equitably served, the governing
body appoints a highly trained professional manager on the
basis of his/her education, experience, skills, and abilities
(and not their political allegiances). If the manager is not
responsive to the governing body, it has the authority to
terminate the manager at any time.
How can council-manager government benefit my
A city, town, or county benefits from the council-manager
form of government in a number of important ways:
1. Political power is concentrated in the entire governing
body. The mayor and council share legislative functions
2. Policy making resides with elected officials, while
oversight of the day-to-day operations of the community
resides with the manager. In this way, the elected
officials are free to devote time to policy planning and
3. The manager carries out the policies established by the
elected governing body with an emphasis on effective,
efficient, and equitable service delivery
4. Because decisions on policy and the future of the community are made by the entire governing body rather
than a single individual, council-manager governments
more often engage and involve their residents in decision making. Residents guide their community by serving on boards and commissions, participating in visioning and strategic planning, and designing community-oriented local government services
5. The form is flexible enough to adapt to local needs and
demands. For example, some communities elect their
councils at large, while others elect them by district or
by a combination of an at-large-and-by-district system.
Also, the mayor can be directly elected by voters or
selected by and from among the council.
What is the role of the manager under council-manager
The manager is hired to serve the council and the
community and brings to the local government the
benefits of his/her training and experience in administering
municipal or county projects and programs. The manager
prepares a budget for the council’s consideration; recruits,
hires, terminates, and supervises government staff; serves
as the council’s chief advisor; and carries out the council’s
policies. Council members and residents count on the
manager to provide complete and objective information
about local operations, discuss the pros and cons of
alternatives, and offer an assessment of the long-term
consequences of their decisions.
Appointed managers serve at the pleasure of the
governing body. They can be fired by a majority of the
council, consistent with local laws, or any employment
agreements they may enter into with the council. The
manager makes policy recommendations to the council for
consideration and final decision. The manager is bound by
whatever action the council takes, and control is always in
the hands of the elected representatives of the people.
What is the role of the council?
The council is the community’s legislative and policymaking body. Power is centralized in the elected council,
which, for example, approves the budget and determines
the tax rate. The council also focuses on the community’s
goals, major projects, and such long-term considerations
as community growth, land use development, capital
improvement and financing, and strategic planning. The
council hires a professional manager to implement the
administrative responsibilities related to these goals and
supervises the manager’s performance.
What is the role of the mayor or chairperson?
Mayors or chairpersons in council-manager communities
are key political and policy leaders, and their specific
duties, responsibilities, and authorities depend on the
organization’s charter. In council-manager communities,
typically the mayor or chairperson is a voting member
of the city council who presides at council meetings,
represents the city in intergovernmental relationships,
appoints members of citizen advisory boards and
commissions (with the advice and consent of council),
assigns agenda items to committees, facilitates
communication and understanding between elected and
appointed officials, and assists the council in setting goals
and advocating policy decisions.
What value does a professional manager contribute to a
Professional managers contribute value to a community
because they:
•Work in partnership with elected officials to develop
sound approaches to community challenges by bringing
together resources to make the right things happen and
produce results that matter
•Bring a community-wide perspective to policy
discussions and strive to connect the past and future
while focusing on the present. They help the governing
body develop the long-term vision for the community
that provides a framework for policy development and
goal setting
•Promote ethical government through commitment to a
set of ethical standards that goes beyond those required
by law. Managers who are members of ICMA subscribe
to the organization’s Code of Ethics, which requires
them to “affirm the dignity and worth of the services
rendered by government and maintain . . . a deep sense
of social responsibility as a trusted public servant”
•Encourage inclusion and build consensus among diverse
interests (including those of elected officials, the
business community, and citizens) by focusing on the
entire community rather than the centralized interests
of one or two individuals
•Promote equity and fairness by ensuring that services
are fairly distributed and that administrative decisions
(such as hiring and contracting) are based on merit
rather than favoritism
•Develop and sustain organizational excellence and
promote innovation. Professional managers focus
relentlessly on efficient and equitable service delivery,
policy implementation, and evaluation. They align
the local government’s administrative systems with
the values, mission, and policy goals defined by the
community and elected officials.
Does it cost more for a community to adopt the councilmanager form and hire a professional manager?
Many local governments have found that their overall
costs are actually reduced under competent management.
Savings can come from decreased operating costs,
increased efficiency and productivity, improved
revenue collection, and effective use of technology. The
economic health of the community may also benefit from
implementation of improved business development and
retention strategies.
What kinds of communities use the council-manager
form of government?
In 2007, more than 3,500 (49 percent) of the 7,171 U.S.
cities and towns with populations of 2,500 residents or
more operated under the council-manager form. This
structure is also used by more than 370 counties. More
than 92 million people in the U.S. live in communities that
operate under this form.
Is the council-manager form popular among larger
Of the 247 U.S. cities with populations greater than
100,000 residents, 144 (58 percent) use this form of
government. Larger cities and counties that use the form
•Broward County, Florida (pop. 1,623,000)
•Charlotte, North Carolina (pop. 540,000)
•Dallas, Texas (pop. 1,188,000)
•Fairfax County, Virginia (pop. 969,000)
•Las Vegas, Nevada (pop. 535,000)
•Mecklenburg County, North Carolina (pop. 695,000)
•Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (pop. 506,000)
•Phoenix, Arizona (pop. 1,321,000)
•San Antonio, Texas (pop. 1,144,000)
•San Jose, California (pop. 894,000)
•Virginia Beach, Virginia (pop. 425,000)
•Wichita, Kansas (pop. 344,000)
How can a community adopt the council-manager form
of government?
Most communities can adopt council-manager government
through a charter, local ordinance, state enabling law, or by
voter referendum. For information on how your community
can adopt council-manager government, contact your state
municipal league or association of counties. You can locate
the addresses of these organizations on the Internet, or in
the back section of ICMA’s Municipal Year Book, which you
may find in your local library.
Once a community adopts council-manager government,
how does it choose a professional manager?
The vacancy usually is announced in the ICMA Newsletter,
and managers, assistants, and other individuals from
across the country are invited to apply. Interested parties
apply directly to the council, which reviews the applications
and interviews qualified candidates. ICMA makes no
recommendations regarding candidates. Additional
information is available in ICMA’s Recruitment Guidelines
Handbook. To download a copy, visit
and click on “Recruitment Guidelines Handbook” under
What kind of educational and professional experience do
professional local government managers possess?
Nearly 67% of managers surveyed by ICMA in 2006
indicated that they had earned a master’s (usually in
public administration, business, or public policy), or
other advanced degree. Respondents to the same survey
said they had spent an average of 19 years in the local
government management profession.
Do professional local government managers have a
membership organization?
Yes. ICMA (the International City/County Management
Association) is the premier local government leadership
and management organization that serves as the
professional and educational “home” for appointed
professional managers and administrators. ICMA’s
membership also includes directors of state associations
of local governments, other local government employees,
academics, students, and concerned citizens who share the
goal of improving local government.
ICMA’s mission is to create excellence in local
governance by developing and fostering professional
local government management worldwide. To that end,
the organization provides technical assistance and
publications for management professionals to help them
improve their skills and increase their knowledge. ICMA
also serves as a clearinghouse for the collection, analysis,
and dissemination of information and data about local
Why is membership in ICMA important for a professional
local government manager?
In addition to gaining access to valuable resources and
lifelong professional development opportunities, managers
who belong to ICMA are bound by its Code of Ethics, which
states that every member of the organization shall act with
integrity in all personal and professional matters so that
they will merit the respect and trust of elected officials,
employees, and the public. This stringently enforced Code
specifies 12 ethical principles of personal and professional
conduct, including dedication to the cause of good
ICMA members believe in the effectiveness of
representative democracy and the value of government
services provided equitably to residents within a
community. ICMA members are also committed to
standards of honesty and integrity that go beyond those
required by the law. For more information, contact ICMA or
Finally, ICMA defines professional management and
recognizes individual members who are qualified by a
combination of education and experience, adherence to
high standards of integrity, and an assessed commitment
to lifelong learning and professional development.
ICMA members who meet these requirements may earn
designation as an ICMA Credentialed Manager. For more
information on ICMA’s Voluntary Credentialing Program,
Are there other, independent organizations that support
council-manager government?
The National Civic League (NCL) is America’s original
advocate for community democracy. This nonprofit,
nonpartisan membership organization is dedicated
to strengthening citizen democracy by transforming
democratic institutions. NCL accomplishes its mission
through technical assistance, training, publishing, research,
and promoting the All-America City Awards, America’s
original and most prestigious community recognition
Founded in 1895, NCL serves as a clearinghouse for
information on methods of improving state and local
government. The League’s Model City Charter, now in its
eighth edition, has endorsed council-manager government
since 1915.
For further information, contact
Jared M. Dailey
Assistant Program Manager
777 North Capitol Street, NE, Suite 500
Washington, DC 20002-4201
[email protected]
202-962-3500 fax
National Civic League
1445 Market Street, Suite 300
Denver, Colorado 80202-1728
303-571-4404 fax