Blogs / Knowledge Network Community Blog / Stereotypes in Council-Manager Governments (part 1 of 5)

Stereotypes in Council-Manager Governments (part 1 of 5)


The council-manager form of government is the most prevalent form of local government in the United States. Originally known by the term “city manager plan” the council-manager form of government, in its pure form, is composed of an elected governing body (i.e. the council) and a manager hired by the council through an employment contract. The council selects, from amongst its members, a mayor to serve as a ceremonial figurehead for the city. Although reformers such as Richard S. Childs insisted that a weak mayor chosen by and from the council be the defining factor of the council-manager form of government, others, such as the National Municipal League, in its Model City Charter, endorse hybrid and alternative systems such as those in which a strong mayor is elected from the city at-large and serves in a recognized leadership role.

Today, variations and alternatives to the pure form as advocated by those of the “true faith,” as Childs called it, exist and are formally recognized by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) as council-manager local governments (ICMA, 2010).  Cities also popularly elect mayors in conjunction with hiring appointed chief administrative officers who manage the city. One example of this system would be the City of Las Vegas, which earned ICMA recognition as a council-manager local government in 1934, yet maintains an influential mayor in addition to its city manager.

The council, as the other half of the council-manager form of government, is responsible for setting the political agenda, approving the budget, establishing tax rates, and voting on public policy. The council’s size generally ranges from five to nine seats for a city and are elected at-large in nonpartisan races.

Alternatively, the mayor-council (also known as the “strong-mayor”) system is the older and more traditional form of government and consists of an elected council and a mayor serving as the chief executive. The mayor-council form of government most closely emulates the federal and state government systems with their elected chief executives and legislatures. As with the council-manager form of government, the mayor-council form of government can exist as a hybrid system. In some mayor-council cities, a professional administrator similar to a city manager is hired to assist with city operation; however, these positions lack the autonomy or responsibility granted to chief administrative officers in council-manager forms of government.

As of 2009, 49% of all local governments used some form of the council-manager system while 44% had mayor-council forms of government. A third form, the commission form of government, governs most of the remaining communities and is generally used in jurisdictions of less than 2,500 people and usually confined to New England.

Brief History

The rise of the council-manager form of government is a product of the reform movement in the United States. As America entered the industrial age, swelling urban populations –fueled by immigration – required unprecedented infrastructure (e.g. roads, sanitation, clean water, parks, public health, social services, etc). Political bosses stepped in to provide these services on a mostly partisan basis through patronage and spoils. These party bosses controlled City Hall through their election to council seats representing specific wards. They used their power to provide special treatment and projects to their constituents. Although responsive to the needs of politicians’ political bases, the spoils system proved over the years to be h h h   ighly inefficient, often corrupt, and expensive. For example, a comparison in 1960 of the strong mayor cities of New York and Chicago with the council-manager cities of San Antonio and Phoenix showed that New York and Chicago spent nearly twice the amount per capita on “common functions” as San Antonio and Phoenix. Additionally, Phoenix and San Antonio employed nearly half the number of employees per 10,000 residents for “common functions” compared to the two mayor-council cities. The reformers of the late 19th and early 20th century, inspired by the gospel of scientific management, believed that government could and should be run more efficiently using the principles of business administration. To achieve these aims, reformers called for the separation and insulation of the task of governing from politics for “like the revolutionaries and the Jacksonians, the Progressives imagined a politics that, ultimately, pressed beyond representation altogether.”

Progressives called for a series of reforms including the elimination of ward-based, partisan elections, the short ballot, and - perhaps the crown jewel of the reform movement - the hiring of trained administrators rather than partisan legislators to govern cities. Progressive Theodore Roosevelt also supported the separation of politics from municipal management arguing, “the worst evils that affect our local government arise from and are the inevitable result of the mixing up of city affairs with the party politics of the nation and state.”

Progressives thought they found their reform darling in the commission form when Galveston, Texas adopted it in its new charter in 1901. The commission system achieved many of the aims they sought, including centralization and consolidation of the legislative and administrative authorities with at large elections. The commission form of government offered “conspicuous responsibility – and hence accountability of all elected officials to the people” and by 1911, the National Municipal League recommended commission forms of government for cities of 100,000 or less (with the potential to be used in larger cities). Some 500 cities adopted the commission form of government by 1918, almost two decades after its creation.

Always eager to promote their reforms’ businesslike efficiency, Progressives claimed the commission form mirrored “a corporation with its board of directors.” However, their comparison was flawed, as Childs, the founder of the council-manager form of government, quickly pointed out:  “No, there would have to be a manager put under that board to make it resemble a corporation!”

Childs remedied the separation of powers question by establishing an appointed executive to manage city administration. Hoping to capitalize on the momentum already gained by the commission form of government, Childs called his new form of government “the commission-manager plan.” However, that name quickly proved unnecessary as the invention and subsequent rise of the council-manager form of government decreased the commission form’s popularity to the point of irrelevancy.  By 1958, only 320 cities used the commission form of government, and today, only three of the 100 most populous cities use it and only 143 cities with over 2,500 citizens use it in total.

Despite the council-manager form of government’s impressive rise from reform movement innovation to the most prevalent form of local government in the United States, the growth has not been linear. The council-manager form of government saw a large increase in popularity from its creation in 1908 until 1934. And “[b]etween 1918 and 1923 alone, the period of its most rapid spread, more than 150 cities adopted the council-manager plan.” After the Great Depression, the percentage of cities with council-manager form of government leveled off to around 18 percent of all cities at the end of the Second World War. This period of plateaued growth coincided with changes in the polity on the national scale, including the strengthening of labor unions rights and the expansion of government welfare. Council-manager form of government opponents of that time compared the unelected city managers to fascist Hitler, painted businesslike administration of government as a threat to the collective bargaining interests of civil employees and claimed that “American democracy is a challenge to the primary claims made for the city manager system.” During the interwar period, calls for reform often went unanswered.

 However, the interwar period of stagnated growth of the council-manager form of government was quite short lived. From 1947 to 1977, the council-manager form of government grew from 20 percent of all cities to approximately 55 percent. As further evidence of just how common the council-manager form of government became, 1972 represented the first year that the council-manager form overtook the mayor-council form as the most prevalent form of local government in the United States.  The tremendous growth in council-manager form of government resulted from the concentrated and renewed efforts for reform and charter revision. Business leaders believed that council-manager form of government offered the most effective and efficient means to meet the challenges presented by postwar growth – especially in the southwest where migrant populations and wartime industry fueled growth – and founded civic and commerce groups which pursued pro-growth policies, including the adoption of a city manager.

During the 1960s, the growth of the council-manager form of local government slowed and in the 1970s reversed path. From approximately 1980 through 1985, spurred by voting reforms and a desire for more activist government, the mayor-council form of government returned as the most prevalent form of government. The literature suggests that increased suffrage (such as the appeal of Arizona’s literary-test in 1972 and the abolition of the poll tax in 1966) empowered ethnic minorities, often underrepresented in council-manager cities, to vote in elections and seek representation through popularly elected mayors. Further, some Anglo and middle-class voters who had been the primary supporters of reform became increasingly dissatisfied with the sparse offerings of “efficient” local government and became more sympathetic to the War on Poverty and other activist programs. Whereas business leaders, land owners, and developers supported the council-manager form of government for its perceived efficiency in delivering services such as water, electricity, and roads (the infrastructure needed to grow cities) over the delivery of social services such as welfare and education, voters during the 1970’s abandoned the pro-growth incumbents in favor of limited or “management growth policies.” For example, the working poor, African-Americans, and Mexican Americans in San Antonio denounced the Good Government League as a “machine” no better than the political machine it claimed to have replaced with businesslike administration a half century earlier. Attacks like these, led some cities to return their form of government to mayor-council or produce hybrid forms, which attempted to “reform the reform.” Many unreformed cities hired chief administrative officers under the title of City Administrator, rather than that of a City Manager, to assist the mayor with the administration of the city but retained most of the formal powers in the mayor and council. Reformed cities attempted to increase representation (especially of ethnic minorities) through the implementation of district rather than at-large elections.

However, abandonments of the council-manager form of government did not occur evenly across all cities. Greg J. Protasel found that during the period of 1970 to 1981 (the period of council-manager form of government’s decline) cities with populations 5,000 to 9,999 had the highest rates of abandoning the council-manager form of government, while no city over 250,000 reported abandonment. This finding contradicts the prevailing myth that mayor-council governments are more suited for larger cities, while council-manager form of government is more effective in mid-to-smaller communities. As further proof that the council-manager form of government is not limited to smaller-to-mid sized cities, over the last decade the number of council-manager cities with over 500,000 residents doubled from 5 to 10 while mayor-council cities over 500,000 only increased from 20 to 21 total. This is likely a result of mid-sized cities with managers growing into large cities and not necessarily because large, formerly mayor-council cities have adopted the council-manager form of government.

 In fact, El Paso, with a population of 581,000, was the only large city since 1998   to adopt the council-manager form. (Okubo, 2005). The next largest municipality was Cedar Rapids, IA , with 122,206 residents. Meanwhile, the cities that abandoned council-manager in order to adopt mayor-council during that the past decade include Oakland, CA; Miami, FL; Richmond, VA; Spokane, WA; and San Diego, CA. (San Diego has a population of nearly 1.3 million people, Oakland and Miami are around 400,000, and Richmond and Spokane both have populations of about 200,000.  Over the past ten years, only one of the largest 100 cities by population adopted council-manager form of government while three abandoned the form. So, although the council-manager form of government governs more large cities than ever before, the form of government’s growth is primarily due to population growth in mid-to-large sized cities that already employ city managers and not because large mayor-council cities have switched. In fact, the only city to ever change form of government with a population of over one million people adopted mayor-council (San Diego).

The number of cities under council-manager form of government versus mayor-council is in constant fluctuation. Although two cities might adopt council-manager government, a third might abandon the form in order to adopt a strong mayor system. Thus, when ICMA says that council-manager form of government is the fastest growing form of government in the United States, the statement must account for the staggered nature of the growth. Today, the council-manager form of government is found in 3,520 of the 7,194 total cities with populations over 2,500 residents (ICMA Municipal Yearbook, 2008). Over the past 30 years, the council-manager form of government has been “the fastest growing form of government in the United States” (ICMA). Table 1 shows the percentage of cities with each form of government:

Table 1

Percentage of Municipalities with Council-Manager Form of Govt (2,500 and over)

                                                1978                1988                1998                2008

Council-Manager                   34%                 35%                 44%                 49%

Mayor-Council                       56%                 55%                 48%                 44%

Commission                             3%                 3%                   2%                     2%

Sources: ICMA, The Municipal Yearbook, 1978, 1988, 1998, 2008 (Washington, DC)


Kevin Carter

This blog post is part one in a five part series. Each post is an abridged section taken from Kevin Carter’s practicum paper for Georgetown University entitled “Beyond Stereotypes: Socioeconomic Characteristics of Modern Council-Manager Cities.” The purpose of this blog is to encourage study into “the profession’s” past and start a dialog between theory and practice – academics and managers.

The original paper (and by extension, this blog) examines the prevailing stereotypes surrounding the council-manager form of government, provides a literature review on the political development of those stereotypes, and then tests socioeconomic differences between the two forms of government through regression analysis.

Sources can be found in the original document.

Christopher Workman

Great post; I wish I would have come across a similar explanation two years ago when I started my MPA. You do a great job of not only defining the council-manager and mayor-council forms of city management and all their variations, but also describing several strengths and weakness of each. I've forwarded a link to this posting to all my first-year collegues in hopes it will be as good a resource to them as it has been to me. Looking forward to the next 4 parts.

Thomas Stefaniak

This should be required reading for new local government employees. Same could be said of new ICMA employees not coming from local government.

Kevin Carter

Thanks all. Post 2 on Monday.

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