Winning an election for municipal office requires a sound campaign strategy and personal likeability. It is possible to be elected with virtually no preparation for the job that lies ahead. Municipal officials undergo vetting for competencies and experience related to the job only after they have been hired and appointed. The Minnesota League of Cities admonishes all municipal officials to brush up on their actual job descriptions – if only to avoid a personal liability lawsuit.
The job description depends not only on the job title, but also on the system of organization that the locality uses. City Council members, for instance, have budgetary responsibilities if the city uses a Mayor-Council system, but do not control the budget if it uses a Council-Manager model. Within each type of system, officials have well-established duties.
- Council-Manager Model. Most counties use this model, as do more than half the cities in the United States (according to the International City/County Management Association [ICMA]). Located disproportionately in the Southeast and on the Pacific Coast, cities with this model typically host populations exceeding 10,000 people. The division of duties is specified in the Model City Charter of the National Civic League as follows:
- City Councillors, in this model, oversee general administration, set the budget and make policy. The City Council also selects a mayor from among its own members on a rotating basis. According to the authoritative commentator William Bennett Munro (1919), the City Council in this model is to be “avowedly deliberative, supervisory, and policy-determining.” The Council holds all legislative power, and it delegates all administrative authority to the Town Manager.
- The Mayor. According to the Model City Charter, the Mayor has the following duties:
- Preside over meetings of the City Council, of which she is a voting member.
- Represent the city in intergovernmental relationships.
- Appoint members of citizen advisory boards or commissions (with the advice and consent of the city council).
- Deliver an annual State of the City message.
- Appoint members and officers of City Council committees.
- Assign agenda items to committees (with the consent of the City Council).
- Perform all ceremonial functions.
- Perform no administrative duties.
- A professional Town Manager, appointed by the City Council, manages day-to-day administrative operations. His job is to:
- Propose policies to elected officials, providing facts and advice.
- Implement municipal policies.
- Keep the community apprised of municipal affairs.
- Mayor-Council Model. The second most common form of local government, according to the ICMA, is a Mayor-Council model. In 2006, more than 34% of the cities they surveyed used this system, typically in the Midwest and the Mid-Atlantic. They tend to be older urban areas or extremely small towns. With the same three job titles used in the Council-Manager Model, these cities assign different duties to the officials in those roles, as described by the League of Minnesota Cities:
- City Councillors (who are elected) determine legislation, constituting a local “Congress” of sorts. It is only as a body that the council can formulate policies, determine budgets, exercise city powers and supervise administrative officers (e.g., issuing orders to city employees). Councillors are expected to communicate with the
public regarding the future development of the city as well as the conduct of daily
affairs. Each City Council member is expected to do the following:
- Attend meetings. At council meetings, most cities allow councillors, as well as the mayor, to make and second motions, participate in discussions and cast votes.
- Oversee the qualifications of its own members and election proceedings.
- Establish and interpret rules regarding the Council’s own governance.
- Exercise all the powers of cities that the law does not delegate to others.
- Determine laws for the city.
- Appoint administrative staff.
- Transact the business of the city.
- Manage the city’s financial operations.
- Appoint members of boards.
- Conduct the city’s intergovernmental affairs.
- Provide community leadership.
- Protect the welfare of the city and its inhabitants.
- The Mayor may have stronger or weaker powers, depending on the municipal charter. She is elected (entirely separately from the council) to a full-time paid position. The Mayor has authority over the administration and the budget. Again, the case of Minnesota is typical. There, typical of the “weak mayor” model, the mayor must:
- Act as official head of the city – representing the city before other governmental bodies.
- Greet important visitors, give talks and participate in public events.
- Veto certain council votes (a power enjoyed only with the “strong mayor” model, not with the “weak mayor” model).
- Execute official documents.
- Make certain appointments (a power conferred to the mayor only with a “strong mayor” model, with maximal authority extending to the appointing of department heads without council approval).
- Propose budgets to the council (in the “strong mayor” model).
- Preside at City Council meetings.
- Perform specified election duties.
- Investigate fires.
- Declare local emergencies.
- Some (but not all) cities using the Mayor-Council Model allow the mayor to appoint a Town Manager. As Chief Administrative Officer reporting directly to the mayor, the Town Manager must:
- Supervise department heads.
- Prepare the budget.
- Coordinate departments.
- Commission Model. (“The Galveston Plan”)
Originally devised as a response to a 1900 hurricane in Galveston, Texas, the Commission Model calls for five to seven commissioners, who are elected on an at-large basis. As a body, the commission is the legislative authority of the town, but also the executive “branch,” responsible for proposing a budget, determining the local tax rate, setting the pay rates of local employees, determining policies and ordinances, and executing appropriations. Each commissioner, in turn, is responsible for one area of responsibility, such as public works, finance or public safety. Each commissioner is expected to identify local issues that need to be addressed.
Performing these duties is the job of officials in municipal government. While the model of government determines the division of labor among officials generally, there is nothing to keep a particular jurisdiction from modifying these requirements. To confirm the exact duties of a given official, it is advisable to consult the relevant state governance documents.
Wikipedia, “Mayor-Council Government”
National League of Cities, “Forms of Municipal Government”
Wikipedia, “Council-Manager Government”
League of Minnesota Cities, “Elected Officials’ Duties and Responsibilities”
Municipal Research and Service Center (MRSC), “Roles and Responsibilities of Local Government Leaders”
National Civic League, Model City Charter (8th edition)
Diligent Corp., “Municipal Government: What You Need to Know”
Career Trend, “The Duties of a City Commissioner”
Texas State Historical Association, “Commission Form of City Government”