Emerging Issues: Forms Follow Functions for Municipal governments

September 7, 2009

What's the best form for municipal government - mayor-council or council-manager?

Are those really the only options that city leaders have?

Well, no.

Incremental changes in forms of municipal government have resulted in a much more complex picture. Recent research shows that city leaders have opted increasingly for mixed forms of city government. These adapted and hybrid cities now outnumber the pure form cities.

In other words, the old categories - the pure types - no longer always serve us well. By focusing on putting together the most useful specific mechanics for their particular city, city leaders have begun to create new categories - new types.  

So, maybe it's time for everyone to get beyond the abstract debates about the dichotomy of political versus administrative forms of local government, a dichotomy that dates back a century or so to the "good" progressive reforms versus the "bad" boss/machine systems. It's time instead to focus on the specifics of what will work best in their community.

Which is exactly what most city leaders considering charter reform have apparently done. For example - adding a chief administrative officer to a mayor-council city, shifting from at-large to district elections for councils, or directly electing a mayor in a council-manager city.

Many state laws recognize only the two standard forms, so localities choose one and then adjust and amend and add and delete to get the mix of functions and structures they think will work best for them.

A key work in the research on this topic is "The Adapted City," by H. George Frederickson, Gary A. Johnson and Curtis H. Wood. The book details the ways that municipal forms are changing and provides some case studies to illustrate the changes. The authors conclude that three forces have been driving contemporary patterns of change in forms of city government: "the drive for political leadership, the drive for political responsiveness and the drive for administrative effectiveness."

In practical terms, city leaders are faced with finding the balance among these three drives that will best serve their communities. And they have sought this balance by making adjustments here and there to suit the needs of their communities. The accompanying chart compares the two "pure" forms (at the right and left columns) and the various "adapted" forms (the three middle columns.)

A 2009 study by Carr and Karuppusamy tests the findings in "The Adapted City" on cities in Michigan and reaches similar conclusions.

From his perch as executive director of the International City/County Management Association, Robert O'Neill is in position to observe these developments. In an interview, he said that the "facts" are not much in dispute - there is an accumulation of marginal changes to the two standard forms of municipal government. The mixed forms or hybrids, he said, are "more common."

It's no fun if everyone agrees, however, so there are points of dispute about what all this means. For example, are city forms becoming more and more alike? Have some cities made so many or so fundamental adjustments that their "form" must be considered a new form altogether (see the middle column of the accompanying chart, the awkwardly-named "conciliated cities") rather than just modifications of the standard forms? In a book review of "The Adapted City," James Svara, a scholar at Arizona State University, opined that the issues associated with classifying cities are "arcane;" worried about the potential implication that choices among forms of  government don't matter; and reminded everyone that probably the impact of those choices "is likely to be modest rather than fundamental."

Most usefully, we would want to know from this line of research some basic, practical things like: what are the kinds of effects we can expect from specific structural changes under certain circumstances?

For city and town officials, who must make choices about structure and process and then must live with the results, these matters matter. It is perhaps helpful then to see that there is a broader array of options available to them than is suggested by the usual choice between the two standard types.

Details: "The Adapted City: Institutional Dynamics and Structural Change" is published by M.E. Sharpe Inc, 2004. "Beyond Ideal Types of Municipal Structure: Adapted Cities in Michigan" by Jared B. Carr and Shanthi Karuppusamy is in the May 2009 American Review of Public Administration, pages 304-321. The Svara review of The Adapted City is in the July/August 2005 Public Administration Review, pages 500-505.

Bill Barnes is the director for emerging issues at NLC. Comments about his column, which appears regularly in Nation's Cities Weekly, and ideas about "emerging issue" topics can be sent to him atbarnes@nlc.org.

Previous columns are listed on the Emerging Issues webpage.