Cities 101 -- Council Powers

Council building
Council building

Background

With the great variation from state to state, there are multiple terms used to identify persons elected to municipal office. The chief-elected official is commonly called the mayor. The mayor may be elected directly or appointed by an elected council, depending on the city's form of government and authority given to the mayor. The city council is an elected body of legislators who govern the municipality.

Depending upon state law and the municipal government charter, there are often other elected positions, including those such as the city clerk, city attorney, or city treasurer. Although voters in the majority of cities (76 percent) elect the mayor or council president directly, there is variation by population, geographic division, and form of government.

City Councils

City councils are the legislators of a municipality who are democratically elected to decide which services will be provided and how to pay for them, among many other tasks.

Other Names

The title for the members of city councils vary, and several titles exist according to local custom. These titles are: councilmember, alderman, selectman, freeholder, trustee or commissioner.

Council Size

Councils can range in size from 5 to 51 across the nation, although the national average is six. While the number of councilmembers may be proportional to the population of the municipality, there is no national standard of proportion. In addition, the size of a council may reflect the complexity of services provided, the council's workload, the diversity and size of the population, the political dynamics and preferences of the city.

Council Functions

As local legislators, councilmembers are responsible for and responsive to the citizens who elected them. Depending on the city's charter and state laws, they may perform the following functions:

  • Review and approve the annual budget;
  • Establish long- and short-term objectives and priorities;
  • Oversee performance of the local public employees;
  • Oversee effectiveness of programs;
  • Establish tax rates;
  • Enter into legal contracts;
  • Borrow funds;
  • Pass ordinances and resolutions;
  • Modify the city's charter;
  • Regulate land use through zoning laws;
  • Regulate business activity through licensing and regulations;
  • Regulate public health and safety;
  • Exercise the power of eminent domain;
  • Communicate policies and programs to residents;
  • Respond to constituent needs and complaints; and
  • Represent the community to other levels of government.

Committees

The system of using issue-specific committees is common for city councils. Committees provide groups of councilmembers the opportunity to thoroughly consider particular items of business then recommend action on those items to the full council. This system reduces the amount of work each councilmember must perform and reduces the length or frequency of full council meetings. Additionally, it enables citizens to participate in matters of interest to them at the regular meetings of each committee. Task forces or ad-hoc committees may also be used to investigate and resolve specific issues that once addressed, are disbanded. In the past several decades, city councils have become more institutionalized in American cities, with more councils using committees to conduct their work and more councils hiring paid staff.

Compensation

Council members typically receive modest compensation for their work, usually because they serve on a part-time basis. Many state municipal leagues collect data on salary and benefits for various municipal positions including elected officials. For more information, contact the state leagues directly.

Ideology and Party Identification

Although nonpartisan council elections are the rule in most cities, party identification remains an important indicator of attitudes that may influence council members' decisions. Political party identification is a self-description rather than actual party registration and refers to personal partisan identification regardless of whether one is elected in a partisan or nonpartisan election.

Sources

Krane, Dale, Platon Rigos, & Melvin B. Hill, Jr. Home Rule in America: A Fifty-State Handbook. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2001.

Svara, James H. "Two Decades of Continuity and Change in American City Councils." Washington, D.C.: National League of Cities, September 2003.

University at Buffalo Regional Institute, "Sizing Up Local Legislatures." Buffalo, NY: University at Buffalo Regional Institute, September 2009.

Woodwell, William H., Christiana Brennan, and Christopher Hoene. "Serving on America's City Councils." Washington, D.C.: National League of Cities, September 2003.

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