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.
A survey done by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) in 2006 reveals that a candidate’s political party is noted on the ballot in 20 percent of responding cities. Councilmembers in two-thirds of responding cities are elected at-large, rather than by district. And once elected, most (65 percent) reported that councilmembers receive four-year terms.
Councils can range in size from 5 to 51 across the nation, although the national average is six. While the number of councilmen is 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. This variability is illustrated by the large range in the number of councilmen per number of constituents, from 6,278 in Albany to over 250,000 in Los Angeles.
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.
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. According to survey data from the National League of Cities, 81 percent of city councils in 2001 relied on committees, which was an increase from 61 percent in 1979. Committee use was less common in cities with a council-manager form of government (64 percent) than in those with a mayor-council government (85 percent). In addition, the use of committees tends to increase with the size of cities and city councils. For example, New York City has 43 committees for its 51 councilmen.
Council members typically receive modest compensation for their work, usually because they serve on a part-time basis. The average number of hours spent per week on council-related matters in small, medium and large cities is 20, 25 and 42, respectively. Accordingly, only 2 percent of councilmembers from small cities (population: 25,000-70,000) and 7 percent of those from medium-sized cities (70,000-200,000) receive $20,000 or more in salary. Among those from large cities (200,000 and up), three-quarters of councilmembers receive $20,000 or more.
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.
In studies conducted by the National League of Cities in 1979, 1989, and 2001, several trends in the characteristics of those who serve on city councils can be observed:
Race and Ethnicity
The percentage of people of color serving on city councils nearly doubled from 1979 to 2001, rising from 7 percent to 13 percent. African-American representation remained essentially the same between 1989 and 2001 (10 percent and 8 percent, respectively), maintaining gains made in the decade after 1979, when 5 percent of council members were African American. Between 1989 and 2001, Hispanic council membership increased substantially in medium and large cities, jumping from zero to 6 percent and 1 to 11 percent, respectively. During the same period, the proportion of Asian Americans serving on councils declined somewhat, from 3 percent to 1 percent. The percentage of White council members decreased from 92 percent in 1979 to 87 percent in 2001.
Race and City Council Membership as a Percentage*
Representation of women on America’s city councils increased in all three city size categories between 1989 and 2001. The proportion of women grew from 21 to 25 percent in small cities, 25 to 36 percent in medium-sized cities, and 33 to 36 percent in large cities. These gains appear to have made up for a drop in gender diversity on city councils between 1979 and 1989 (from 32 percent to 26 percent), meaning there was no more gender diversity on America’s city councils in 2001 (at 28 percent) than there was two decades before.
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. In 1989, Democrats (35 percent) outnumbered Republicans (31 percent) among council members in all types of cities in 2001. This pattern was most pronounced in large cities, where Democrats were 52 percent of council members and Republicans 19 percent. Meanwhile, small cities showed a very close balance between the two parties (36 percent were Democrats and 34 percent Republicans). In nonpartisan councils, there are far more members who consider themselves to be independents than in cities that use partisan elections (35 percent versus 15 percent).
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.