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 treasurer, or city attorney.
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.
Mayors are bestowed varying degrees of responsibility and authority across the nation, especially depending on a city’s form of government.
These responsibilities may include:
- Serving on the city council;
- Voting in council meetings;
- Assigning council members to chair or serve on committees;
- Appointing citizens to serve on advisory boards or commissions;
- Preparing the annual budget; Receiving the annual budget developed by chief administrative official or city manager; and
- Making an annual report to the council.
Weak or Strong Mayors
Cities in the United States are sometimes characterized as having either “strong” or “weak” mayors. The term is not a judgement of effectiveness, rather it distinguishes the level of political power and administrative authority assigned to the mayor in the municipal charter. In practice, there is no sharp category that distinguishes between “weak” and “strong” mayors, but rather a continuum of authority and power along which cities are spread. However, the designation of “weak” and “strong” are useful in showing the variations in mayoral authority that exist.
Most “strong” mayors are in the mayor-council form of government, and are directly elected by citizens to that office. Most “weak” mayors are mayors in a council-manager form, and are elected from within the city council.
Characteristics of a “strong” mayor:
- The mayor is the chief executive officer, centralizing executive power.
- The mayor directs the administrative structure, appointing and removing of department heads.
- While the council has legislative power, the mayor has veto power.
- The council does not oversee daily operations.
Characteristics of a “weak” mayor:
- The council is powerful, with both legislative and executive authority.
- The mayor is not truly the chief executive, with limited power or no veto power.
- The council can prevent the mayor from effectively supervising city administration.
- There may be many administrative boards and commissions that operate independently from the city government.
Barnes, William R. “Forms and Structure of Municipal Government in the United States.” Presentation to the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, Edinburgh, Scotland, October 24, 1991.
DeSantis, Victor S. and Tari Renner. “City Government Structures: an Attempt at Classification” State and Local Government Review, 34(2) (Spring 2002).
Frederickson, H. George, and Gary Alan Johnson. “The Adapted American City: A Study in Institutional Dynamics.” Urban Affairs Review, 36(6) (July 2001).
National League of Cities. “Choices of the Citizenry: Forms of Municipal Government.” Washington, DC: National League of Cities, May 1989.
Svara, James H. “The Shifting Boundary Between Elected Officials and City Managers in Large Council-Manager Cities.” Public Administration Review, 59(1) (January-February 1999).
Svara, James H. Two Decades of Continuity and Change in American City Councils. Washington, D.C.: National League of Cities, September, 2003