Characteristics include:

  • City council oversees the general administration, makes policy, sets budget
  • Council appoints a professional city manager to carry out day-to-day administrative operations
  • Often the mayor is chosen from among the council on a rotating basis

This is the most common form of government. According to surveys by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), this form of government has grown from 48% usage in 1996 to 55% usage in 2006. It is most popular in cities with populations over 10,000, mainly in the Southeast and Pacific coast areas. Some examples are Phoenix, Arizona; Topeka, Kansas; San Antonio, Texas, and Rockville, Maryland.


Characteristics include:

  • Mayor is elected separately from the council, is often full-time and paid, with significant administrative and budgetary authority
  • Depending on the municipal charter, the mayor could have weak or strong powers
  • Council is elected and maintains legislative powers
  • Some cities appoint a professional manager who maintains limited administrative authority

Occuring in 34% of cities surveyed by International City/County Management Association (ICMA), this is the second most common form of government. It is found mostly (but not exclusively) in older, larger cities, or in very small cities, and is most popular in the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest. Cities with variations in the mayor-council form of government are New York, New York; Houston, Texas;  Salt Lake City, Utah, and Minneapolis, Minnesota.


Characteristics include:

  • Voters elect individual commissioners to a small governing board
  • Each commissioner is responsible for one specific aspect, such as fire, police, public works, health, finance
  • One commissioner is designated as chairman or mayor, who presides over meetings
  • The commission has both legislative and executive functions

The commission form of city government is the oldest form of government in the U.S., but exists today in less than 1% of cities. It typically occurs in cities with populations below 100,000, such as Sunrise, Florida and Fairview, Tennessee.

Town Meeting

Characteristics include:

  • All voters meet to decide basic policy and elect officials to carry out those policies

Although the town meeting form of government is generally viewed as the purest form of democracy, because it allows all eligible voters a voice in local policy decisions, it is practiced in only 5% of municipalities.

Town meeting government is found in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

Representative Town Meeting

Characteristics include:

  • Voters select a large number of citizens to represent them at town meetings, where only they can vote
  • Each town meeting must be announced with a warrant that provides the date, time and location of the meeting and specifies the items to be discussed
  • The selectmen are responsible for implementing policy

This form of government is found in fewer than 1% of cities, almost exclusively in small, New England municipalities, such as Bowdoin, Maine and Lexington, Massachusetts.

Current Trends

Recent examinations of government structure indicate that these forms of government are less distinct that they once were. This is due, in part, to the common practice of incorporating structural features from other forms into one’s current form. This mixing is also attributed to local responses to socioeconomic, demographic, and political changes. The most common mixing occurs across the two most prevalent forms, mayor-council and the council-manager. Among all cities proposing a change to their structure of government, the most common proposal was to add the position of chief administration officer/city manager. This professionalization of government administration also had the highest percentage of voter approval. Among other proposed changes, 50% or more respondents of ICMA’s 2006 survey reported voter approval to increase or decrease the number of council members, to modify the method of electing the mayor and to decrease the power or authority of the mayor.

The Form of Government in the Thirty Most Populous Cities

Listed below is the form of government for the thirty most populous cities in the United States, based on the 2010 U.S. Census figures. The forms of government are informed by the member database at the National League of Cities.

 Rank    City NameState    Form Of Government
 1 New York NY Mayor-Council
 2 Los Angeles CA Mayor-Council
 3 Chicago IL Mayor-Council
 4 Houston TX Mayor-Council
 5 Philadelphia PA Mayor-Council
 6 Phoenix AZ Council-Manager
 7 San Antonio TX Council-Manager
 8 San DiegoCA Mayor-Council
 9 Dallas TX Council-Manager
 10 San Jose CA Council-Manager
 11 Indianapolis IN Mayor-Council
 12 Jacksonville FL Mayor-Council
 13 San Francisco CA Mayor-Council
 14 Austin TX Council-Manager
 15 Columbus OH Mayor-Council
 16 Fort Worth TX Council-Manager
 17 Louisville-Jefferson County KY Mayor-Council
 18 Charlotte NC Council-Manager
 19 Detroit MI Mayor-Council
 20 El Paso TX Council-Manager
 21 Memphis TN Mayor-Council
 22 Nashville-Davidson TN Mayor-Council
 23 Baltimore MD Mayor-Council
 24 Boston MA Mayor-Council
 25 Seattle WA Mayor-Council
 26 Washington DC Mayor-Council
 27 Denver CO Mayor-Council
 28 Milwaukee WI Mayor-Council
 29 Portland OR Commission
 30 Las Vegas NV Council-Manager


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