Because we want to learn you.


Feb 2015

Local Government 101: Strong Mayor vs. Council Manager

Posted by / in Educational, Topics /

There are five forms of municipal government in the United States: mayor-council, council-manager, town meeting, commission, and representative town meeting. Interestingly, all five forms can be found in various cities although most people are only familiar with the two most common ones. The council-manager and mayor-council, or “strong mayor” are the forms of municipal government that most cities have adopted.

Contention over these two forms of local government have long been a hot topic and the controversy doesn’t seem to be cooling down any time soon. With that in mind, we thought we would offer some insight into each system so that regardless of which side of the fence you stand on, you are an educated, informed citizen.

The Structures Explained

The size of the city or town typically dictates the type of governance that is used. In fact, as a city grows, it will often experience several governing forms as it evolved in both size and complexity. As a rule, strong mayor systems are usually found in small towns and very large cities while council managers are usually found in cities and counties that are more mid-sized.

Think of it this way, a strong mayor system is to congress as a council-manager is to a public company (board/chair and CEO).

“Strong” Mayor-Council

  • Model: Federal Constitution structure of government
  • Chief Executive: Mayor (usually elected)
  • Legislative Body: City Council

Under this local government structure, the mayor and city council are separate with the council selecting their own presiding officer and setting their own agenda. The mayor has the authority to appoint department directors and has veto authority. However, the council has mayor veto override authority. Additionally, the mayor proposes the city budget, but it is up to the council to approve it.


  • Model: Corporate structure of governance
  • Chief Executive: City Manager (appointed position)
  • Legislative Body: City Council

Under this system, the mayor is a city council chairperson. The city manager, who is appointed by the council, has the authority to appoint department directors. It is also the city manager who proposes the city budget which is then approved by the council. The city manager is also responsible for setting the city council agenda.

Weighing the Advantages

While each system does have its merits, there are certain strengths of each which is why certain systems may seem to work best in certain types of cities and towns. There are certain advantages to each structure that is certainly worth exploring.

Strong-MayorA strong mayor council puts the mayor at the head, so to speak, giving the city a political leadership that is very visible – and there are certain benefits to that. This structure places the executive in a position where he or she is directly accountable to voters and can implement the majority viewpoint faster. This means that they can quickly react to citizen concerns. It is the mayor’s office that is responsible for management duties such as operations, administration, and budgets. It is also the mayor who has veto power. Having a single voice in office places the mayor in a position to articulate a vision and act on it. This structure makes it easy to understand who is in charge, giving the city a single point person to handle constituencies and various groups that increase as the city grows.

Council-ManagerStrong Mayor

  • Increased stability
  • Less susceptible to political influence

  • Leadership more visible to public
  • Leadership directly accountable to voters
  • Mayor can enact changes more quickly


  • Harder to figure out who citizens talk to
  • Harder to hold elected officials accountable

  • Election changes can bring instability to services
  • Politics more likely trump other factors in decision making

The downside to this is a strong mayor system is that the executive is more subject to influence of a strong or vocal minority. Also, under this structure there is incredible pressure to please certain key holding groups or people in order to maintain political status. When this happens there is the danger of decisions being made from a political standpoint as opposed to what is best for the people. Again, this is not always the case, but it does happen.

It can also create a less stable leadership structure because the mayor is the one who is directly accountable to voters allowing him or her to swiftly implement the majority viewpoint. It also creates turnover in the office because department heads often report to the elected official. This means when the mayor is voted out of office those positions are re-staffed. This also results in degraded institutional knowledge retention.


If one person is politically influenced the decisions still have to pass the entire council
 A city manager-council structure has certain advantages to offer as well. Because it is a council that makes the decisions, there is less risk of political influence driving those decisions. If one person is politically influenced the decisions still have to pass the entire council. From an operations standpoint, this system also has the distinct advantage of placing a professional manager who is specially trained city management and public administration in charge of operations that can be rather complex and especially for cities where growth is rapid.

The turnover of staff is usually lower so the institutional knowledge is retained. This results in more stability of leadership as does the fact that in order for the city manager to leave office he or she must be fired by the council. This means that there are fewer changes in that role, unlike the mayor role where the role may change with each election.

The downside to this type of system is that the benefit of having political leadership that is very visible is lost. There is no point person to manage the constituencies and interest groups that increase as a city grows. Instead, these types of situations fall to the council and it can be difficult to maintain organization and order.

In this structure it is also easy for the mayor and council to deflect criticism. It also tends to be less responsive since the manager only takes direction from the council. Changer occur much slower. Because of this, it is more difficult for citizens to understand issues and to get action taking on that issue. They aren’t sure where they should go or who their point person is.


Neither is completely perfect
In the end, no matter which local government structure a city has, neither is completely perfect. Each has its pros and cons but what really matters is that the government is still working for the people because this is really about the people. It is about informed, educated voters who are asking the right questions to get the answers they need to make the right decisions.

What do you think? Which structure do you prefer? Why? Let us know in the comments below.


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Karl McCollester
Karl McCollester
President & CEO at Voterheads
Karl has a passion for local government, working closely with Cities and Counties on their technology strategies for over a decade. Karl fearlessly leads this crack-team as our President and CEO.

"I love using technology and code to make people's lives better. I love hearing: 'Oh wow, we can do that?'"

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Karl has a passion for local government, working closely with Cities and Counties on their technology strategies for over a decade. Karl fearlessly leads this crack-team as our President and CEO. "I love using technology and code to make people's lives better. I love hearing: 'Oh wow, we can do that?'"