This page provides a basic overview of the mayor-council, council-manager, and commission forms of government in Washington State. It also includes links to statutes, city charters, statistics, and procedures for changing form of government.
Washington cities and towns are organized under three principal forms of government:
- Mayor-council form
- Council-manager form
- Commission form
Each of these alternative forms represents a somewhat different approach to organizing the political and administrative structure of a city or town government. In addition, state law permits cities to adopt charters unique to their communities under certain circumstances.
MRSC's City and Town Profiles offers a list of Washington cities and towns, along with the form of government for each.
In general, choosing the form of government is not a matter of how much legislative and/or administrative authority the city or town will have. That will be the same regardless of the form that is selected. The most significant differences stem from the location and distribution of authority between the legislative and executive officials. These factors account for most of the differences between the two primary forms of government, mayor-council and council-manager, and have different implications for how a city or town will be governed and administered. For more information, see MRSC's handout on Common Issues and Pro/Con Arguments in Elections to Change Form of Government.
Number of Cities by Classification and Form of Government
Mayor-council is the most common form of government in Washington. As of 2015, this system is used by 228 cities in Washington, comprising almost 60% of the incorporated population, and includes small and large cities alike. The basic structure and organization of mayor-council cities is set out in Ch. 35A.12 RCW.
The mayor-council form consists of an elected mayor (elected at-large), who serves as the city's chief administrative officer, and a council (elected either at-large or from districts), which serves as the municipality's legislative body. The council has the authority to formulate and adopt city policies and the mayor is responsible for carrying them out. The mayor attends and presides over council meetings but does not vote, except in the case of a tie.
Mayoral veto authority is specified in the state laws relating to each city classification or is determined by local charter. In first class cities, the mayor's veto authority is specified in the city charter. In second class cities, the mayor may veto an ordinance, but the mayor's veto can be overridden by five members of the council. In code cities, the mayor's veto can be overridden by a majority plus one of the entire council membership. Town mayors do not have a veto power.
Many mayor-council cities have hired professional city administrators (sometimes also called chief administrative officers or CAOs) to serve under the mayor and assist with administrative and policy-related duties. By doing so, these cities seek to gain the benefits of professional management, allowing the mayor to focus greater attention on policy development, political leadership roles, or their own livelihood.
For some perspective and personal experiences regarding this approach, see the following article written by one of MRSC's staff members:
Below are a number of cities that have established a city administrator position and formally assigned duties to this position. Also, see our list of cities and towns with administrator positions.
Council-manager is the other common form of government in Washington. As of 2017, this system is used by 52 cities in Washington, comprising over 40% of the incorporated population, including quite a few medium-to-large cities. The basic structure and organization of council-manager governments is set out in Ch. 35.18 RCW, for non-code cities, and Ch. 35A.13 RCW, for code cities.
The council-manager form consists of an elected city council, which is responsible for policymaking, and a professional city manager, appointed by the council, who is responsible for administration. The city manager provides policy advice, directs the daily operations of city government, handles personnel functions (including the power to appoint and remove employees) and is responsible for preparing the city budget.
Under the council-manager statutes, the city council is prohibited from interfering with the manager's administration. The city manager, however, is directly accountable to and can be removed by a majority vote of the council at any time.
The council-manager form is based on the model of a business with a board of directors that appoints a chief executive officer. Another familiar public example is the school board-superintendent relationship.
In council-manager cities, the mayor is generally selected by the city council and this person must also be a councilmember. According to the provisions of RCW 35A.13.033, the charter of a first class city or the voters of an optional municipal code city may provide for the mayor to be directly elected by the people. The mayor presides at council meetings and is recognized as the head of the city for ceremonial purposes but has no regular administrative duties.
Comparison of Mayor-Council vs. Council-Manager
|Selection of CEO
||Appointed by council on the basis of experience
|Removal of CEO
||Removed by a majority vote of the council
|Tenure of executive
|Tenure of council
|Appointment of department heads
||Mayor (with council confirmation if provided)
||Manager (no council confirmation)
|Removal of department heads
||Manager has no veto
||Mayor can propose
||Manager can recommend
||Separation of powers
Strong central executive
|Separation of politics from administration
Promotes economy and efficiency through professional management
Strong central executive
Follows a business model
City commissions used to be a popular form of government in the early part of the 20th century, but only one city, Shelton, still operates under this system. The basic structure and organization of the commission form of government is laid out in Ch. 35.17 RCW.
The commission form provides for the election of three commissioners who function collectively as the city's legislative body and individually as city department heads. The three are elected at-large to fill the specific offices of the commissioner of public safety (who also serves as the mayor), the commissioner of finance and accounting, and the commissioner of streets and public improvements (public works).
Although one of the elected commissioners also has the title of mayor, he/she has essentially the same powers as the other commissioners, with no veto power nor any power to direct city administration except within his/her own department. The commission appoints and removes officials by a majority vote.
Cities with local charters can adopt a form of government that does not necessarily adhere to the statutory rules. First class cities and optional municipal code cities with a population over 10,000 may use charters to establish their form of government. However, only one code city (Kelso) has done this.
Mayor-Council City Charters
Council-Manager City Charters
Reorganizing/Changing Form of Government
Any city may change its form of government and adopt another authorized form of government. In general, the procedure may be initiated either by a resolution adopted by the city council or by a petition process, both of which are then followed by an election on the issue of reorganizing under a different form of government. The procedures differ slightly depending on the type classification of the city or town.
Non-code cities and towns can adopt or abandon the council-manager form of government through Ch. 35.18 RCW and adopt or abandon the commission form of government through Ch. 35.17 RCW. Code cities can change their form of government through the procedures in Ch. 35A.06 RCW.
For cities with charters, changing the form of government requires a charter amendment.
Sample Petition for Election to Reorganize
MRSC has developed a sample petition for use by code cities. It is worded to reflect a change from the mayor-council form of government to council-manager but can be easily revised for a change from council-manager to mayor-council if desired.
Recent Changes in Form of Government
Since 2005, seven cities in Washington have changed forms of government while efforts in many more cities have failed after voters rejected the majority of the proposed changes.
For a more detailed history, see MRSC's page on trends in form of government.
From Mayor-Council to Council-Manager
From Council-Manager to Mayor-Council