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Knowing Your Roles: City and Town Governments Edition


January 21, 2020 by MRSC Insight
Category: Administrative and Elected Officials

Knowing Your Roles: City and Town Governments Edition

It is essential for effective local government that municipal officials, particularly mayors, councilmembers, and city managers, understand the roles of their respective offices and their interrelationships with one another. Conflicts in city and town governments can be the result of confusion as to these roles and the consequent overstepping of them. Although those boundaries may be unclear in some cases, there is a basic structure to city and town government from which these roles derive.

Forms of City and Town Government

Washington cities and towns are organized under two principal forms of government: the mayor-council form or the council-manager form. Though the focus of this article is on the mayor-council form of government, the basic principles apply equally to the council-manager form.

The powers of city government are distributed among three separate branches: legislative, executive, and judicial, as shown in the table below, along with state and federal equivalents.

Branch of Government Federal- or State-Level Example City- or Town-Level Example
Legislative branch Congress/ state legislature council
Judicial branch Supreme Court/district court municipal court
Executive branch president/ governor mayor or manager

The focus of Congress, the state legislature, or a city council is policymaking. A municipal court exercises judicial functions, although in a more limited way than the state or federal courts, and the mayor (or manager) heads the executive branch of city government much like the president and governor head the federal and state executive branches, respectively.

Under the "separation of powers doctrine," each of the three branches exercises certain defined powers, free from unreasonable interference by the others, yet all three branches interact with each other as part of a checks and balances system. The powers of these branches in city government are defined for the most part by state statute (Ch. 35A.12 RCW for mayor-council cities; Ch. 35.18 RCW  for council-manager non-code cities; and Ch. 35A.13 RCW for council-manager code cities).

The Responsibility of a Council

The council has the power to enact laws and policies, consistent with state law, regulating local and municipal affairs, usually through the enactment of ordinances and resolutions. In general, the council's authority also includes the specific authority to:

  • Enact a city budget.
  • Define the powers, functions, and duties of city officers and employees.
  • Fix the compensation of officers and employees.
  • Establish the working conditions of officers and employees.
  • Maintain retirement and pension systems.
  • Impose fines and penalties for violation of city ordinances.
  • Enter into contracts.
  • Regulate the acquisition, sale, ownership, and other disposition of real property.
  • Provide governmental, recreational, educational, cultural, and social services.
  • Impose taxes, as authorized by state law.
  • Cause the city to own and operate utilities.
  • Approve claims against the city.
  • Grant franchises for the use of public ways.
  • License, for the purpose of revenue and regulation, most any type of business.

In addition, the council is authorized to enact rules governing its procedures, including for public meetings and hearings.

The Responsibility of the Mayor/Manager

The mayor is the chief executive and administrative officer of the city in charge of carrying out the policies set by the council and seeing to it that local laws are enforced. The mayor (or manager in a council-manager city) is basically in charge of the day-to-day operations of the city, including the supervision of all appointive officers and employees in the performance of their official functions. The mayor is in charge of hiring and firing all appointive officers and employees, subject, where applicable, to laws regarding civil service. Councils have some authority to require confirmation of the appointment of certain officials (except for town councils) but do not require confirmation of firings by the mayor.

In general, the mayor also has the following authority to:

  • Enforce contracts.
  • Bring lawsuits, with council approval.
  • Preside over council meetings and, in some classes of cities, exercise some tie-breaking authority with respect to council votes and veto authority over ordinances.
  • Call special meetings of the council.
  • Prepare a proposed budget.
  • Report to the council on the financial and other affairs and needs of the city.
  • Perform as ceremonial head of the city.
  • Approve or disapprove all official bonds and contractor's bonds.

Consistent with the separation of powers doctrine, the council is not authorized to interfere with the administration of city government. Councilmembers may not give orders to department heads or to other city employees. In council-manager cities, this prohibition is established statutorily; the council must deal with the city manager concerning matters of city administration. Under the city manager's direction and "for the purpose of inquiry, the council may deal directly with officers and employees.

However, to do its job the council needs information on how the city is operating and the mayor/manager — either directly or through other city officers or employees — must provide that information to the council in a timely and useful fashion.

Common Areas of Conflict

Of course, things do not always run smoothly between the council and the city administration, and the line between policy and administration may in some situations be blurred and imprecise. This section will explore two areas in which disagreements often arise.

Personnel

A common source of conflict is personnel, as the following sample scenarios demonstrate.

  • The council may not like a mayor's appointment to a particular position or it may be dissatisfied with the performance of certain officers or employees.
  • An employee may complain to and seek relief from the council about some aspect of employment.
  • The mayor may believe that certain personnel policies interfere with his or her supervision of employees or hiring and firing authority and may direct that all communications with city staff go through the mayor's office. The council, in response, may feel that the mayor is unlawfully restricting its access to city personnel for information purposes.

The remedy for some of these situations may be to review the respective roles of the mayor and the council and to understand the limitations of their respective authorities. Mayoral appointments offer insight into this dynamic, as not all councils have the same authority with respect to these appointments. Here are two examples. 

  • Council A is not pleased with a recent mayoral appointment and it has the authority to confirm some appointments. Council A rejects the appointee, which forces the mayor to choose another.
  • Council B is also not happy with a mayoral appointment but does not have confirmation authority. Council B can express its dissatisfaction to the mayor but cannot do more with regards to that appointment.

Note that both council A and council B may, through policymaking, provide for a detailed personnel system establishing specific qualifications for positions or requiring publication and public posting of job opening announcements for their respective jurisdictions. 

Similarly, if the council feels that an officer or employee is performing poorly and should be disciplined or fired, it can say so to the mayor but has no power to do anything else. Although it controls the salaries paid to city officers and employees, the council may not lower a salary so as to cause and with the purpose of causing the person holding that position to quit. A rule to follow is that the council (and the mayor) may not do indirectly what it cannot do directly.

On the issue of communication between the council and city officers and employees, the mayor may not prevent councilmembers from gaining information through an inquiry process, although he or she could reasonably regulate such a process. However, if councilmember inquiries of city employees serve to harass those employees, become burdensome, or unreasonably take them away from their duties, it may be necessary for the mayor to require those inquiries be channeled through the mayor's office, or that of another department head, as long as this can be done without unduly encumbering the council's access to information.

Budgets and finance

Finances and budgets are additional sources of conflict. For example, the mayor may not take full advantage of the budget authorized by the council. The council may authorize a certain position at a certain salary but the mayor may decide either not to fill the position or may do so at half-time and half-salary. The mayor may cite financial challenges, such as revenues falling short of projections, and may conclude that the city cannot afford someone filling this position full-time. The council, on the other hand, may not agree that the conditions warrant such action or may determine that a different cost-saving measure is appropriate and should be instituted.

Resolution of this type of issue may prove particularly tricky. Although the mayor may not pay an employee less than that authorized by the council in the budget or in a separate salary ordinance, the mayor, under certain financial circumstances, may be able to partially fill a position, proportionately reducing the salary for the position. However, legal authority is hazy on such issues, and the best strategy would be for the mayor and the council to work out a mutually agreeable accommodation.

Conclusion and Resources

There are other issues that will likely arise where it is not clear whether the mayor/manager has the authority to act or whether the council does. Understanding roles is a necessary step in resolving many such conflicts. However, when the roles are not clearly defined in a particular situation and statutes and case law do not provide a ready answer, compromise may be in order. In these cases, a pragmatic course of action may be to analyze the situation and then seek counsel of the city attorney or MRSC’s legal or policy consultants.  

Additionally, the Association of Washington Cities (AWC) offers many resources to help orient city and town elected officials to their roles and responsibilities, including the Elected Officials Road Map and an annual multi-part webinar series known as Elected Officials Essentials (EOE). Registration for the 2020 EOE series will open soon at AWC’s Events and Education webpage, and its eLearnings page currently features a free Knowing the Legal Territory video series designed specifically for newly elected mayors and councilmembers.


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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MRSC Insight reflects the best writing of MRSC staff on timeless topics that impact staff and elected officials in Washington cities, counties, and special purpose districts.

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