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Balance of Power Struggles in City Government


March 6, 2017 by Flannary Collins
Category: Administrative and Elected Officials

Balance of Power Struggles in City Government

The balance of power struggles currently playing out in the federal government have me thinking about similar power struggles that can happen between the executive and legislative branches at the city level, including:

  • Authority to hire and fire staff
  • Contracting authority
  • Authority to direct city staff
  • Managing council meetings
  • Mayor’s veto authority

This blog will touch on these struggles as they occur in code and second-class cities, providing insight on how to handle common conflicts that arise between the legislative and executive branches of city government. First-class cities are governed by their unique charters, and will therefore not be discussed in this blog post. While similar to cities in many respects, towns have some legal differences (e.g., town mayors do not have veto authority), and  therefore will also not be directly discussed in this blog post. 

Who Can Hire and Fire Employees?

The general answer is that the city council doesn’t have the authority to hire or fire; this power resides in the city’s executive branch—either the mayor (mayor-council city) or the city manager (manager-council city).

Some city codes do give the council a role in hiring and firing. For example, the City of Pullman’s municipal code, requires council approval for the city attorney, public works director, and the planning director. Note, however, that this is not an option for council-manager code cities.

Even if the charter or city code do not reserve any hiring or firing authority for council, the council is not completely powerless over personnel decisions. The council does have an indirect say in hiring and firing since the council controls the city’s purse strings. So, in passing or amending the budget, the council can either create a new position for the executive to fill or eliminate one that currently exists (requiring a termination). By controlling the budget, the council can also reduce or increase compensation, which may in turn result in the executive hiring a new position, or an employee leaving due to the lowered compensation.

Who Can Enter Into or Terminate a Contract?

Only city councils have the authority to contract (RCW 35A.11.010; RCW 35A. 11.020; RCW 35.23.440), although councils commonly delegate some of this authority to department heads, the city manager, or the mayor. See for example, the City of Renton’s policy on contracting authority.

Sometimes the power struggle arises in contracted professional services, such as contracts with law firms for city attorney services. Essentially, unless the position of city attorney has been made an appointed office under the city code, then the authority to terminate the contract resides in the council. This can cause a bit of confusion since the executive is typically responsible for hiring or firing employees. But, a contracted law firm is not an employee and in the event the city attorney is not an appointed office, then the council, not the mayor or manager, decides whether to retain the firm’s services. For more information, see this MRSC blog post.

Who Can Direct Staff?

The mayor or city manager is responsible for the day-to-day administration of the city and staff, and councilmembers generally cannot give direct orders to staff. RCW 35A.13.120; RCW 35A.12.100; RCW 35.23.021. On a related note, the council as a body should be given access to city records necessary to perform their governance duties without having to submit a public records request.

Who Manages Council Meetings?

The city council has the authority to establish the council meeting agendas. After all, it is the council’s meeting. Often, council rules of procedure will delegate agenda preparation to the mayor, manager, or the city clerk. However, the substance of the agenda ultimately is under the control of the council.

During the meeting itself, the mayor is the presiding officer and is responsible for running the meeting. See RCW 35A.12.100; RCW 35A.13.030; RCW 35.23.201.

Can a Mayor Veto an Ordinance?

A mayor in a mayor-council city can veto an ordinance passed by the council, but the council can override a mayoral veto by a majority plus one. See RCW 35A.12.130; RCW 35.23.021. Mayoral vetoes are not uncommon and, at the very least, allow the mayor to assert his/her opinion independent of council. Recent mayoral vetoes include:

  • The City of Spokane mayoral veto of an ordinance requiring local businesses to provide up to 5 days of sick leave; and
  • The City of Ferndale attempted mayoral veto of a second marijuana store.

If the council does override the veto and the mayor still refuses to sign the ordinance, the ordinance is still valid even without the mayor’s signature. See RCW 35A.12.130; RCW 35.23.021.

Final Thoughts

Power struggles are somewhat inevitable in city government, but so long as the mayor/manager and the council have an effective working relationship, these power struggles don’t have to be fatal. Instead, they can be the sign of involved executive and legislative branches.

Comments or questions? Please email me at fcollins@mrsc.org.

About Flannary Collins

Flannary Collins is the Managing Attorney for MRSC. She first joined the organization as a legal consultant in August 2013 after working for ten years as the assistant city attorney for the city of Shoreline. At MRSC, Flannary enjoys providing legal guidance to municipalities through inquiry assistance and in-person trainings on municipal issues, with a heavy emphasis on the Public Records Act.

VIEW ALL POSTS BY Flannary Collins

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