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Roles and Responsibilities of Local Government Leaders

This page provides an overview of the powers of the legislative and executive branches of cities and counties in Washington State, along with practical tips for avoiding conflicts.


"Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right things."
- Warren Bennis

Constitutions, charters, statutes, and ordinances are the sources of authority for elected officials and staff in the policymaking process, and a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities can increase the effectiveness of all participants.

Legislative Bodies

City, town, and county councilmembers and county commissioners are legislators. Together they constitute a legislative body that is given authority by the state constitution and state law to make local law.

Local legislative authority is generally limited to what the state specifically grants to counties, cities and towns. However, code cities, charter cities, and charter counties have "home rule" powers that permit them to exercise authority not specifically granted, provided that the state has not specifically prohibited that local authority.

Our political system is a representative democracy. We elect legislators to make policy decisions and enact laws on our behalf. Except through the exercise of the initiative and referendum, we do not practice direct democracy. The essence of the legislative process is the give and take of different interests and the search for a compromise that is acceptable to the majority.

Often there are elaborate mechanisms to involve citizens and interest groups in the policymaking process. But in the end, legislative bodies make the decisions and voters must abide by these decisions. Those who are not satisfied with the outcome can always seek to change their representative by voting him/her out of office. 


While mayors and city managers often develop and propose policies, their basic responsibility is to carry out the council's directives and to implement the policies adopted by the council. Commissioners serve both legislative and executive roles. The relationship of the executive to the legislative body varies by form of local government: mayor-council, council-mayor, or commission.

  • Mayor-Council Form of Government: Policy and administration are separate. All legislative and policymaking powers are vested in the city council. This is also true for most charter counties that have county councils, including King, Snohomish, Pierce, and Whatcom counties. Administrative authority is vested in a directly elected mayor (sometimes called a "strong mayor") or county executive. Mayors in second class mayor-council cities and code mayor-council cities may veto ordinances but the mayor's veto can be overruled by two-thirds vote of the council.
  • Council-Manager Form of Government: All legislative and policy powers are vested in the city council. The council hires a professional city manager, who heads the administrative branch of government, to carry out the policies the council develops. The mayor is usually selected by the city council from among its members, although in a few larger cities (such as Tacoma, Vancouver, and Olympia), the voters directly elect the mayor through provisions of a charter or through RCW 35A.13.033 for optional municipal code cities. The mayor's responsibilities are primarily to preside at council meetings and to act as head of the city for ceremonial purposes and for purposes of military law. The mayor votes as a councilmember and does not have any veto power. Political skills possessed by the mayor can be helpful in bringing parties together in the policy development process. Currently, the only county that has adopted this organizational model is Clark County, which is in the process of transition. San Juan County has adopted a hybrid form that includes a county manager position but retains much of the commission form as well.
  • Commission Form of Government: In the commission form of government, one elective body includes the executive, legislative, and administrative functions of government. No cities in Washington operate under a commission form of government any more, but 32 of the 39 counties in Washington use a commission form of government. The board of commissioners sits as a body, passes laws, and makes policy. Clallam County's home rule charter established a county administrator to assist the commissioners, but both the executive and legislative functions are retained by the commissioners.

While much of this information is relevant to both cities and counties, there are some factors that make the policymaking process of counties different from cities. Elected county offices are partisan in a majority of the counties; candidates must declare party affiliation when they run for office. In comparison, all elected city offices are nonpartisan. County commissioners share power with other elected county officials such as the assessor, auditor, prosecuting attorney, sheriff, county clerk, and treasurer. There are only a handful of Washington cities that elect anyone other than mayors or council members.

The separation of authority between the legislative body and the chief executive in the mayor-council, county executive, and council-manager forms of government is very similar. In the mayor-council form of government, the mayor is the chief administrative officer who is responsible for all administrative functions. When separately elected, the county executive serves as chief administrative officer in those counties that have a council (such as King, Pierce, Snohomish, and Whatcom counties). In the council-manager form, the appointed manager is the chief administrative officer.

The council creates county departments, authorizes positions, and fixes compensation. The council may not direct the hiring of any employee by the chief administrative officer, although local ordinances may call for council confirmation of appointments in the mayor-council form of government. The mayor has the power to appoint and remove all appointive officers and employees, consistent with the laws of the city. This authority to hire and fire may be delegated to department heads. In the council-manager form, the manager supervises city business, appoints and removes department heads and employees, executes laws, recommends activities to the council, submits reports, submits a proposed budget, and performs other duties directed by ordinance.

Mayors, county executives, city managers, and staff do not make policy decisions. However, they have strong influence on the policymaking process and its resultant decisions. For example, they propose budgets, oversee staff-led studies and analyses related to proposed policies, and make policy recommendations to councils. Through their ongoing contacts with key interest groups, elected and appointed chief administrative officers and department heads influence (and are influenced by) other participants in the policy development process.

What Staff Needs to Know about Elected Officials

Policy development processes are most effective and productive when key players work well together. Each party has a role to play, along with clearly defined responsibilities. Conflicts often develop when the legitimate needs and roles of one party are not understood by another. Here are some suggestions that might make the policy development process more effective.

  • Elected officials have different needs than staff. To be effective, elected officials must be responsive to the needs of their constituents. Concerns for "fairness" and "minority views" may outweigh issues of effectiveness or efficiency.
  • Elected officials want to know where various groups stand on an issue. This information is important in attempting to balance the conflicting values that often come into play during the policymaking process.
  • Elected officials do not like surprises. This is particularly true at the end of a long and arduous process. A staffmember's credibility can be seriously undermined if key interests introduce relevant, new information at a final public hearing before action is to be taken. Councilmembers depend on staff to provide pertinent, timely, and complete information on issues the council must take under consideration.
  • Elected officials like to have choices. No one likes to feel backed into a corner with only one solution. Even a brilliant staff proposal may not carry the day if other choices were not seriously considered.
  • Staff can be an enormous help. Staff can set an example by showing how compromise can be reached on thorny issues. They can also make everyone on the policy/administrative team look good by sharing credit.

What Elected Officials Need to Know about Staff

  • Some key staff belong to national and state associations that hold members to professional and ethical standards. For example, many city managers and administrators belong to the Washington City/County Management Association and are bound by the International City/County Management Association code of ethics. Asking staff to help on certain political matters, such as election and ballot campaigns, puts them in a difficult position. State laws also significantly limit the use of public resources for campaign issues.
  • Explore challenging issues with staff and encourage their creativity. Staff will sometimes assert that "we can't do this because it violates technical standards." While these standards are legitimate attempts to address important public goals, they often do not fully recognize other community values. For example, street design standards favor the movement of traffic. If the street is not critical for the movement of large traffic volumes, there may be ways to design the street to achieve other community goals by providing wider sidewalks, bike lanes, and space for recreational and social activities. (However, access may be lost to certain categories of state or federal funds if standards are not met.)
  • Get to know and trust key staff. Competent staff can be a tremendous help in developing ideas, structuring good processes, and generally keeping you out of trouble.
  • Treat each other respectfully. Otherwise, you may not get that extra effort that can make a difference in effectiveness.
  • Avoid public criticism of each other; it only makes for martyrs. If there is a legitimate concern, discuss the matter privately. If you are a councilmember, remember that you do not have the authority to direct employees. Discuss your concerns with the executive, mayor, or city manager. If you are on staff, ask for policy clarification if you are not sure what was intended.
  • Show appreciation for good work. Say "thanks." Share credit. Understanding and appreciating the differing roles of your team members will improve the policymaking and decision-making process.

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Last Modified: April 02, 2021