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City and Town Forms of Government

This page provides a basic overview of the mayor-council, council-manager, and commission forms of government in Washington State, including relevant statutes, statistics, and procedures for changing form of government.

To see the classification and form of government of any city or town, use MRSC’s Washington City and Town Profiles.


Washington cities and towns are organized under two principal forms of government: mayor-council and council-manager. These forms of government take somewhat different approaches to organizing the political and administrative structure of a city or town government.

Each city and town is also classified as a first class city, second class city, code city, or town, with different powers. (For more information, see our page on City and Town Classification.) In addition, state law permits larger cities to voluntarily adopt charters unique to their communities under certain circumstances as described below.

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 mayor-council and council-manager forms of government 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

Below is the number of cities by classification and form of government; for a more detailed history see our page Trends in City and Town Forms of Government.

Class Mayor-Council Council-Manager TOTAL
First 6 4 10
Second 5 0 5
Town 68 0 68
Code 147 50 197
Unclassified 1 0 1
TOTAL 227 54 281

Mayor-Council Form

Mayor-council is the most common form of government in Washington. As of 2018, this system is used by 227 cities in Washington, comprising about 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.

City Administrator

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 Form

Council-manager is the other common form of government in Washington. As of 2018, this system is used  by 54 cities in Washington, comprising about 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 (non-code cities) and Ch. 35A.13 RCW (code cities).

The council-manager form consists of an elected city council (which may be elected at-large or from districts) 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, a ceremonial mayor presides at council meetings and is recognized as the head of the city for ceremonial purposes but has no regular administrative duties. 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.

Comparison of Mayor-Council vs. Council-Manager

Characteristics Mayor-Council Council-Manager
Legislative authority Council Council
Executive authority Elected mayor Appointed manager
Selection of CEO Popularly elected Appointed by council on the basis of experience
Removal of CEO Recall election Removed by a majority vote of the council
Tenure of executive 4-year term Indefinite
Tenure of council 4-year term 4-year term
Appointment of department heads Mayor (with council confirmation if provided) Manager (no council confirmation)
Removal of department heads Mayor Manager
Veto Mayor Manager has no veto
Policy development Mayor can propose Manager can recommend
Policy implementation Mayor Manager
Underlying principles Separation of powers
Political leadership
Strong central executive
Separation of politics from administration
Promotes economy and efficiency through professional management
Strong central executive
Follows a business model

Commission Form

City commissions used to be a popular form of government in the early part of the 20th century but dwindled after that, largely replaced by council-manager governments. 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.

However, no cities in Washington operate under a commission form of government anymore. The last remaining city with a commission – Shelton – switched to a council-manager system in 2017.

City Charters

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.

The National Civic League has published a Guide for Charter Commissions and Model City Charter to help with reviewing and updating charters.

Mayor-Council City Charters

Council-Manager City Charters

  • Kelso (code city; charter 1993)
  • Richland (1958, last amended 1991)
  • Tacoma (1953, last amended 2014)
  • Vancouver (1952, last amended 2009)
  • Yakima (1931, last amended 2015)

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.

Since 2005, eight 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 our page on Trends in Form of Government.

All the examples below are noncharter code cities.

Examples Adopting Council-Manager Form

Examples Adopting Mayor-Council Form

Last Modified: April 02, 2021