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Who’s the Boss? Separation of Powers in Local Government


February 18, 2021  by  Linda Gallagher
Category:  Administrative and Elected Officials

Who’s the Boss? Separation of Powers in Local Government

This blog post discusses the importance of the roles and responsibilities of elected and appointed officials working together in local governments, and it specifically targets the legislative and executive branches. 

Policy Making and Policy Implementation

Effective local government depends on a balance of the powers of policy making and policy implementation. Just as our federal government is designed with three co-equal branches of government — the legislative (Congress), executive (Presidential), and judicial (federal courts) branches — the authority of local governments depends upon separation of powers. This blog examines the interactions between two branches of local government — the legislative and the executive — but does not cover the third branch of local government, municipal and district courts.

Councils and commissions make policies. Mayors, city managers, county executives, and other public executives implement these policies. In cities and towns, mayors or city managers essentially serve as chief executive officers (CEOs). For counties, some have elected county executives while others have boards of county commissioners (BOCCs) that not only set policies but also have responsibility for policy implementation. Some counties have independently elected department heads. County commissioners may also delegate executive authority to staff. Special purpose district boards serve combined legislative and executive roles as established in the statutes providing specific powers and authorities to these public districts. Typically, a special purpose board appoints an executive director or general manager to run the district.

Mayors, City Managers, and Other Executives

Executive branch responsibilities include making appointments that are subject to council or commission confirmation; hiring, supervising, and terminating deputies and other staff; managing budgets; handling public records; and administering contracts. Mayors in cities with a mayor-council form of government are in charge of the administration of city government and all city interests. RCW 35A.12.100 provides, in relevant part:

The mayor shall be the chief executive and administrative officer of the city, in charge of all departments and employees, with authority to designate assistants and department heads. The mayor may appoint and remove a chief administrative officer or assistant administrative officer, if so provided by ordinance or charter. He or she shall see that all laws and ordinances are faithfully enforced and that law and order is maintained in the city, and shall have general supervision of the administration of city government and all city interests.

Under RCW 35A.13.080(2), in code cities with the council-manager form of government, the city managers are responsible for all day-to-day operations of the city including:

[t]o appoint and remove at any time all department heads, officers, and employees of the code city, except members of the council, and subject to the provisions of any applicable law, rule, or regulation relating to civil service.

In code cities with city managers, RCW 35A.13.120 essentially prohibits city council interference with city administration except for the purpose of inquiry through the city manager. Even when one councilmember has been selected as chair or mayor, this person remains a councilmember and part of the legislative branch of the city government, not the executive branch. Under RCW 35A.13.030, the role of a mayor in a city with a council-manager form of government is, in addition to serving as the chair of council meetings, essentially ceremonial.

Mayors, county executives, city managers, and staff do not make policy decisions, though they do have strong influence on the policymaking process and its resultant decisions. For example, they propose budgets, provide data and support related to proposed policies, and make policy recommendations to councils as well as receiving feedback and suggestions from these legislative bodies. This process works best when the executive and legislative branches work together with effective communication, trust, and collaboration.

Councilmembers, Commissioners, and Other Legislators

Councilmembers and commissioners are authorized and required to make policy. Councils and commissions make policy by passing legislation during public meetings pursuant to the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), chapter 42.30 RCW.

Legislative powers of cities and counties include budgeting and the appropriation of funds, authorization of payments, contracting for public works, drafting of procurement policies for other purchases and services, building and maintenance of agency facilities, and making and enforcing civil and criminal ordinances and resolutions that are not in conflict with state law. The Growth Management Act (GMA) planning process provides a long-term basis for planning, zoning, and budgeting for public projects through plan elements such as the Transportation Improvement Plan and Capital Improvement Plan, both of which have a six-year cycle.

For special purpose districts, the authorizing statutes for each type of district set forth the specific powers and duties of the districts through their legislative bodies, usually commissioners and directors.

Conclusion

So, who’s the boss in local government? Well, it depends, and the roles may have some overlap. For day-to-day operations and policy implementation in towns and cities, the mayor or city manager is the boss and leads the agency, all under the guidance of legislation put forth by the town or city council. Counties may have elected or appointed executives overseeing day-to-day operations. Special purpose districts also have executive directors or general managers who are in charge.

For legislation, including policy making and budgets, the legislative/governing body as a whole could be considered the boss. Ultimately, local elected officials are responsible to the people of their jurisdictions. Successful local government officials understand their respective roles and work together for the benefit of their communities.

MRSC Resources

Below are additional resources on local government roles and responsibilities.


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.

About Linda Gallagher

Linda Gallagher joined MRSC in 2017. She previously served as a Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for King County and as an Assistant Attorney General.

Linda’s municipal law experience includes risk management, torts, civil rights, transit, employment, workers compensation, eminent domain, vehicle licensing, law enforcement, corrections, and public health.

She graduated from the University of Washington School of Law.

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