Quick Guide for Newly Elected City Officials
Congratulations on your election! As you transition from campaigning to governing, MRSC is here to help you with research and guidance on a wide range of legal and policy topics. MRSC’s services include:
- Free, personalized consultation. Have a question? Just Ask MRSC! With one call or click you can get a personalized answer from one of our trusted attorneys, policy consultants, or finance experts!
- Online research tools. Our online research portal is a great place to start exploring issues and topics that you need more information on. You can obtain practical guidance through our hundreds of online topic pages; download detailed publications on popular subjects such as the Public Records Act, bidding requirements, and revenue sources; access an extensive collection of local government sample documents to see what others are doing and how they’re doing it; and much more!
- Timely updates in your inbox. By signing up for our popular e-newsletters you can stay informed about new legislation, court decisions, and other important issues for local governments in Washington.
- Webinars and workshops. MRSC hosts regular trainings and webinars, where our staff consultants team up with leading governance professionals to discuss various topics. Many of our trainings offer continuing education credits, including Certificate of Municipal Leadership (CML) credits from the Association of Washington Cities (AWC).
Here are some of our key resources to get you acquainted with your new job:
- Knowing the Territory - Basic legal guidelines for local officials
- The Mayor & Councilmember Handbook - Roles of mayors and city councilmembers. Produced by in partnership with the Association of Washington Cities (AWC), one of our partner organizations.
In addition, AWC provides an excellent Small City Resource Manual that provides an extensive overview for officials in towns and small cities.
Each city or town is classified as first class, second class, code, or town – except for Waitsburg, which is unclassified. In addition, each city is run under a mayor-council or council-manager form of government. Eleven cities operate under a home rule charter, which allows them to establish their own forms of government.
These distinctions affect how your city government operates, the roles and responsibilities of the council and mayor, and the powers your city has under state law.
To see your city’s classification and form of government, use MRSC’s City and Town Profiles. For more information on these different classifications and forms of government, see our pages City and Town Classification and City and Town Forms of Government.
Your term normally begins on January 1 or when you take the oath of office, whichever is later. The oath is usually administered at a formal meeting of the governing body – either the first meeting after January 1 or the last meeting before January 1.
As a public official, all of your “written” records related to city business are subject to public inspection under the state Public Records Act (PRA), with very narrow exceptions. The PRA defines “writing” very broadly to include not only traditional written records, but also things like photos, maps, videos, voicemails, emails, text messages, and tweets.
State law requires every local elected official to receive public records training no later than 90 days after taking the oath of office or assuming their duties. The training may be completed before assuming office, and each official must take a refresher course at least every four years.
MRSC and AWC have created a Public Records online course to help mayors and councilmembers fulfill these training requirements.
The mayor (in mayor-council cities) or city manager (in council-manager cities) serves as the chief administrative officer. Their primary roles and responsibilities include implementing laws adopted by the city council, proposing a budget, and managing the city’s administrative functions, including most personnel decisions. In many mayor-council cities there is also a hired city administrator that serves under the mayor and performs many of these administrative duties.
City councilmembers serve as the legislative branch and have several key roles and responsibilities, including passing laws, establishing policies, and conducting hearings. Councilmembers do not have authority over city administration or most personnel decisions, which are left to the mayor or city manager, depending on the form of government. City councilmembers should resist the temptation to intervene in administrative matters.
Councilmembers must follow certain procedures to enact legislation and establish policies, culminating with public meetings where they vote on individual ordinances, resolutions, and motions.
Ordinances typically refer to permanent laws and rules of conduct, such as establishing laws, prohibiting certain activities, or setting salaries for particular offices. Resolutions are typically less formal and usually set out the council’s opinion on a special or temporary matter. However, some items may be adopted by ordinance or resolution. Motions are similar to resolutions and direct the council to take a certain action.
For a resolution, ordinance, or motion to take effect, it must be approved by the city council with a quorum (minimum number of councilmembers) present. The quorum requirements are established by state law. The number of votes required to pass a measure depends on the classification of the city or town, the size of its legislative body, and in some instances the nature of the legislation. For details, see MRSC’s publication on Local Ordinances.
Each city council is also responsible for setting its own rules of procedure, including items such as the agenda-setting process and desired parliamentary procedures. Check with your clerk to see what formal rules have been adopted by your council.
Some items also require public hearings, where councilmembers or other officials solicit comments from the public. These meetings may be legislative (to obtain comments on proposed policies, plans, or budgets affecting a wide range of citizens) or quasi-judicial (to obtain comments on items affecting individual parties, typically on land use matters).
While councilmembers may act in a partisan way at legislative meetings to advance their own policy visions, quasi-judicial proceedings must be conducted in a fair and unbiased manner according to the appearance of fairness doctrine.
The state Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) requires all meetings of a governing body to be open and accessible to the public. This generally applies to any meeting in which a majority of the city council meets and discusses council business, with limited exceptions. The OPMA contains specific requirements for regular meetings, special meetings, emergency meetings, and executive sessions.
State law requires every member of a governing body subject to OPMA to receive OPMA training no later than 90 days after taking the oath of office or assuming their duties. The training may be completed before assuming office, and each member must take a refresher course at least every four years.
MRSC and AWC have partnered to create an online course helping mayors and councilmembers fulfill these training requirements.
Fiscal management is one of the key responsibilities of elected officials. The operating budget is the most important financial document and provides a road map for the year and a reflection of your city’s priorities. It provides the legal authority to incur and pay expenses by allocating available resources to provide services for your citizens. You should familiarize yourself with your city’s current operating budget, as well as its budget development process and policies.
Cities and towns operate on a calendar year basis, with the fiscal year starting January 1 and ending December 31 – unlike the state, whose fiscal year begins July 1 and ends June 30. Most cities use an annual (one-year) budgeting process, but some adopt a biennial (two-year) budget.
The budget process begins in the summer, with the final budget for the upcoming year(s) adopted by the end of the calendar year. The chief administrative officer (either the mayor, city manager, city administrator, or finance director, depending on the jurisdiction) leads the budget process to keep it consistent with the goals of the policymakers and the budget procedures required by statute.
Councilmembers are often involved in the development of budget policies and guidelines that help guide management and staff with the budget process.
For all things budget-related, see our page Budgeting in Washington State.
Most significant city purchases and contracts must follow specific competitive bidding processes to ensure fairness, open competition, and efficiency. The minimum rules are set by state statute and depend on a city's classification and population, but a number of cities have adopted their own, more stringent bidding procedures. Even if competitive bidding is not required, it is usually a good idea.
For more information related to procurement, see our pages on Purchasing and Contracting.
Elected officials set the direction of a city’s planning, development regulations, and zoning by adopting corresponding plans, policies, and regulations. The Growth Management Act requires most cities to prepare comprehensive plans and development regulations.
City officials work with planners and other staff members to develop and implement these plans. Some cities also have a planning commission appointed by the mayor or council, which typically makes advisory recommendations on long-range plans (such as comprehensive plans) and land use regulations. While some planning commissions make decisions on specific development proposals, many cities delegate that authority to a hearing examiner and/or planning staff.
The Department of Commerce has prepared A Short Course on Local Planning, an excellent (and free) resource for newly elected officials and planning commissioners that includes videos, training workshops, and other documents to introduce you to local planning decisions and responsibilities.
As an elected official, it is important to avoid even the appearance of ethical misconduct. Unethical behavior can lead to fines, voided contracts, and even removal from office, as well as reduced trust in your city or town government.
State law specifically prohibits elected officials from engaging in certain conflicts of interest, such as securing special privileges or exemptions for themselves, receiving gifts related to their work, disclosing confidential information, having financial interests in most public contracts, or holding incompatible offices.
In addition, some cities have adopted their own, more stringent codes of ethics.
- Association of Washington Cities – Advocates on behalf of cities at the state legislature and provides training and other resources, including its Small City Resource Manual, annual conference, and various training events and workshops which can earn you a Certificate of Municipal Leadership.
- State Auditor’s Office Center for Government Innovation – Provides training and technical assistance to local governments in Washington to improve performance, efficiency, and effectiveness
- National League of Cities – Advocates on behalf of cities at the federal level and provides training and research
- Harvard University: Transition Manual for Newly Elected Mayors (2007) – Information on setting priorities, building relationships, and staffing the office
- Governing Institute: Guide to Financial Literacy – Information on how to connect money, policy, and priorities