Roles and Responsibilities of Local Government Leaders
This page provides a broad overview of the powers of the legislative and executive branches of cities and counties in Washington State, the role of the city attorney or county prosecutor, and practical tips for avoiding conflicts.
Special purpose districts are not covered on this page as each district is unique and the roles and responsibilities of the various bodies are more difficult to generalize.
However, some information on roles and responsibilities can be found in our publication Knowing the Territory: Basic Legal Guidelines for Washington City, County, and Special Purpose District Officials.
The responsibilities and levels of authority of city and county elected officials differ from those held by executive staff, and it is critical to understand the difference in order to avoid unnecessary conflict and confusion. These roles and responsibilities derive from the state constitution, state laws, local ordinances, and (for home rule cities/counties) local charters.
Unclear or misunderstood roles and responsibilities can lead to conflict and reduced effectiveness. On the other hand, a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities can lead to more collaboration and increase the effectiveness of all participants.
City, town, and county councilmembers and county commissioners are legislators. Together, the councilmembers or commissioners constitute a legislative body that is given authority by the state constitution and state law to make local laws.
Our political system is a representative democracy. Voters elect legislators to make policy decisions and enact laws on our behalf, which the legislators do by taking action during open public meetings. Except through the exercise of the initiative and referendum, citizens 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.
Local governments involve citizens and interest groups in the policymaking process in a variety of ways, such as public comment periods during regular meetings and special neighborhood meetings on issues affecting that neighborhood. 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 for a new candidate.
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 more extensive powers called "home rule" that permit them to exercise authority not specifically granted, provided that the state has not specifically prohibited that local authority.
There are some factors that make the policymaking process of counties different than 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.
In addition, county commissioners also share power with other elected county officials such as the assessor, auditor, prosecuting attorney, sheriff, county clerk, and treasurer. (For more information, see our page on County Elected and Appointed Officials.) In comparison, there are only a handful of Washington cities that elect anyone other than mayors or councilmembers.
For more details on the responsibilities and authority of legislative bodies, see the following MRSC publications:
- Knowing the Territory: Basic Legal Guidelines for Washington City, County and Special Purpose District Officials
- Mayor and Councilmember Handbook
- County Commissioners Guide
Mayors and city managers serve in the executive role for cities. In counties, executive authority lies with the commission, the county executive or county administrator, or a combination of the two. While executives often develop and propose policies, their basic responsibility is to carry out the legislative body’s directives and policies.
The relationship of the executive to the legislative body varies by form of local government: for cities, either mayor-council or council-manager, and for counties, either standard commission or home rule charter. MRSC’s pages on City and Town Forms of Government and County Forms of Government explain the distinctions between the different forms of government.
The separation of authority between the legislative body and the chief executive is very similar in the mayor-council, county executive, and council-manager forms of government.
In the mayor-council form of government, the mayor is the chief administrative officer who is responsible for all administrative functions. Some mayor-council cities have also hired a professional city administrator or chief administrative officer to serve under the mayor and take responsibility for many administrative duties. In the council-manager form, the appointed manager is the chief administrative officer.
A few charter counties have a separately elected county executive who serves as chief administrative officer (such as King, Pierce, Snohomish, and Whatcom counties.)
Some other charter or commission counties appoint a professional county administrator and delegate some or all of their administrative authority to the administrator, although there is no requirement to do so.
Some of the most common questions surrounding the roles and responsibilities of the legislative body and the executive are related to personnel matters, agenda setting, veto power, policy setting, contracting authority, and emergency powers.
In cities, the council creates departments, authorizes positions, adopts job descriptions, and fixes compensation. However, day-to-day administration of staff, including directing the work of staff and hiring and firing of staff, is the responsibility of the executive, whether that be the elected mayor or appointed city manager (see RCW 35A.12.090-.100, RCW 35A.13.080, and RCW 35A.13.120).
The city council is not involved in these types of day-to-day personnel matters, although local ordinances may require council confirmation of certain appointments in the mayor-council form of government (RCW 35A.12.090). The mayor or city manager’s authority to hire and fire may be delegated to department heads (RCW 35.18.090 and RCW 35A.13.100).
The role of the county commissioner or county councilmember in personnel matters differs depending on the county's form of government. County commissioners in the noncharter, commission form of government have a dual legislative and executive role. Therefore, they often play a critical role in hiring and supervising their own management staff.
County commissioners do not, however, play a direct role in hiring and supervising staff in other departments, such as the prosecuting attorney’s office or the auditor’s office. Their role in that context is limited to eliminating and establishing employee positions in a county department, setting department budgets, and creating new departments. See Smith v. Board of Walla Walla County Comm’rs (1987) and Osborn v. Grant County (1996).
The role that county councilmembers in home rule charter counties have in personnel matters will be set forth in the county charter. The general role of county councilmembers for charter counties is often limited to legislative functions, although charters sometimes require the council to approve the executive’s appointment and dismissal of department heads. MRSC’s topic page Your Responsibilities as a County Commissioner explore this role in more detail.
State law doesn’t address who prepares the regular meeting agenda; therefore, it is common for local policies and procedures to identify who is responsible for agenda preparation.
Counties often delegate agenda preparation to the board chair, county administrator, or the clerk. Similarly, mayors, city managers, and/or city clerks often prepare the preliminary meeting agenda for cities.
Members of the governing body can request agenda items be added either prior to or during the meeting. The method for doing so is set forth in the local rules of procedure and can include, for example, two or three councilmembers jointly requesting an item be added to a preliminary agenda or a single member making a motion to add an item to the agenda.
Mayors in mayor-council cities (but not towns) can veto ordinances passed by the council; mayors in towns and council-manager cities are not authorized to veto ordinances.
Mayoral vetoes are limited to ordinances and are not authorized for any other council action. The city council can override a mayoral veto by a majority plus one. If the city 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. For more information on mayoral voting and vetoes, see our page on Council Voting.
Some charter counties specifically give county executives veto authority over ordinances in the county charter, with the ability for the council to override that veto. For example, Snohomish County Charter 2.110 allows for the executive’s veto to be overridden by a majority of the council plus one.
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.
The city council has the authority to enter into contracts on behalf of the city and can delegate such authority to the mayor, city manager, or other department head (RCW 35.23.440(32), RCW 35A.11.010, and RCW 35.27.370). Commonly, this delegation will occur in the city code or local policy and will identify the specific contracting limits at which the mayor, city manager, or department head can execute the contracts. Any contracts above those limits still require council approval.
Similar to cities, the board of county commissioners have general supervisory authority over county funds (RCW 36.32.120(6)). However, case law provides that individual county elected department heads have broad control over their departments, including the authority to sign contracts that are within the budget allocation for the department without advance approval of the board (see State ex rel. Taylor v. Superior Court for King County (1940) and Miller v. Pacific County (1973)). Counties do adopt purchasing policies, including controls such as specific thresholds for board approval. See, for example, Clallam County Purchasing, Bids and Contracts Policy, Section 4.1, which requires board approval for contracts over $50,000 in a calendar year and most contracts of $25,000 per year that span multiple calendar years.
For additional examples of local procurement policies detailing contract signature authority, see our page on Procurement Policy Guidelines.
Both the legislative body and the executive have emergency management powers under state law. While both have the authority to declare that an emergency exists, it is often the mayor, city manager, or county executive who first declares the emergency because they can act more swiftly than the council as a body. (The council or commission would have to hold a special meeting under RCW 42.30.080 to declare an emergency.) While not required by state law, some local codes require that the legislative body ratify the executive’s emergency declaration. See, for example, Longview Municipal Code Ch. 10.60.
Once an emergency is declared, the local government can bypass normal procurement and competitive bidding requirements and can make the local government eligible for state and federal emergency funding. For more information, see our page on Local Government Emergency Planning.
City attorneys and county prosecutors have a unique relationship with the legislative body and the executive branch.
The city attorney’s client is the city as an entity, and city attorney's role is to provide legal advice to all branches of city government, including the legislative body and executive. The city attorney will also represent the city in all actions brought by and against the city.
Cities can either hire an “in house” city attorney or enter into a contract for legal services. While the city council creates the position and sets the compensation for an in-house city attorney, the executive (the mayor or city manager) selects the person to fill the role (sometimes subject to council confirmation). Similarly, if the position of city attorney has been made an office by ordinance or charter provision and that office is filled by contracting for legal services, the mayor or city manager selects someone to fill that office, subject to possible council confirmation.
The only instance in which the city council has the authority to select and hire (as well as fire) the city attorney is if the city attorney is hired by contract and the position of city attorney has not been made an office by ordinance or charter provision. See Koler v. Black Diamond. Regardless of how they are selected, the city attorney advises all city officials, including councilmembers, and the city council should rely on the city attorney for legal advice on city affairs. For more information, see our blog post Roles of the Mayor/Manager and the City or Town Council 101: Acquiring Legal Services.
Similar to the city attorney, the elected county prosecuting attorney represents the county as an entity and advises all branches of county government, prosecutes actions on behalf of the county, and defends the county against legal actions. The duties of the prosecuting attorney are set forth in RCW 36.27.020.
Hiring Outside Counsel
In rare circumstances where the city attorney has a conflict and cannot advise both the executive and the city council, a contract with outside counsel is appropriate.
For counties, the county council cannot contract for legal counsel separate from the elected prosecutor without court approval (RCW 36.32.200). We explore this issue in more detail in our publication Knowing the Territory.
Policy development processes are most effective and productive when the legislative body, the executive, and staff 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. Elected officials will sometimes focus on fairness or responding to the minority view so that their constituents feel adequately represented.
- 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 staff member's credibility can be seriously undermined if relevant, new information is introduced 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.
- 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.
- Don’t ask for personal help with campaign and election issues. It is not appropriate to ask staff to help on personal political matters, and state law prohibits the use of public facilities for campaign issues.
- Explore challenging issues with staff and encourage their creativity. Staff will sometimes take the position that they cannot pursue a certain initiative because it is contrary to existing code or policies. Work with staff on exploring creative ideas for achieving a community goal.
- Get to know and trust key staff. Staff can be a tremendous help in developing ideas, structuring good processes, and generally keeping you out of trouble.
- Treat staff respectfully. Otherwise, you may not get that extra effort that can make a difference in effectiveness.
- Avoid public criticism of staff. If elected officials have a legitimate concern about staff, discuss the matter with the executive, mayor, city manager, or department head, as appropriate. Remember that a councilmember does not have the authority to direct employees.
- 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.