Council-Manager Form of Government


The basic structural features of council-manager government include a town or city council elected by the voters to exercise overall control of the local government and the town or city manager -- appointed by and responsible to the council for the administration of municipal policies.  Differences abound in the manner of selecting the council or in the details of administrative organization.  The council-manager structure has proved quite adaptable to variations in local circumstances and traditions. 

Since the council is the elected legislative body, it must bear ultimate responsibility for all aspects of local government -- administrative as well as policy-making.  The council does rely on the manager to administer council policy but, in practice, the extent of the reliance may vary greatly depending upon the municipality and the situation.  Whatever arrangement works is the one used.  It is important to remember that the council is ultimately accountable to the public.
In some council-manager municipalities, the council chair is elected independently of other council members.  Even though directly elected, council chairs have no special functions other than presiding at council meetings and possible serving ex-officio on boards of other agencies.  A few cities have vested their council chair (sometimes called Mayors) with some degree of veto power, although this tends to place other council members in a subservient role to the chair and is less democratic.  Council chairs in council-manager municipalities are not chief executives for they have no formal administrative functions.  It is the manager who is the chief executive and who is responsible to the council for the proper performance of virtually all administrative functions.  This administrative responsibility is paired with the manager’s authority to appoint and remove all department heads who report directly to him.  In almost all council-manager municipalities, council members, both collectively and individually, are enjoined by the charter from dealing with department heads except though the manager.

Because of the manager’s position as chief executive, he can and should be expected to have a broad grasp of the needs of the community and the means by which they can be met most effectively.  It is normal to expect a manager possessing such a grasp of needs to make recommendations on community needs and their implementation.  The form, content, and frequency of these recommendations are definite determinants of the manager’s impact on policy-making.  Nevertheless, the council has the final decision-making responsibility.

As to a council becoming involved in administration, the council-manager structure provides to councils, so inclined, an opportunity to become as entwined in administrative matters as they wish, through their direct and complete control of the manager.

Thus, the relationship between the council and the manager is not truly one of a structural division of authority but rather as a practical division of work along broad functional lines.  In dealing with municipal problems, the council and the manager must work together on the same projects, each doing their part to reach a satisfactory solution.  Such teamwork, often unstated in state laws and local charters, is implicit in the council-manager system.


Political or policy leadership in a council-manager structure is basically the responsibility of the elected council as a group.  Again, in practice, this is not always the case.  Sometimes the council chair alone assumes a strong policy leadership role.  At other times, this leadership may come from a bloc of council members that may or may not include the Chair.  At still other times, individual members of the council may vie for the part of principal policy leader.

Several advantages are often cited in favor of council-manger government.  Since the council is able to choose the best qualified person it can find to direct the administrative operations of the municipality, a consistently high standard of administrative management is usually achieved.  Additionally, this structure centralizes authority for effective professional administration in one person whose reputation and future career depend on the quality of his work.

Another positive feature identified with the council-manager system is the concentration of responsibility in the elected council.  So far as the voters are concerned, the council is responsible for effective governmental results.  Failures simply cannot be blamed by the council on anyone else.  There is no “buck-passing” in the council-manager structure.  In the same vein, this governmental form is claimed to be, structurally, the simplest of all governmental forms.


In conclusion, the council-manager form is a workable and adaptable governmental structure.  It has grown, in just a little over a half-century, from a mere experiment to one of the most popular plans for municipal government utilized in over 2,500 municipalities throughout the country in towns and cities of all sizes.