Austin, San José and other cities are considering moving away from the council-manager form of government, threatening to politicize local governance, take power away from city councils and reverse the 100-year trend toward more professional management.
The council-manager form was founded more than 100 years ago by the National Civic League, International City/County Management Association and others, who crafted a Model City Charter in 1915 as part of an effort to battle corruption and partisanship in local government. The model recommended that cities be managed by a city manager appointed by the mayor and council and that this manager would then appoint and manage an administrative team of professionals to deliver city services.
This model form of governance has since been adopted by a majority of cities over 2,500 in population, including small towns and larger cities. Some of the large cities using a city manager include San Antonio, Dallas, Phoenix and Charlotte. Many cities with a strong mayor as the appointing authority have a chief administrative officer, like in Los Angeles, but this official does not necessarily have the independence to offer assessments to the council of initiatives promoted by the mayor nor to provide complete information about performance to support council oversight as city managers do.
In Austin a community group has proposed a set of charter amendments that include abolishing the city manager position and empowering the mayor to make cabinet appointments and propose an annual budget. A spokesman for the group feels that this will allow the voters "to decide what kind of city we want to be” every four years and a campaign spokesman cites an advantage of having the city run more like the federal government, where the president carries out policies. The proposal, however, does not require the mayor to carry out policies decided by the city council, saying there will be “no articulated or stated charter authority to require the mayor to implement Council decisions.”
A professor from UT-Austin, Terrell Blodgett, who is also a former board member of the National Civic League, disagrees, saying that Austin’s council-manager system is more efficient and effective, having conducted a comparative study of Texas cities in 2015. Blodgett also points to an IBM study that showed greater efficiency in council-manager cities nationally.
Another city considering a move from council-manager to mayor-council is San José, CA, where a commission has been formed to consider this and other changes. Creation of the commission followed a move by Mayor Sam Liccardo last year to initiate the charter change on his own. A city in which voters weakened the city manager is San Antonio, where voters imposed an eight year ”term limit” and a salary cap on their city manager in 2018.
At the same time, voters in some cities have rejected the move away from the council-manager system and have sometimes moved in the other direction in response to scandals or political turmoil caused by mayors. According to data collected by James Svara and Kimberly Nelson, since 2000, 12 cities over 100,000 population have rejected moves from council-manager to mayor-council in recent years (Sacramento twice) and four cities have converted to the council-manager form, like San Bernardino, CA, which changed forms in 2016. Following scandals involving several mayors over time, voters in Baltimore overwhelmingly approved amendments last year to move many powers from the mayor to a new chief administrative officer and enhance powers of the city council.
One of the arguments made by Terrell Blodgett in opposing the move away from city managers is the loss of power to legislative bodies (city councils, commissions, etc.) that results from all programs and personnel being housed under the mayor. In council-manager systems councils are able to hire, supervise and evaluate a city manager charged with implementing policies and programs, while they are not able to provide direct oversight in a strong mayor system.
City managers also are governed by a code of ethics with guidelines created by the International City/County Management Association and are trained to provide a full and fair assessment of policy options for the city council and to run programs in a professional, cost-effective manner and to follow strict ethical standards. A study by Kimberly Nelson and Whitney Afonso at the University of North Carolina showed that municipalities with council-manager systems were 57% less likely to have corruption convictions than municipalities with mayor-council systems.
The professionalism and relative lack of politics and partisanship in local government is likely part of the reason that people trust local government more than state or federal governments. Polling by the Pew Research Center shows that trust in local government is nearly twice as high, 67%, as trust in the federal government, 35%, with state government in between, at 58%. And since most local governments of significant size use the council-manager system, this form of governance is partly responsible for this trust.
Dr. John Nalbandian argues that city managers are uniquely positioned “at the intersection of political and administrative arenas, facilitating the connection between what is ‘politically acceptable’ in the community and what is ‘operationally sustainable.’” Nalbandian, a retired faculty member from University of Kansas School of Public Affairs and Administration, also argues for the effectiveness of city manager-run systems, pointing out that two-thirds of Moody’s Aaa-bond-rated communities operate under the council-manager form.
Council-manager systems have also been shown to be more innovative. Drs. Kimberly Nelson and Jim Svara showed in a 2010 study that council-manager systems result in more administrative and management innovation, partly as a result of managers and their staff being professionally trained and constantly updating their knowledge and skills regarding innovation.
One area in which innovations are regularly initiated by city managers is civic engagement. In many cities new forms of civic engagement have been pursued, and some cities, like Ft. Collins, CO, and Madison, WI, have guides for city departments to follow on engaging the public in all new programs. The National Civic League has dozens of examples of civic engagement on our website and will continue to work to help city managers, as well as elected officials and their community members, address local challenges in an effective, inclusive manner.
This article was submitted by League President Doug Linkhart with assistance from Dr. Kimberly Nelson, Dr. Jim Svara and League Research Director Mike McGrath.