Model City Charter—9th Edition: Introduction

The Model City Charter is the product of more than 100 years of interaction of thought leaders on urban governance, practitioners in city government, and scholars who conduct research on local government. In the early editions, the thought leaders guided the others on how government should be organized. In later editions and now, they work together to refine recommendations about the ideal features city governments should have in order to achieve the highest level of governmental performance. Increasingly, community activists have been involved in the charter review process as well. In the new edition, the perspectives of all contributors are combined to develop the best current recommendations for promoting ideal city governments.

In preparing to review and revise the Model City Charter, the National Civic League recognized the need to better integrate a newer mission of promoting civic engagement and social equity with the older mission of emphasizing efficiency, expertise, and ethics. At the time of this revision, cities are operating in a context of increased consciousness around issues of inequities based on race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and socio-economic standing.

While national attention to police misconduct and the COVID-19 pandemic provide important background to the emphasis on equity in this edition of the Model City Charter, more persistent challenges such as disparities in access to and quality of education, housing, employment, economic opportunity, and technology motivate the emphasis on equity. Accordingly, this edition of the Model City Charter highlights the importance of using a social equity lens—paying careful attention to race, ethnicity, and other social characteristics when analyzing problems, looking for solutions, and defining success—throughout local government and stresses the urgency with which local government must govern for equity.

Current conditions also elevate the importance of active efforts to engage the public in governmental processes and community problem-solving efforts. Opportunities for community engagement have been present from the beginning of democratic governance as voters have selected officials in elections and approved certain programs in referenda. Select community members could take part in advisory bodies. These opportunities for participation have expanded but have tended to be exchanges between government and residents—providing information and receiving and soliciting resident input—rather than active engagement of residents through incorporation and collaboration.

Incorporating a full range of residents in the community regardless of their citizenship status means working directly with them throughout the governmental process to ensure that public concerns and aspirations are consistently understood and considered by staff. Collaboration involves partnering with residents in each aspect of the decision-making process, from identifying issues, developing alternatives, choosing the preferred solution, and implementation. Residents have received programs and services, but they can also be involved in addressing many community problems that can only be solved with active resident participation. Local governments have unique institutional mediating structures that can be established and leveraged toward this purpose.

As has been the case since the second edition in 1915, the ninth edition promotes the council-manager form of government as the core organizational feature. This form introduced a new governance model to American government that is based on a unitary system rather than the separation of powers, a framework that frequently results in conflicts between branches of government. All powers of the city are vested in a popularly elected council, which appoints a professional manager who is continuously responsible to the public and removable by the council. It has improved the quality of the governmental process and city government performance.

Over the next six editions of the model charter, many revisions were made to strengthen the political leadership of the mayor, increase the representativeness of the council, promote civic participation, and encourage the development of regional approaches to issues that overlapped the boundaries of urban areas. These refinements to the model and innovations by local officials have strengthened the form. This new edition of the model charter continues the interaction of theory and practice. It reviews the structure now used by a majority of cities with more than 10,000 residents and examines changes that have been introduced by some governments to respond to new challenges.

The new edition offers further enhancements for local governments to consider. It is an important guide for all cities and towns whether they need to change their form of government or revise their existing charters. It proposes refinements and identifies the importance of incorporating new features and commitments. For those council-manager cities that face a movement to change the form of government to the mayor-council form based on separation of powers, the model charter will guide them in asserting the advantages of the council-manager form and countering misleading arguments in favor of abandonment. As always, it provides the arguments to support adopting the council-manager form for cities that use a different form.

The council-manager plan combines democratic governance with the capability to operate city government with the values of effectiveness, efficiency, and economy.  The council-manager form promoted these “three e’s,” a capable governing body, and a city manager accountable to the council. The manager would promote these values by proposing sound policy options to the council and by using professional expertise and experience to ensure that the city administration accomplished council-approved policies effectively while achieving the highest level of efficiency and economy in use of resources. Now it is widely recognized that the development of policy proposals should also promote equity and the process of adopting, implementing, and assessing policies should engage a full range of residents.

Commitment to Social Equity

It is important to recognize that a long history of discrimination and the challenge of fully incorporating new and recently recognized groups into American society requires more than treating all equally, although equality would address many shortcomings. Access to services, quality of services, and expanded engagement can be promoted by equal treatment. Promoting equity also requires a recognition of disparities in conditions that affect the level of need, the effectiveness of programs, and the impact of policies on different population groups. Many governments have increased the diversity of their staffs, but still do not include persons with diverse characteristics at all levels of the organization or in making a full range of decisions or recommendations.  A commitment to inclusion is needed to address these shortcomings.  Fundamentally, equity cannot be assured unless government officials are aware of and seek to alleviate disparities across groups with different characteristics. A comprehensive and continuous assessment of access, quality, and impact of services is needed. Some pioneering governments are incorporating a commitment to social equity, but most governments need to do more.

Attention to social equity is found in additions throughout the Model City Charter. Adopting an equity lens will reshape decisions and activities across all departments and programs. Advancing equity throughout local governments requires a fundamental reorientation of day-to-day operations.

To support such efforts, municipalities may consider creating a department, office, or agency whose sole task is to provide support to other divisions in local government with respect to the adoption of an equity lens. Given the breadth of implementation required for an equity lens to be applied—and the importance and urgency of the issue—an equity office is best organized as a direct report to the city manager’s office. That said, equity will be best advanced through the organization if each unit has designated an individual or a small team to serve as a lead resource within their department and a liaison to the city manager’s equity office. This office should be tasked with supporting the implementation of an equity lens, through the development of trainings, tools, communications, and other activities related to equity. (A companion publication is attached as an appendix that can be used as a resource for cities to implement equity recommendations.)

Expanding Public Engagement

There has been a long-standing commitment to increasing public engagement and participation.  The need to expand provision of information to residents and opportunities for input was recognized in the Eighth Edition of the Model City Charter. There is increasing awareness, however, that new approaches are needed to engage residents in ongoing interactions with officials that go beyond one-way communication out of and into government.

Provisions should be made for resident input, and governments should provide information to the public, but more interaction is needed. Officials need to better understand the concerns residents have and how they would suggest addressing them at early stages in developing a proposal. They need to understand how programs and service delivery are affecting residents of all kinds in all parts of the jurisdiction. They need to be included as partners in assessing and helping to improve service delivery and in solving problems in their communities.

Community advisory boards are one tool to promote engagement, but the presence of these boards cannot be used to exclude other residents from being involved. Engagement means that residents and officials will know and understand each other better. Engagement also entails having an approach to involving residents that welcomes their participation in the implementation or “coproduction” of services and solutions to problems. Combining the two new e’s, some local governments are developing principles of equitable engagement to ensure that all persons and groups have meaningful opportunities to be involved. The emphasis on engagement also indicates that existing provisions in the Model Charter regarding transparency need to be observed.

The Model City Charter includes a new Article VII on the Role of Public Engagement in Governance. It identifies the forms of engagement that should be promoted in local government and the principles that should guide the city’s public participation processes. Finally, the article outlines the components that should be examined and the inclusive process that should be used to evaluate the public participation strategy and process. Public participation processes should expand the capacity for meaningful resident engagement by developing collaborative working relationships and expanded knowledge of government.

The Case for the Council-Manager form and Features that Enhance its Performance

Although the council-manager form was once thought of as being fit only for small cities, it is now used by 61 percent of cities over 100,000 in population and five of the 11cities with over a million residents.1 Since 1990, local governments in 32 of America’s 317 cities over 100,000 in population have grappled with the question of whether they should change from council-manager to mayor-council form or vice versa and held a referendum to change the form of government. The council-manager form has been replaced with the mayor-council form in 12 cities. On the other hand, the council-manager form replaced the mayor-council form in four cities. Abandonment of the council-manager form was rejected during this period in 15 large cities. The campaigns in support of the council-manager form often fail to include some important advantages of the form—in particular the leadership potential of the mayor and the full range of contributions by the city manager who is commonly described as simply responsible for day-to-day management of the city.2

To inform residents of cities that may consider adopting the council-manager form, it is important to review the advantages of the council-manager form and highlight features that enhance its performance.

The council in the council-manager form is a true governing body, not just a legislative body that checks the mayor.  The council sets policy, of course, but it also sets goals and priorities, reviews and revises policy proposals, and oversees the performance of the manager and staff. The council chooses the city manager—the appointed chief executive officer—who is the best qualified applicant from across the country to achieve the vision the council has established for the city, and monitors the manager’s performance. The council conducts real oversight through review of extensive information provided by the city manager.

Reference is made in the Model City Charter for the first time to the council’s responsibility to regularly evaluate the performance of the city manager.  Council decisions are built on the comprehensive and objective information and advice from the city manager that is provided to all of the council members and to the public. This kind of communication contributes to the inherent transparency of the council-manager form. The features of the council-manager form make it less likely than the mayor-council form to have instances of corruption.3

In the mayor-council form the council’s role may be limited to reacting to the mayor’s proposals based on information provided by the mayor. The oversight role can be constrained by limits on the performance data that the mayor will permit departments to provide to the council. A council member could be the beneficiary of a reward from the mayor for supporting his/her proposals, but council members could be punished for taking an independent stand. As is true of separation-of-powers structures at the state and national level, conflict between the mayor and council is likely and can produce divisions within the council based on differing levels of allegiance to the mayor. Disagreement between a majority of the council but fewer than the number needed to override a mayoral veto and the mayor can produce an impasse. In the council-manager form, the council is designed to be the governing body.

In contrast to past editions, the Ninth Edition states a preference for the use of district elections or combinations of district and at-large seats to ensure that the council accurately represents the population as a whole and to promote a closer relationship between council members and residents. Attention should also be given to promoting a large turnout of voters in council elections.

It is advantageous to have off-year, November elections to focus attention on local issues.  Although some argue that it would be useful to take advantage of generally higher rates of voting by holding city elections along with state and national elections, it is difficult to prevent local issues from getting obscured when the local election is combined with higher level offices. Also, partisan divisions in the state and national campaigns may carry over to officially nonpartisan local elections.

Action should be taken to address the impediment to turnout caused by using a two-stage process. The turnout for the primaries that narrow the field of candidates, or for run-off elections, to choose the winner if no candidate receives a majority of votes, is generally lower than the general election. A remedy is available by using ranked-choice voting—the current form of an “instant runoff”—to determine winners in a single election. In addition to increasing turnout in the single election that determines the candidates chosen for office, ranking candidates means that voters’ preferences beyond their first choice can influence the outcome if their first-choice candidate is not selected. In ranked-choice election campaigns, candidates have an incentive to be more civil toward other candidates and reach out to the supporters of other candidates rather than simply attacking the other candidates.

The council-manager mayor is not a “weak” mayor. That term refers to cities that use the weak mayor-council form in which the mayor has certain executive powers but not others. Nor is the mayor an insignificant figurehead. As the authors of the introduction to the Eighth Model City Charter explained,

the mayor in the council-manager form is the chief legislator, the leader of the policy-making team. This mayor can be a “strong” mayor who, not having to overcome the offsetting power of the council or not being bogged down with the details of managing the city’s staff, can focus on facilitative leadership. The mayor is effective by helping the council and staff perform better. High involvement by the council and the manager and constructive relationships among officials are indicators of successful leadership by the mayor. Effectiveness does not mean charting an independent path or taking over tasks from the manager.

The mayor is a comprehensive leader who draws on the features of the council-manager form of government to make it even more effective. The mayor is a community leader who interacts extensively with the public. The mayor strives to create a shared vision for the city with the support of the entire council. The facilitative mayor helps to assure that there is extensive and positive communication between the council and the manager. The mayor also focuses on communicating with the public and ensuring that their views are being incorporated in the decision made by the council and the priorities being pursued by staff. The leadership role of the mayor is supported by direct election. Candidates speak to the full population about citywide issues and the proposals they are advancing, and residents are able to indicate which candidate and proposals they support.

City managers do not just handle the day-to-day operations of city government, as the typical description of the manager’s role emphasizes, although this is a crucial contribution. They also manage achieving the long-term goals of the city and provide the council with a professional perspective on the opportunities and challenges that the city faces. Managers are a driving force for innovation and improved performance, and council-manager cities have a stronger record of innovation than mayor-council cities.

Governments are increasingly involved in partnerships to advance their goals, and top administrators must develop strategies to promote their success. John Nalbandian argues that local government managers increasingly act as facilitators, “promoting and nurturing partnerships…both within city government as well as between it and other organizations.”4 Compared to elected officials, managers are uniquely positioned to carry out this function, without the risk that the activity will turn into coalition-building for political purposes.

Governments work with nonprofits, resident groups, and other governments in a complex array of activities. Local government managers are called upon to be knowledgeable about these partnerships and the interactions among them, understand their goals, and take steps to support them even though many of the participants are not members of the local government staff.  In recognition of these new responsibilities, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives in Great Britain calls its members the “chief strategic officers” in their governments (SOLACE 2005).5  It is the city manager who is best situated to oversee strategy by being knowledgeable about and facilitating the success of these joint endeavors.

The council-manager form with an elected mayor provides for vision, shared governance, informed advice and complete information about performance, a professional executive with the requisite experience and expertise, and continuous transparency. Local governments do not have to keep using or revert to the separation-of-powers structure used at higher levels of government nor do they have to take the chance that a mayor as chief executive is not well prepared for the office or not able to handle its broad scope of responsibilities. The council is not constrained by its subordinate position, and the performance of administrative staff is not impacted by the political interests of the mayor. The council-manager form is designed for local governments and intended to promote the best performance of all the officials. It is also more likely to be receptive to innovation and emerging values.

At the present time, addressing bitter partisanship, polarization, and a declining level of public confidence in powerful institutions requires a high level of adaptiveness and innovation. These challenging conditions call for a new framework for a twenty-first century reform movement that fosters resident-centered democratic governance that addresses institutional racism, political conflict, and declining confidence in democracy by expanding the civic agency of everyday people, and building resilient, local, multiracial democratic institutions. We hope this model charter can contribute to an environment in which local governments can rebuild confidence in democratic institutions, bridge the polarization gap and bitter partisan divides, increase our capacity for public problem-solving and move the country toward a genuine, participatory, multi-racial democracy while retaining the enhanced capacity for effective governance that has been developed over the past century.

–  James Svara, Steering Committee Member; Senior Fellow, School of Government, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

1 James H. Svara and Douglas J. Watson, More than Mayor or Manager.  Washington, D.C.:  Georgetown University Press, 2010, pp. 12-16.2
2 Svara and Watson, pp. 312-320.
3 Kimberly Nelson and Whitney B. Alfonso, “Ethics by Design: The Impact of Form of Government on Municipal Corruption,” Public Administration Review, April, 2019.
4 John Nalbandian, “Politics and Administration in Local Government,”  International Journal of Public Administration, 29, 1052.
5 Society of Local Authority Chief Executives in Great Britain, Leadership United: Executive Summary.  London: Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers, 2005.

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