Revising the Model City Charter: The Case for Change

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By James Svara


Editor’s Note: The National Civic League’s Model City Charter is a resource that has influenced, either directly or indirectly, the way thousands of American communities have drafted or revised their own home rule charters. Earlier this year, a task force of the National Civic League’s Board of Director began meeting to plan for a process to review and revise the existing document, the Eighth Edition, and publish a new edition. The purpose of this project is to update the model charter and eliminate language that may be outmoded or unclear as we refine existing guidelines and incorporate new ideas about civic engagement, equity, technology, professionalism and ethics more thoroughly into the text. This article was adapted from a memo James Svara, who served as a senior advisor during last charter revision process, wrote to the task force.


The Purpose and Importance of the Model City Charter

Since 1900, the Model Charters of the National Civic League have sought to project the highest standards that should be adopted and displayed by local governments. If a local government were developing a new charter or reviewing and revising its current charter, these standards should be met. Furthermore, some specific changes can only be made by revising the charter, such as changing how officials are elected. Other changes, however, can be made through new policies or procedures or by recognizing new possibilities. For example, some cities have promoted diversity and inclusion by changing the city code. Examples of such additions were included in the Second Printing in 2011 of the Eighth Edition of the Model City Charter. Finally, the commentary provided with the model charter can promote changes in the interpretation of existing charter features.

Many council-manager cities have come to recognize the leadership potential of their mayor and abandoned the notion that the mayor is only a ceremonial leader and ribbon-cutter because of arguments in the Eighth Edition of the Model Charter. Thus, it should be emphasized that the Model Charter should be read as a guide to what are the characteristics and qualities that a model city should display. Officials and citizens in each community can assess what changes should be made in attitudes, policy, procedure, or the charter. They may also be reassured that the conditions in their government meet the standards of the Model Charter, but it is important to periodically make this systematic assessment.

A  new edition would build on previous Model Charters and introduce important new approaches much like the Second Edition in 1915 that introduced the council-manager form of local government, thus emphasizing representative democracy by strengthening the city council and promoting professional leadership by creating the city manager position. That edition went beyond the first model charter in 1900 that recommended establishing order in fragmented local governments with centralization of authority under a strong elected executive. The council-manager plan as explained in the Second Edition combined democratic governance with capability to operate city government with the values of effectiveness, efficiency, and economy.

Achieving these three “e’s” presented challenges to the strong mayor-council cities recommended in the First Edition as well as the widespread fragmented local governments. The council-manager form promoted them by adding a city manager accountable to the council who 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. The responsibility of the manager to report to the entire council in public meetings built transparency into the form from the very beginning and reinforced the manager’s accountability to the council as a whole.

Many revisions were made in the next six editions of the Model Charter to strengthen the political leadership of the mayor, increase the representativeness of the council, promote citizen participation, and encourage the development of regional approaches to issues that overlapped the boundaries of urban areas. These changes in the original “reform model” did not alter the fundamental principles of the council-manager form or its central place in the evolving program of reform. Despite assertions by some scholars after the completion of the Eighth Edition the two forms of government were “merging” and that most common type of structure was an “adapted model,” James Svara and Kimberly Nelson reviewed the features that continue to “clearly differentiate” the two forms of government in an article in Public Management.1

In the 2020s, local governments face new challenges. In addition to the traditional three e’s that continue to be important, there are two new e’s that require new approaches and altering previous standards in the Model Charter as well as  new leadership roles that need to be filled if local governments are to be responsive and effective. Local governments need to commit themselves to advocating new principles. These are the need to promote social equity and to expand citizen engagement in the government process. In addition, there are new roles that should be filled in local government.

It is increasingly necessary that local governments help formulate and advance complex goals with multiple contributors both inside and outside the government and across jurisdictional boundaries. The question is who will monitor and advance these network-based strategies. In addition, as conditions change and new programs, policies, and technologies emerge, it is important that the need for innovation be addressed. Selected council-manager cities are facing efforts to change the form of government. The revision of the Model City Charter may need to consider how to present the benefits of the form in a clearer and more comprehensive way to offset calls for abandoning the form.

New Principles

Equity

It is important to recognize that a long history of discrimination and the challenge of fully incorporating previously excluded 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 inclusion 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. Affirmative actions may be needed to address these inequities. Fundamentally, equity cannot be assured unless government officials are aware of and seek to alleviate disparities. A comprehensive and continuous assessment of access, quality, and impact is needed that some pioneering governments are developing, but most governments need to undertake.ICMA’s recent profile of “a new kind of CEO”—the chief equity officer—suggests the examination of administrative positions in local governments in the charter review might include the addition of this kind of position.3

Engagement

There has been a long-standing commitment to increasing citizen participation. The need to expand provision of information to residents and opportunities for input was recognized in the Eighth Edition of the Model Charter. There is increasing awareness, however, that new approaches are needed to engage residents in ongoing interaction with officials that go beyond one-way communication out of and into government.4 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.

Citizen advisory boards are one tool that could be better used to promote engagement as Margaret Stout has argued,5 but the presence of these boards cannot be used to exclude other citizens 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. Combining the two 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 reassessed.

New Roles

Along with the new principles, there are new roles for city managers to be promoted.

Strategic Community Leadership

Governments are increasingly involved in partnerships to advance community goals, including those related to equity and engagement, 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.”6 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 are working with nonprofits, citizen 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 has for some time called its members the “chief strategic officers” in their governments.7 It is the managers and potentially CAOs who must oversee strategy by being knowledgeable about and facilitating the success of these joint endeavors.

Promoting Innovation

Promoting innovation is a critical need in local governments, but the Eighth Edition does not address it. It should be highlighted as an important responsibility of city managers, and resources that local governments can use to increase innovation should be identified. Studies have been conducted of the adoption of three categories of innovations – (a) e-government practices, (b) reinventing government practices, and (c) a broad group of strategic practices including adopting a vision statement, strategic plan, performance management and measurement activities, citizen engagement, citizen surveys, and a code of ethics. Analysis of the separate surveys and a merged composite innovation index shows that council-manager governments have the highest innovation adoption scores.8 A separate study of the adoption of sustainability practices also showed that council-manager governments in cities and counties had higher adoption rates than elected executive governments.9 Innovation needs to be advanced throughout the organization, and city and county managers are emerging as chief innovation officers.

Other Topics to Be Considered

These new challenges and demanding principles create even greater need for the balanced political, representational, and professional leadership of the elected mayor-council-manager form of government. The city manager brings unique knowledge and experience to advancing citizen engagement and promoting social equity, and like their British counterparts they are chief strategic officers. They should be aware of new developments in other local government   and new approaches promoted in the research community. They can benefit from the sharing of information supported by the ICMA, National Civic League, Government Alliance for Racial Equity, the Alliance for Innovation, and other organizations that promote that enhancement of local government structure, process, and outcomes. These new challenges on top of the extensive responsibilities managers have always handled highlight the importance of professional administrative leadership in local government.

CAO Position in Mayor-Council Government

One implication of this recognition of increased responsibilities of top administrators is that the previous positions that have been taken in the Model City Charter regarding mayor-council governments need to be revised. First, it is no longer possible to include the mayor-council form with no CAO as an acceptable structural option for cities. Cities with this form are encouraged to add the CAO position. Second, in the past the Model Charter accepted a CAO appointed by and exclusively responsible to the mayor as well as one approved by the Council. It may be that only the second approach with approval of the CAO by the council should be recommended. Council approval increases the likelihood that CAOs will provide the council with complete information about proposals that are being backed by the mayor and will support complete council oversight of administrative performance. Full disclosure and complete information for the council and the public are assured in the council-manager form.

The so-called strong mayor in the mayor-council form is likely to be an overextended mayor. Without a CAO, this mayor is likely to be overwhelmed by the multiple tasks of being a leader of the community, a communicator with the council members individually and collectively, and an internal executive who can provide comprehensive administrative leadership. The ideal mayor should devote most of his/her time and effort to interacting with the council and communicating with a wide range of individuals and groups within the city, as in the council-manager form.

Unless an experienced administrator with proper training and experience is chosen by the mayor and validated by council review and approval, the overextended mayor may use the office to promote his/her own ambitions, fail to promote capable administrative leadership in the choice of a CAO, and prevent the CAO from providing comprehensive information and advice to the city council. The strong mayor alone or with a politically constrained CAO fall short of meeting the leadership levels in the council-manager form. The recommended mayor-council-CAO model with the mayor’s selection for the CAO reviewed by the council can come closer to achieving the high level of performance in council-manager cities if the mayor does not stress personal ambitions over serving the public.

Selection of Mayor in Council-Manager Cities

The importance of the leadership provided by mayors in council-manager cities was a theme in the Seventh and Eighth Edition. It is possible for mayors selected by the council to fill the roles of facilitator and promoter of a shared vision on the council, but it is more difficult without the opportunity for candidates for mayor to speak directly to all the voters in the city about their goals in elections. It is also possible for critics of the council-manager form to claim that the city does not have a real mayor and that the form should be changed to mayor-council to have a powerful leader. The situation is even worse in the small numbers of cities that give the leader of the council a different title such as “president.”  This was the case in Pueblo, Colorado, and Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and in 2017 and 2019, respectively, the form of government in both cities was changed to mayor-council in referenda organized around the theme that the city “needs a mayor.”  The simple alternative of changing the charter to permit direct election of the mayor while retaining the council-manager form was not presented as a more reasonable alternative. Although the Second Edition called for the mayor to be elected within the council, by 1965 a majority of council-manager cities had shifted to direct election and the proportion keeps growing. Cities with council selection should consider a change to direct election or make special efforts for the council-elected mayor to reach out to the community as a whole to discuss goals. All council-manager mayors should work to create a shared vision within the council.

Ethics

In view of the broader range of principles that local governments are expected to advance, it is important to reexamine the coverage of ethics in the Model Charter. Ethical standards should be articulated for both elected officials and staff, and they should address not just preventing unethical behavior such as using office for personal gain but also the positive ethical actions that officials should take such as advancing social equity.

Home Rule

There has been increasing tension in many states between the legislature and city governments. Increasingly states have gone even farther to preempt local governments from taking action in certain areas even in some home rule states. For example, certain states have preempted the right of cities to prohibit the use of plastic bags, to protect the civil rights of persons who changed their gender identify, or to restrict gun sales. The new edition of the Model Charter should promote home rule and provide guidance to local governments about ways that they can work around restrictions on local autonomy.10

Elections

As part of the examination of citizen engagement, the new model charter should examine provisions related to initiative, referendum, and recall. The characteristics of local elections—type of presentation, timing, eligibility—should also be examined. The continued use of exclusive at-large elections should be questioned. An additional issue is the uneven turnout in two-stage election systems. The turnout for the primaries that narrow the field of candidates or for run-off elections if no candidate receives a majority of votes is generally lower than in the general election. The use of ranked-choice voting—the current form of an “instant runoff”—to  determine winners in a single election should be examined.

In addition, although the Eighth Edition did not make a choice regarding holding local elections at the same time as state and national elections or in separate years, the preference for off-year elections should be reasserted. Holding city elections at the same time as state and national elections is promoted by some to increase the number of voters choosing local officials. There is, however, an increasing risk that partisan polarization will carry over from the higher-level races to the local races even if they are supposedly nonpartisan. The focus on local issues is difficult to achieve with the attention being given to higher level races. Introducing methods to increase turnout in a single local election seems preferable to holding elections for offices at all levels of government at the same time.

Referenda to Abandon the Council-Manager Plan

Since 1990, 26 council-manager cities over 100,000 in population have had referenda to change to the mayor-council form. Other than Pueblo, Colorado, the issue was not the absence of a council member with the title of “mayor” but rather the claim that the mayor-council form would be better. Twelve of the abandonment campaigns were successful. In view of these referenda, this review of the Model City Charter needs an additional element compared to previous revisions. The orientation needs to encompass both the traditional goal of promoting the expansion of the council-manager form as well as answering critics who would replace it by reverting to the separation of powers structure. The Model City Charter may need to address not only what is best practice but also how to stand up to challenges to the preferred form. For example, strong mayor advocates claim the form is better because one person is in charge and can be held accountable. These points ignore that the council facilitated by the mayor is in charge in council-manager cities. The manager is continuously accountable and is reviewed annually, not just at the end of a four-year term. Responding to challenges does not necessarily mean changing the Model City Charter but rather more fully recognizing the distinct positive features of the council-manager form and the limitations of the so-called strong mayor form.

An analysis of the content of campaigns to retain the council-manager form (or to replace the mayor-council form) shows that many important features are not clearly articulated.11 The broad leadership by council-manager mayors is typically left out along with the argument that the council is more likely be a capable governing board rather than just a check on a strong mayor. It is very common to describe the manager’s role as limited to implementing the policy decisions of the council and managing day-to-day operations with no mention of the important role of providing advice about policy options to the council and to the public and guiding the long-term strategic management of the city’s resources.

The leading textbook on urban management reflects the lingering view that the policy role of the manager is unintended. The authors state that the “sharp distinction between policymaking and administration is unrealistic,”. . .and “the full-time professional manager inevitably will provide considerable policy advice to the part-time amateur council.”12 Forgotten is the commentary accompanying the Second Model City Charter which stated that the manager must “show himself to be a leader, formulating policies and urging their adoption by the council.”13 The manager’s full and balanced assessment of all options for addressing a problem for the council and the public was intended and expected in the original endorsement of the council-manager form, and it continues to be one of its great advantages over the mayor-council form even when a CAO is present. Still, it is rarely articulated by supporters of the council-manager form in campaigns to change the form of government.

Since 1900 practitioners and scholars committed to promoting responsible and effective local governments have shared their recommendations through the Model City Charter and its accompanying commentary. Since the second Charter in 1915, they have introduced a new model for governance to the United States that offers an alternative to the separation of powers features of the federal Constitution replicated in the states. The council-manager form promotes cohesive and professionally informed governance and expert administration with full council oversight. All the officials in city government must understand their responsibilities and other features in model governments that contribute to strong governance and management. True to its heritage, the National Civic League is once again examining current challenges and new developments to determine whether changes in the Model City Charter and the commentary that accompanies it should be updated, refined, or clearly reaffirmed. The new Model City Charter can also be an important source of arguments and evidence if its recommended features are challenged.

James Svara is Visiting Scholar, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, School of Government.  He has forty years of experience teaching local government and administrative ethics at UNC-Greensboro, North Carolina State University, and Arizona State University.


1 Svara, J.H. and Nelson, K.L. 2008. Taking stock of the council-manager form at 100. Public Management 90 (August):  6-14.

2 Jacobs, B. (2020, in press). Governing for Equity: Implementing and Equity Lens in Local Government. Washington, DC: International City/County Management Association.

3 “A New Kind of CEO:  The Role of the Chief Equity Officer (and Other Equity Positions).  Public Management, October, 2020:  10-19.

4 McGrath, M. 2009. New Laboratories of Democracy: How Local Government is Reinventing Citizen Engagement. Washington:  Philanthropy for Active Citizen Engagement.

5 Stout, M. 2014. Repurposing citizen advisory bodies in a ninth model city charter. National Civic Review 103 (2):   48–54.

6 Nalbandian, J. 2006. Politics and administration in local government. International Journal of Public Administration 29 (12): 1052.

7 SOLACE, 2005. Leadership United: Executive Summary. London: Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers.

8 Nelson, K. L. and Svara, J.H. 2012. Form of government still matters: Fostering innovation in U.S. municipal governments. American Review of Public Administration 42:  257-281.

9 Svara, J. H. 2011. The early stage of local government action to promote sustainability. The Municipal Year Book 2011. Washington:  International City/County Management Association 78: 43-60.

10 Swindell, D., Svara, J., and Stenberg, C. 2018. Local government options in the era of state preemption. Local Government Review (July, 2018):  8-13.

11 Svara, J.H. and Watson, D.J. 2010. More than Mayor or Manager:  Campaigns to Change Form of Government in America’s Large Cities. Washington:  Georgetown University Press, 2010:  312-320.

12 England, R.E., Pelissero, J.P. and Morgan, D.R. 2017. Managing Urban America, Eighth Edition. Thousand Oaks, Ca:  Sage Publications, 2017:  81.

13 Woodruff, C. R., editor. 1919. A New Municipal Program. New York: D. Appleton and Company:  130.

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