Introduction Two popular forms of local government including the City Manager construct and that of the Strong Mayor. Both have pros and cons, and both have huge supporters and detractors. Anecdotally, at least a number of American cities, the City Manager form of government has proven to be quite successful. Under this construct, the local government is managed by a professional who is appointed by, and serves at the pleasure of an elected City Council, which typically included one member who is the Mayor. Comparatively speaking, a “Strong Mayor” is elected by popular vote and rules in a mayor-council construct, and is given a high degree of control and responsibility pursuant to the municipal charter.

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City Manager Led Government
In this manager-council form of governance, power is dispersed among elected council members, who in turn appoint and oversee the manager function. These council members must be responsive to the electorate who put them into office in order to maintain their positions, and must also manage to separate such political roles from their oversight of the manager who is charged with the day in and day out operation of city government (Council-Manager or Strong Mayor 2009).

While this system is imperfect, it does provide for considerable citizen input in the form of all the elected council seats. This would tend to suggest to the public that if they are not happy with what is taking place in City Hall, then they too should throw their hat into the ring, and seek election, while allowing the trained management professional to tend to the necessary municipal business, without the encumbrances of political pressure that permeates other forms of government. .
unencumbered, to the extent possible, by political influence.

Critics of this form of government are quick to say that the manager-council business format endorse the manager to essentially serve as the municipality’s CEO, and that there may be an excess of power placed in someone who is not readily unseated by popular vote (Blodgett 1994). There are also concerns that the manager, as the go-between between elected officials and governmental staff has too much power and perhaps not enough accountability to voters—unless of course one considers the fact that council should be motivated to keep the manager function running smoothly in order to preserve their own elected seats. There is also the fact that this is usually an appointed position, and absent term limits, a situation that some liken to a potential dynasty or monarchy. These negative factors notwithstanding, the fact remains that the city management construct works well when the electorate choose council members who capably appoint a highly trained and highly skilled administrator to be the municipality’s chief executive.

Strong Mayor Led Government
Proponents of a strong mayor led government firmly espouse the fact that a democratically elected mayor has different motivations than a manager, and that they are more apt to listen and respond to the electoral body, than perhaps the city council might be under the city manager form of government.
The strong mayor’s grant of central authority and power may result in elected leadership that is more responsive to community needs, as opposed to individual elected council persons each with their own agenda and motivation to retain their elected position. A strong mayor’s duty is to listen and act in accordance with popular opinion provided that it comports with the municipality’s best interests.

On the downside, both the strong mayor and the city manager are charged with operating within the boundaries set by council. The huge difference is that the manager serves at the pleasure of council and can be terminated if it chooses to go in a different direction. Not so with an elected mayor, who is seated by the voters, and not by council. They cannot terminate the elected mayor. An elected mayor is always going to be more subject to political influence and the very things that get one to office and help one to retain such seat (Blodgett 1994). The manager on the other hand most likely has more room for independent thought and action (Council-Manager or Strong Mayor 2009).

Best Form of Government
It continues to be my belief that the City Manager form of government is preferable. It is further removed from the elected official form of political process; it attracts and encourages the retention of a professional manager; and it very often leads to longevity in the position, which builds upon institutional knowledge, experiences, and success (Council-Manager Form of Government n.d). This is simply is not possible in an elected Strong Mayor form of government, where term limits may inevitably come into play (Council-Manager or Strong Mayor 2009). The manager-council scenario allows the chief executive a.k.a the manager, to run the city like a business, optimizing opportunities for the shareholders and owners a.k.a. residents. This form of government serves to diffuse the proverbial political machines, and to allow the community to regain control by way of a representative, democratic process (Council-Manager or Strong Mayor 2009).

As with any situation however, there are always positives and negatives. In addition to the foregoing positives, one must also weigh the benefit of a democratic selection process, the importance and breadth of competition that may be attracted by a politically contested office, and the freshness and opportunity for change and reinvention that accompanies a position subject to term limits.

For escaping machine politics and allowing a local government to be administrated by an apolitical professional, the City Manager model is the way to go. Although the quantitative research is not entirely dispositive, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to demonstrate that an effectively run City Manager form of government has many advantages, the least of which include the fact that the City Manager serves at the pleasure of Council and the Mayor, as opposed to the general public, as would an elected Mayor. This in turn allows the City Manager do exactly what they are in position to do, and that is to manage.

  • Blodgett, Terrell, “Beware the Lure of a Strong Mayor,” (January 1994) Public Management. Print.
  • “Council-manager or “strong mayor” The Choice is Clear Learn the Facts About Council-Manager Government,” N.p., n.d., ICMA, the International City/County Management Association. Print.
  • “The Council-Manager Form of Government: Answers to Your Questions,” N.p. (2009) California City Management Foundation and ICMA, the International City/County Management Association. Print.