More Americans live under city government than under any other kind of local
government. A city is the largest type of municipality. Some cities, such as New York,
Los Angeles, and Chicago, have millions of residents. Often the city’s large population
is crowded into a relatively small area. As a result, cities sometimes have more difficult
problems than other units of local government.
The city government must handle a variety of problems dealing with health,
education, and safety. It must keep traffic flowing smoothly through neighborhood
streets. Police patrols must be on the alert to prevent crime and to capture
lawbreakers. Trash collection must operate efficiently. Street lighting, transportation
systems, water supply, fire protection, sewage systems – all these and hundreds of
other services are the daily business of city governments.
In addition to providing services, city governments provide cultural activities that
are an important part of city life. Cities help support libraries, museums, and parks. City
governments often contribute to universities, hospitals, and musical groups.
City governments, like all other local governments, are established by state legislatures.
That is, they receive charters from the state legislatures. Increasingly, however, states
have been granting to cities an authority referred to as home rule.
Under home rule a city has the power to write and amend its own municipal
charter. Usually the charter is written by a special commission elected by the voters. It
must be approved by the voters before it can go into effect, and it cannot conflict with
the state constitution or with the U.S. Constitution.
Home rule gives cities the power to manage their own affairs and to deal with
their own local problems. As such, it limits the amount of state interference in local
concerns. Many people believe that home rule strengthens local government and
increases citizen interest in city affairs.
Depending on its charter, a city government may take one of three forms: the
mayor-council government, the commission government, or the council-manager
government. A city charter is a basic plan for a local governmental unit that defines its
powers, responsibilities, and organization. Below are some charts showing how these
various forms of city government are organized.
Mayor-Council Government
The oldest and most common form of city government is the mayor-council plan. In this
kind of government, the lawmaking body is called the city council. The chief executive
of the city government is the mayor, who sees that city laws, or ordinances, are
enforced. The mayor and members of the city council are elected by the voters of the
city. Their term of office varies, but in most cases it is either two years or four years.
Under the mayor-council form of government, the city is divided into several
districts called wards. Each ward elects one member of the council. In some cities,
though, the people elect several council members-at-large. That is, the council
members are chosen by all the voters in the city. Almost all city councils are unicameral.
City voters also elect other officials, including a treasurer, judges of the municipal
courts, a city attorney, or solicitor, and tax assessors. Other officials, either elected or
appointed, are the heads of departments for police, fire fighting, traffic, water, health
and welfare, parks and playgrounds, civil defense, housing, licenses, and purchasing.
Weak-Mayor Plan: During the nation’s early years, the American people were
hesitant to grant power to their mayors. The experience of colonists with British
governors who did not listen to the people’s wishes made Americans fear officials who
might have too much power. For this reason, some cities developed the weak-mayor
Under the weak-mayor plan of city government, the city council holds more
power than the mayor. For example, the council appoints the heads of city departments.
These heads report directly to the city council. In addition, the mayor must obtain the
consent of the council to spend money or take other actions. The weak-mayor plan
often results in conflicts between the mayor and the council.
Strong-Mayor Plan: In recent years, most cities with a mayor-council form of
organization have tried to make their governments more efficient by following the
strong-mayor plan. Under the strong-mayor plan, the mayor has chief responsibility for
running the city’s government.
The mayor appoints most of the city officials and can dismiss them if they do not
do a good job. The mayor can veto bills passed by the council. It is the mayor’s
responsibility to draw up the city budget. When the council has approved a budget, the
mayor must see that the city’s money is spent properly. Under this strong-mayor plan,
the mayor, as the city’s chief executive, takes the lead in carrying on the city’s business.
Commission Government
A new form of government grew out of a hurricane that struck Galveston,
Texas, in 1900. A huge tidal wave swept across the city, flooding homes and businesses and
causing millions of dollars in damages. About 6,000 city residents lost their lives. The
city’s mayor and council were unable to handle the disaster.
As a result, leading citizens in Galveston asked the state legislature for
permission to set up a new form of city government. It was called the commission plan.
Within a few years, this plan of government was adopted by several hundred other
Under the commission plan, a city is governed by a commission, usually
consisting of five elected officials. The commission is the city’s lawmaking body as well
as its executive body. The commission passes the city’s ordinances. Each
commissioner heads a department of city government.
Usually one commissioner is the head of the department of public safety, which
includes the police and firefighters. Another commissioner, in charge of public works,
must see that the city has an adequate supply of clean water and that the streets are
kept in good repair. A third commissioner oversees the city’s finances, including tax
collections. Another runs the public welfare department, which helps the city’s
disadvantaged citizens. The health department is managed by a commissioner who
supervises hospitals, clinics, and health inspectors.
The commissioners meet as a group to make the city’s laws. Each
commissioner, however, carries out the laws that apply to his or her own department.
Either the voters or the commissioners choose one of the commissioners to be mayor.
Except for presiding over meetings of the commission, the mayor has the same powers
as other commissioners.
In some cases the commission form of city government has shown certain
disadvantages. The voters sometimes have found it impossible to elect officials who
know how to run a department of the city’s government. In addition, there are activities
of city government that can come under the jurisdiction of several departments.
Sometimes commissioners disagree about who should handle these activities. Because
of these problems, fewer than 175 cities now use the commission plan of government.
Council-Manager Government
In 1912, Sumter, South Carolina, was the first city to set up a council-manager plan of
government. Today, this plan of government is used by a growing number of cities.
Under the council-manager plan, voters elect a city council to act as the city’s
lawmaking body. The council then appoints a city manager. The city manager, as the city’s chief
executive, appoints the heads of the departments. They report to the city
manager. Under this plan, the city is run by specially trained professionals, much like a
big business firm.
City managers are appointed, not elected, so that they will not take part in party
politics or face any political pressure. They are given a free hand to run city
governments efficiently and economically. If a city manager does not do a good job, the
council may dismiss him or her and appoint a new manager.
The council-manager plan of government has certain disadvantages. Some
smaller cities cannot afford the salary required to hire a good manager. Also, some
critics of the plan argue that cities are better governed when the voters themselves elect
the officials who are to run their city’s government.
How Governments Work Together
You live under three levels of government – local, state, and federal. If each level of
government paid no attention to the work of the others, life would become difficult and
confusing. City governments might pass city laws that conflict with state laws. State
governments might ignore federal laws. Citizens would not know which set of laws to
Division of Powers
Fortunately, under the U.S. federal system of government, the powers of each level of
government are clearly defined and understood. The Constitution of the United States is
the supreme law of the land. All levels of government must obey it.
State constitutions, in turn, set up rules that govern the people of each state.
These state constitutions must not, of course, take away from the people any of the
rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.
In local units of government, the powers defined for them are in the charters by
the state legislatures. In this way, each level of government has its own work to do.
Each level is given the powers needed to do its job.
Why Governments Work Together
Many problems call for cooperation among local, state, and federal governments.
Consider, for example, the way the nation’s modern highway system was built. In
colonial days, the building of a road was considered a local project. If the people of a
town wanted a road, they had to build it themselves. As settlements spread westward,
each county assumed the responsibility of building connecting roads. The counties called on local
farmers and townspeople to supply the labor to build the roads. Local
residents also provided money to hire workers.
These early roads were often twisting and rutted, dusty in dry weather, and
muddy after rain. They were, however, cheap to build and repair. Local governments
could easily plan and pay for such roads.
As the nation grew, highways were needed to connect the East with the growing
West. In response, Congress voted to have the federal government build main roads to
the West.
City Governments Work Together
Cities face many common challenges. For example, city governments are concerned
about increasing funds for police, fire departments, and education. They look for ways
to lessen air pollution and to dispose of trash safely. The U.S. Conference of Mayors
meets regularly so that the nation’s mayors may compare problems and discuss
possible solutions. As neighboring cities grow closer together, they often share
Government Competition
Although cooperation among governments is growing, governments also compete with
one another. For example, governments compete with citizens’ tax dollars. A person
may have to pay income taxes to both state and federal governments. There may be a
city income tax as well. Residents may also have to pay property taxes to their local
governments. State and local governments may collect sales taxes.
States compete with each other to attract industry. They offer businesses lower
taxes, a good supply of labor, good highways, and favorable laws to encourage industry
to move to their state. Cities compete for trade and industry in similar fashion.
The federal government and federal laws sometimes seem to interfere or
compete with local laws and customs. For example, the federal government may
challenge the election procedures in a state or locality if such procedures conflict with
federal law.
The combined system of federal, state, and local governments is complex. It
would be surprising if there were not instances of conflict. Only by working together,
though, can the nation’s three levels of government fulfill their duty to serve the American people.

CITY GOVERNMENT More Americans live under city government