City Government

When the nation was founded, it was composed of rural communities and dispersed towns. With the exception of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, very few cities existed. More than 90 percent of the population were farmers. Today, just the opposite is the case. Almost 80 percent of the population live in or near a metropolis (a city with at least 50,000 residents).

Some states define cities as any town or municipality (regardless of size), while other states regard large municipalities as cities, and smaller ones as boroughs, towns, or villages. Unlike counties, which are created by the state, cities are formed when a group of citizens come together and write a charter.

City Charters

For a city to be officially recognized, it must be incorporated; to be incorporated, it must first have a charter. A city charter is similar to a state constitution — it outlines the power and structure of the government, including elections and appointments. There are four types of city charters:

  • Home rule. The home rule is the most popular form of incorporation. It allows residents to draft a city charter, which is then put before voters for approval. Voters must also approve any amendments to the city charter. Home rule charters can be granted by the state constitution or the state legislature. When granted by the state constitution, the charter must be in accordance with the provisions of the constitution — when the two are in conflict, the state constitution wins out. When granted by the state legislature, the charter is subject to revocation at any time by the state legislature.

  • General charter. Under the general charter, cities are classified according to population size. This system allows for the similar treatment of both large and small cities. The general charter is the second most common form of incorporation after home rule.

  • Optional charter. With an optional charter, citizens can vote on one of several charters allowed by the state. It gives residents a direct voice in the incorporation process, and allows them to shape their government. Optional charters are becoming increasingly popular.

  • Special charter. The special charter is the oldest form of incorporation still in use, although it has fallen out of favor in recent years. Special charters are extremely time-consuming because their provisions are specific to each new city. For every new city, there must be a new charter. Moreover, any amendments to a special charter must be passed by the state legislature — an extremely cumbersome process. It's doubtful special charters will remain in use much longer.

More than half the states have provisions for home rule charters, with most coming in the West and Midwest (as well as New York). In 1875, Missouri became the first state to adopt home rule. The home rule movement didn't really catch on until the period following World War II, when a number of states passed constitutional amendments authorizing home rule.

Once a city is incorporated, it must choose a form of government. Cities have several options to choose from: mayor-council system, council-manager system, and commission system.

Mayor-Council System

Also known as the strong mayor government, the mayor-council system is the most common form of city government. In this system, both the mayor and a unicameral city council are elected. The city council is composed of either districts or at-large members. In most situations, the mayor has the authority to veto legislation passed by the city council, hire and fire city administrators and department heads, and draft a budget.

New York City is one of the best examples of the strong mayor system. In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani used the inherent powers of the office to lead New York through a turbulent recovery. The position of New York City mayor has often been described as the second most difficult job in the country.

Council-Manager System

Sometimes referred to as the weak mayor form of government, the council-manager system was a reformist innovation devised during the Progressive Era of the 1910s. Under this model, the city manager is a nonpolitical administrator responsible for running the daily operations of the city. He is usually appointed by the city council and provides little leadership outside of his prescribed duties. Even if the mayor is elected, the mayorship is largely a figurehead title. Consequently, the weak mayor system is popular in smaller cities, but has been rejected by larger cities, which need experienced political leaders and decisive action.

Commission System

This is the least common of the three systems — only about 100 cities nationwide use a commission. Under this scenario, an elected board of commissioners performs the operations of the city and oversees the departments and agencies. A mayor is sometimes chosen from the commissioners, though it's a largely ceremonial position. The commission system has been criticized for its lack of a single authority and reliance upon consensus. Commission systems are popular in reform-minded states. Spokane, Washington; Des Moines, Iowa; and Birmingham, Alabama, are three of the best-known commission cities. In 1960, Galveston, Texas — the birthplace of the commission system — abandoned it for a weak mayor system.

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