Once predominantly rural, the United States is today a highly urbanized country, and more than three-quarters of its citizens now live in towns, large cities or the suburbs. This statistic makes city governments critically important in the overall pattern of American government. To a greater extent than on the federal or state level, the city directly serves the needs of the people, providing everything from police and fire protection to sanitary codes, health regulations, education, public transportation and housing.
The business of running America's major cities is enormously complex. Only seven states of the union, for example, have populations larger than that of New York City. It is often said that, next to the presidency, the most difficult executive position in the country is that of mayor of New York.
City governments are chartered by states, and their charters detail the objectives and powers of the municipal government. But in many respects the cities function independently of the states. For most big cities, however, cooperation with both state and federal organizations is essential to meeting the needs of their residents.
City Government Organization
Types of city governments vary widely across the nation. However, almost all have some kind of central council, elected by the voters, and an executive officer, assisted by various department heads, to manage the city's affairs.
There are three general types of city government: the mayor-council, the commission and the city manager. These are the pure forms; many cities have developed a combination of two or three of them.
Mayor-Council: This is the oldest form of city government in the United States and, until the beginning of this century, was used by nearly all American cities. Its structure is similar to that of the state and national governments, with an elected mayor as chief of the executive branch, and an elected council representing the various neighborhoods forming the legislative branch. The mayor appoints heads of city departments and other officials, sometimes with the approval of the council. He has the power of veto over city ordinances and frequently is responsible for preparing the city's budget. The council passes ordinances, the laws of the city, sets the tax rate on property and apportions money among the various city departments.
The Commission: This combines both the legislative and executive functions in one group of officials, usually three or more in number, elected city-wide. Each commissioner supervises the work of one or more city departments. One is named chairman of the body and is often called the mayor, although his power is equivalent to that of his fellow commissioners.
City Manager: The city manager is a response to the increasing complexity of urban problems, which require management expertise not often possessed by elected public officials. The answer has been to entrust most of the executive powers, including law enforcement and provision of services, to a highly trained and experienced professional city manager.
The city manager plan has been adopted by a growing number of cities. Under this plan, a small, elected council makes the city ordinances and sets policy, but hires a paid administrator, also called a city manager, to carry out its decisions. The manager draws up the city budget and supervises most of the departments. Usually, there is no set term; the manager serves as long as the council is satisfied with his or her work.