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SubjectsGovernance › City and Town Forms of Government
Updated 02/2014

City and Town Forms of Government

Contents

Introduction

Washington cities and towns are organized under three principal forms of government: the mayor-council form, the council-manager form and the commission form. Each of these alternative forms represents a somewhat different approach to organizing the political and administrative structure of a city or town government. In addition, state law permits cities under certain circumstances to adopt charters unique to their communities. From this page you may access discussions of these basic forms of government available to Washington cities and links to:

  1. State laws on forms of government;
  2. City charters;
  3. Procedures for changing form of government;
  4. Frequently asked questions about forms of government; and
  5. Various documents (including sample resolutions calling for elections on the question of changing the form of government).

Forms of Government

Of Washington's 281 cities and towns, 227 (81%) operate under the mayor-council form, 53 (19%) have adopted the council-manager form, and 1 (<1%) operates under the commission form. As a practical matter, the primary forms are the mayor-council and the council-manager forms, since there is only one remaining commission city and no cities have adopted this form in recent years.

Each of these alternative forms represents a somewhat different approach to organizing the political and administrative structure of a city or town government. In general, choosing the form of government is not a matter of how much legislative and/or administrative authority the city or town will have. That will be the same regardless of the form that is selected. The most significant differences between the two primary forms of government stem from the location and distribution of authority between the legislative and executive officials. These factors account for most of the differences between the two primary forms of government and have different implications for how a city or town will be governed and administered.

Mayor-Council Form of Government

The mayor-council form consists of an elected mayor (elected at-large), who serves as the city's chief administrative officer, and a council (elected either at-large or from districts), which serves as the municipality's legislative body. The council has the authority to formulate and adopt city policies and the mayor is responsible for carrying them out. The mayor attends and presides over council meetings but does not vote, except in the case of a tie.

Mayoral veto authority is specified in the state laws relating to each city classification or is determined by local charter. In first class cities, the mayor's veto authority is specified in the city charter. In second class cities, the mayor may veto an ordinance, but the mayor's veto can be overridden by five members of the council. In code cities, the mayor may veto ordinances, but the mayor's veto can be overridden by a majority plus one of the entire council membership. Town mayors do not have a veto power.

Many mayor-council cities have hired professional city administrators to serve under the mayor and assist with administrative and policy-related duties. By doing so, these cities seek to gain the benefits of professional management, allowing the mayor to focus greater attention on policy development, political leadership roles or their own livelihood.

Council-Manager Form of Government

The council-manager form consists of an elected city council which is responsible for policy making, and a professional city manager, appointed by the council, who is responsible for administration. The city manager provides policy advice, directs the daily operations of city government, handles personnel functions (including the power to appoint and remove employees) and is responsible for preparing the city budget.

Under the council-manager statutes, the city council is prohibited from interfering with the manager's administration. The city manager, however, is directly accountable to and can be removed by a majority vote of the council at any time.

The council-manager form is based on the model of a business with a board of directors that appoints a chief executive officer. Another familiar public example is the school board-superintendent relationship.

The mayor in council-manager cities is generally selected by the city council. The person selected must also be a councilmember. The charter of a first class city or the voters of an optional municipal code city, according to the provisions of RCW 35A.13.033, may provide for the mayor to be directly elected by the people. The mayor presides at council meetings and is recognized as the head of the city for ceremonial purposes, but has no regular administrative duties.

Commission Form of Government

The commission form provides for the election of three commissioners who function collectively as the city legislative body and individually as city department heads. The three are elected at-large to fill the specific offices of commissioner of public safety (who also serves as the mayor), commissioner of finance and accounting, and commissioner of streets and public improvements (public works).

Although one of the elected commissioners also has the title of mayor, he or she has essentially the same powers as the other commissioners, and has no veto power nor any power to direct city administration except within his/her own department. The commission appoints and removes officials by a majority vote.

Comparing/Contrasting the Mayor-Council and Council-Manager Forms of Government

The following table displays a comparison between the Mayor-Council and Council-Manager forms of government in Washington State.

Characteristics Mayor-Council Council-Manager
Legislative authority Council Council
Executive authority Elected mayor Appointed manager
Selection of CEO Popularly elected Appointed by council on the basis of experience
Removal of CEO Recall election Removed by a majority vote of the council
Tenure of executive 4-year term Indefinite
Tenure of council 4-year term 4-year term
Appointment of department heads Mayor (with council confirmation if provided) Manager (no council confirmation)
Removal of department heads Mayor Manager
Veto Mayor Manager has no veto
Policy development Mayor can propose Manager can recommend
Policy implementation Mayor Manager
Underlying principles Separation of powers
Political leadership
Strong central executive
Separation of politics from administration
Promotion of economy and efficiency through professional management
Strong central executive
Business model

Additional Articles and Resources

City Charters

For information about County Charters, see County Forms of Government

Statutes

  • Ch. 35.18 RCW - Council-Manager Plan - Basic structure and organization of council-manager form of government for non-code cities
  • Ch. 35.17 RCW - Commission Form of Government - Basic structure and organization of commission form of government
  • Ch. 35A.12 RCW - Mayor-Council Plan of Government - Basic structure and organization of mayor-council form of government for code cities
  • Ch. 35A.13 RCW - Council-Manager Plan of Government - Basic structure and organization of council-manager form of government for code cities
  • RCW 35.18.230 - .285 - Procedures for non-code cities or towns to adopt the council-manager form of government
  • RCW 35.18.290 - .320 - Procedures for non-code cities and towns to abandon the council-manager form of government
  • RCW 35.17.370 - .420 - Procedures for non-code cities to adopt the commission form of government
  • RCW 35.17.430 - .460 - Procedures for non-code cities to abandon the commission form of government
  • Ch. 35A.06 RCW - Provisions Applicable to Adoption and Abandonment of Noncharter Code City Classification or Plan of Government - Procedures for changing forms of government in code cities

Statistics

Forms of Government and Percentage of Incorporated Population of Washington Cities (1940-2010)

Listed below are the forms of government and percent of incorporated population of cities in Washington State, between the years 1940 and 2010.

Year Mayor-Council Council-Manager Commission Total No.
of Cities
Total
Inc. Pop
No. % of
Inc. Pop.
No. % of
Inc. Pop.
No. % of
Inc. Pop.
1940 208 65% 0 0% 13 35% 221 1,060,518
1950 221 61% 2 1% 15 38% 238 1,422,983
1960 234 60% 18 32% 9 8% 261 1,705,986
1970 233 57% 24 37% 8 6% 265 1,907,182
1980 230 55% 29 40% 6 5% 265 2,125,392
1990 228 54% 37 45% 3 1% 268 2,287,498
2000 224 50% 54 49.8% 1 <1% 279 3,387,824
2010 228 58% 52 42% 1 <1% 281 4,196,962

Washington Cities by Classification and Form of Government

Class All Cities Mayor-Council Council-Manager Commission
First 10 6 4 0
Second 9 9 0 0
Town 69 69 0 0
Code 192 142 49 1
Unclassified 1 1 0 0
Total 281 227 53 1

Washington Cities Incorporating Under, Adopting or Abandoning Form Of Government (1970-2013)

Cities Incorporating under the Mayor-Council Form
  • Liberty Lake (2001)
Cities Incorporating under the Council-Manager Form
  • Ocean Shores (1970)
  • Mill Creek (1983)
  • SeaTac (1990)
  • Federal Way (1990)
  • Woodinville (1993)
  • Burien (1993)
  • Newcastle (1994)
  • Shoreline (1995)
  • University Place (1995)
  • Lakewood (1996)
  • Edgewood (1996)
  • Covington (1997)
  • Maple Valley (1997)
  • Kenmore (1998)
  • Sammamish (1999)
  • Spokane Valley (2003)
Cities Changing from the Commission to the Mayor-Council Form
  • Wenatchee (1999)
  • Raymond (1998)
Cities Changing from Commission to Council-Manager Form
  • Chehalis (1975)
  • Olympia (1982)
  • Centralia (1986)
Cities Changing from Mayor-Council to Council-Manager Form
  • Snohomish (1972)
  • Bothell (1973)
  • Toppenish (1973)
  • Lacey (1973)
  • Ferndale (1981)
  • Blaine (1982)
  • Goldendale (1986)
  • Fircrest (1988)
  • Sequim (1995)
  • Ephrata (1995)
  • Battle Ground (1996)
  • Port Townsend (1998)
  • Fife (1999)
  • Carnation (2000)
  • Ridgefield (2000)
  • Airway Heights (2002)
  • Bainbridge Island (2009)
  • Union Gap (2013)
Cities Changing from Council-Manager to Mayor-Council Form
  • Bonney Lake (1973)
  • Anacortes (1982)
  • Goldendale (1994)
  • Ferndale (1999)
  • Spokane (2001)
  • Ephrata (2003)
  • Ocean Shores (2007)
  • Federal Way (2009)

Other Statistics

Reorganizing/Changing Form of Government

Any city may change its form of government and adopt another authorized form of government. In general, the procedure may be initiated either by a resolution adopted by the city council or by a petition process, both of which are then followed by an election on the issue of reorganizing under a different form of government.

Articles

Documents

  • Sample Petition for Election to Reorganize (Microsoft Word Document) - This example is worded to reflect a change from the mayor-council form of government to council-manager form in a code city. The wording can be easily revised for a change from council-manager to mayor-council if desired.
  • Bainbridge Island Resolution No. 2009-06 (Adobe Acrobat Document) adopted under Ch. 35A.06 RCW - Calling for an election on the proposition of whether the city should abandon the mayor-council form of government and reorganize under council-manager form of government, including sample ballot proposition, 03/11/2009
  • Federal Way Resolution No. 07-507 (Adobe Acrobat Document) - Requesting King County to schedule a special election and prepare a voter's pamphlet in response to a valid petition under RCW 35A.02.060 for a change in the form of government from council-manager to mayor-council, passed 10/16/2007
  • Soap Lake Resolution No. 443 (Adobe Acrobat Document) - Sample resolution, adopted under Ch. 35.18 RCW, in response to a petition for the adoption of the council-manager plan of government, passed 03/17/1993

MRSC Inquiries

Need more information?

Feel free to Ask MRSC. Washington cities, counties, and our contract partners can call or email MRSC for more information and advice - free of charge.