City and Town Forms of Government
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:
- State laws on forms of government;
- City charters;
- Procedures for changing form of government;
- Frequently asked questions about forms of government; and
- 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.
|Selection of CEO
||Appointed by council on the basis of experience|
|Removal of CEO
||Removed by a majority vote of the council|
|Tenure of executive
|Tenure of council
|Appointment of department heads
||Mayor (with council confirmation if provided)
||Manager (no council confirmation)|
|Removal of department heads
||Manager has no veto|
||Mayor can propose
||Manager can recommend|
||Separation of powers
Strong central executive
Separation of politics from administration|
Promotion of economy and efficiency through professional management
Strong central executive
Additional Articles and Resources
- Plans of Government Available to Code Cities, from Code City Handbook, MRSC Report No. 37, Revised June, 2009
- Trends in Forms of Government in Washington Cities, by Byron Katsuyama and Lynn Nordby, Public Policy and Management Consultants, MRSC, March 2011
- Council Election by Wards or Districts, MRSC
- Creating the City Administrator Position, MRSC - Sample Code Provisions
- The Unofficial Role of the Administrator, Lynn Nordby, Public Policy and Management Consultant, MRSC, Public Management, ICMA, October 2008
- Aberdeen (1929, last updated Amendment No. 22, 1985)
- Bellingham (1973, last amended 2006)
- Bremerton, (1973, last amended 2011)
- Everett (1968)
- Kelso (Code city; charter 1993)
- Richland (1958, last amended 1991)
- Seattle (1896, last amended 2013)
- Spokane (1910, last amended 2011)
- Tacoma (1953, last amended 2004)
- Vancouver (1952, last amended 2009)
- Yakima (1931, last amended 2011)
For information about County Charters, see County Forms of Government
- 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
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.
Washington Cities by Classification and Form of Government
Washington Cities Incorporating Under, Adopting or Abandoning Form Of Government (1970-2013)
|Cities Incorporating under the Mayor-Council Form|
|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)
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.
- Sample Petition for Election to Reorganize - 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 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 - 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 - 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