Is it Policy or Administration?
"All government - indeed, every human benefit and
enjoyment, every virture and every prudent act - is founded on
compromise and barter."
Is it policy or is it administration? Through some examples of
typical local government activities we will attempt to answer
this age-old question. The Municipal Research and Services Center
(MRSC) is frequently asked for advice from local officials about
this issue. Lack of clarity or agreement about this issue is
perhaps the most frequent source of conflict. There are no "black
and white" answers. There will always be some overlap between
policy and administration. That is why it is very important for
executives, legislators, and key staff to develop ways to
communicate and work together effectively.
Legislative bodies are most effective and successful when they
focus on strategic activities to guide future development of
their communities. These key policy-making activities include the
development of a vision for the community, the adoption of
community goals and objectives, the adoption of comprehensive
plans, decisions about which programs and services will be
provided by the local government, and the adoption of budgets and
capital facilities plans. These are clearly policy matters.
Policy Versus Administration - Examples
Councils and commissions have the powers to enact laws and
policies consistent with state law, usually through the enactment
of ordinances and resolutions. The chart below lists actions that
city councils and commissions can take, followed by a brief
description of the responsibility of the mayor, city manager or
administrator. These also apply to county councils and
commissions; however, counties have a number of independent
elected officials whose functions and duties are defined by the
state constitution, state statutes or home rule charter.
|Enact a budget.
||Propose budget. Spend within budgetary limits.
|Define the powers, functions and duties of officers and
||Fill positions consistent with local ordinances.
|Fix the compensation of officers and employees.
||Administer payroll consistent with the adopted budget
and compensation plan.
|Establish the working conditions of officers and
||Insure that proper working conditions are
|Establish retirement and pension systems.
||Administer pension and retirement plan.
|Adopt ordinances regulating local affairs.
||Implement and enforce ordinances.
|Set fines and penalties for violation of
||Collect fines and enforce penalties.
|Enter into contracts.
||Propose contracts. Manage approved contracts. Enforce
|Regulate the acquisition, sale, ownership, and other
disposition of real property.
||Negotiate terms of acquisition and sale of real
property; carry out acquisition and sale.
|Decide which governmental services will be provided.
Adopt budgets for their provision.
||Oversee the day to day operation of programs and
services provided by the local government.
|Establish public utilities.
||Manage provision of utility services.
|Grant franchise for the use of public ways.
||Enforce terms of franchise agreement.
|License, for the purpose of revenue and regulation,
most any type of business.
||Administer business licenses as provided by
|Set tax rates and user fees consistent with state
||Collect taxes and user fees.
|Approve claims against the city or county.
||Bring lawsuits, with legislative approval. Propose
settlement of claims. Pay approved claims.
|Enter into agreements to accept grants and gifts.
||Propose agreement. Carry out terms of the
The mayor, city manager, or county executive is the chief
executive and administrator in charge of carrying out the
policies set by the legislative body and enforcing local laws.
They are basically in charge of the day-to-day operation of the
city or county, including the supervision of all appointed
officers and employees in the performance of their official
functions. The chief executive is in charge of hiring and firing
all appointive officers and employees, subject, where applicable,
to laws regarding civil service. Councils of first class, second
class, and code cities have some authority to require
confirmation of the mayoral appointments of certain officials;
councils may not, however, require confirmation of firings by the
mayor. Town councils do not have this power.
For the most part public agencies are administrative;
they must follow policies, laws, budgets, and other rules. In
order to prevent abuses of power and to provide predictability,
administrative functions have limited flexibility or discretion.
For example, the enforcement of building and land use codes are
generally ministerial in nature. If applicants comply with
requirements as set forth in the code, they get their permit.
However, there are certain types of decisions, such as rezones,
that must go to the legislative body.
On many matters, citizens will no doubt call councilmembers.
In these situations, it is best to pass on the complaint (through
the mayor or city manager), let staff deal with it, and report
back to the councilmember on its disposition. Give the staff a
chance to do their job. Treat citizen comments, complaints, or
requests as feedback on basic service delivery systems. These are
opportunities for service "tune-ups" as part of a continuous
Separation of Powers
Consistent with the doctrine of separation of powers, the
council is not authorized to interfere with the chief executive's
administration of government. Councilmembers may not give orders
to department heads or to other employees. In council-manager
cities, this prohibition is established statutorily. The council
must work through the city manager on matters of city
administration, except that it may deal directly with officers
and employees under the manager's direction "for the purpose of
inquiry." To do its job, the council needs information on how the
city or county is operating. The chief executive must provide
timely, useful information evenly and equally to all
councilmembers - either directly or through subordinate officers
On the issue of communication between the council and city
officers and employees, the mayor may not prevent council members
from gaining information although he or she could reasonably
regulate the inquiry process. If councilmember inquiries
unreasonably take staff away from their duties, the mayor may
require those inquiries to be channeled through the mayor or a
department head, if it can be done without unduly encumbering
council access to information.
A frequent source of conflict is in the area of personnel. The
council may not like a mayor's appointment to a particular
position, or it may be dissatisfied with the performance of
certain officers or employees. An employee may complain to and
seek relief from the council about some aspect of employment. On
the other hand, the mayor may believe that certain personnel
policies interfere with his or her supervision of employees and
hiring and firing authority. The mayor may direct that all
communications with city staff go through the mayor's office. The
council, in response, may feel that the mayor is unlawfully
restricting its access to city personnel for information
The remedy for some of these situations may be to review the
respective roles of the mayor and the council and to understand
the limitations of their respective authorities. For example, if
the council is not happy with a mayoral appointment, there may be
nothing the council can do directly within the bounds of its
authority. However, if it has the authority to confirm a
particular appointment, it can reject the appointee and force the
mayor to choose another. If the council does not have
confirmation authority, it can express its dissatisfaction to the
mayor, but it can do nothing else with respect to that particular
appointment. The council may, however, provide for a detailed
personnel system establishing specific qualifications for
positions, requiring publication and public posting of job
opening announcements, and the like. Moreover, the mayor, at
least in code cities, is required by statute to make appointments
"on the basis of ability and training or experience."
Similarly, if the council feels that an officer or employee is
performing poorly and should be disciplined or fired, it can say
so to the mayor, but it has no power to do anything else.
Although it controls the salaries paid to city officers and
employees, it may not lower a salary with the purpose of causing
the person holding that position to quit. A rule to follow is
that the council (and the mayor) may not do indirectly what it
cannot do directly.
Finance and Budget Issues
Another area that often provides ground for conflict is
finances and budgets. For example, the mayor may not take full
advantage of the budget authorized by the council. The council
may authorize a certain position at a certain salary, and the
mayor may decide not to fill the position or may do so at half
time and half salary. The mayor may cite financial difficulties,
such as revenues falling short of projections, and may conclude
that the city cannot afford someone filling this position
full-time. The council, on the other hand, may not agree that the
conditions warrant such action or may determine that a different
cost-saving measure is appropriate and should be instituted.
Resolution of this type of issue may prove particularly
tricky. Although the mayor may not pay an employee less than is
authorized by the council in the budget or separate salary
ordinance, under certain financial circumstances, the mayor may
be able to partially fill a position, thus proportionately
reducing the salary for the position. Legal authority, however,
is hazy on such issues. The best strategy would be for the mayor
and the council to work out a mutually agreeable
In situations where it is not clear whether the executive or
the council has the authority to act, counsel of the city
attorney or that of a MRSC consultant could be sought.
Understanding roles is a necessary step in resolving many
conflicts. When roles are not clearly defined, compromise may be
in order. Statutes and case law may not always provide a ready
answer. All parties need flexibility to meet the challenge of
providing effective local government that is responsive to public
needs. Local government works best when local officials work well
together and build relationships based on honesty and trust.