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SubjectsGovernance › Is it Policy or Administration?
Reviewed 02/2013

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."

Edmund Burke

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.

Policy Administration
Enact a budget. Propose budget. Spend within budgetary limits.
Define the powers, functions and duties of officers and employees. 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 employees. Insure that proper working conditions are provided.
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 ordinances. Collect fines and enforce penalties.
Enter into contracts. Propose contracts. Manage approved contracts. Enforce contracts.
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 council.
Set tax rates and user fees consistent with state laws. 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 agreement.

Administrative Functions

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 improvement effort.

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 and employees.

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.

Personnel Issues

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 purposes.

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 accommodation.

Resolving Conflicts

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.

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.