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SubjectsGovernance › Roles and Responsibilities
Reviewed 10/2013

Roles and Responsibilities

Contents

Introduction

"Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right things."
- Warren Bennis

Constitutions, charters, statutes, and ordinances are the sources of authority for elected officials and staff in the policy-making process. A clear understanding of roles and responsibilities can increase the effectiveness of participants in the policy-making process. Whether legislative or executive, the goal is to serve the community. In addition to reviewing the powers of the legislative and executive branches of cities and counties, this section provides practical tips on how to avoid conflicts between key players who are in administrative and policy-making positions.

Legislative Bodies

City, town, and county councilmembers and county commissioners are legislators. Together they constitute a legislative body which is given authority by the state constitution and state law to make local law. Local legislative authority is generally limited to what the state specifically grants to counties, cities and towns. However, code cities, charter cities and charter counties have "home rule" powers which permit them to exercise authority not specifically granted; provided that the state has not specifically prohibited that local authority.

Our political system is a representative democracy. We elect legislators to make policy decisions and enact laws on our behalf. Except through the exercise of the initiative and referendum, we do not practice direct democracy. Our representatives may come from a variety of backgrounds: farmers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, business owners, etc. The essence of the legislative process is the give and take of different interests, and the search for a compromise that is acceptable to the majority. Often there are elaborate mechanisms to involve citizens and interest groups in the policy-making process. However, in the final analysis, legislative bodies make the decisions. Those who are not satisfied with the outcome can always seek to change the representatives by voting them out of office. But they must abide by the decisions whether they like them or not.

For more on legislative bodies, see:

Executives

While mayors and city managers often develop and propose policies, their basic authority is to carry out the council's directives and to implement the policy adopted by councils. Commissioners serve both legislative and executive roles. The relationship of the executive to the legislative body varies by form of local government.

  • Mayor-Council Form of Government. Policy and administration are separated. All legislative and policy-making powers are vested in the city council. This is also true for charter counties that have county councils: King, Snohomish, Pierce and Whatcom Counties. Administrative authority is vested in a directly elected mayor or county executive. Mayors in second class mayor-council and code mayor-council cities may veto ordinances but the mayor's veto can be overruled by two-thirds vote of the council.
  • Council-Manager Form of Government. All legislative and policy powers are vested in the city council. The council employs a professionally trained administrator to carry out the policies it develops. The city manager is head of the administrative branch of government. The mayor is usually selected by the city council from among its members, although in a few larger cities (e.g. Tacoma, Spokane, Vancouver, and Olympia), the voters directly elect the mayor through provisions of a charter or through RCW 35A.13.033 for Optional Municipal Code cities. The mayor's responsibilities are primarily to preside at council meetings, act as head of the city for ceremonial purposes, and for purposes of military law. The mayor votes as a councilmember and does not have any veto power. Political skills possessed by the mayor can be helpful in bringing parties together in the policy development process. Currently, the only county to use this organizational model is San Juan County.
  • Commission Form of Government. In the commission form of government one elective body includes the executive, legislative, and administrative functions of government. There is only one Washington city (Shelton) currently operating under this form of government. Thirty-four Washington counties have commission forms of government. The board of commissioners sits as a body, passes laws, and makes policy. Clallam County's home rule charter established a county administrator to assist the commissioners but both the executive and legislative functions are retained by the commissioners.

While much of this information is relevant to counties, there are some factors that make the policy-making process of counties different from cities. Elected county offices are partisan in a majority of the counties; candidates declare party affiliation when they run for office. All elected city offices are non-partisan. County commissioners share power with other elected county officials such as the assessor, auditor, prosecuting attorney, sheriff, county clerk, and treasurer. There are only a handful of Washington cities that elect anyone other than mayors or council members. An extensive treatment of the responsibilities of commissioners can be found in the New Commissioner Handbook, Report No. 43 (Adobe Acrobat Document), Municipal Research and Services Center, September 1998 also available in HTML format.

The separation of authority between the legislative body and the chief executive in the mayor-council, county executive and council-manager forms of government is very similar. In the mayor-council form of government, the mayor is the chief administrative officer who is responsible for all administrative functions. When separately elected, the county executive serves as chief administrative officer in those counties that have a council (e.g., King, Pierce, Snohomish and Whatcom Counties). In the council-manager form, the appointed manager is the chief administrative officer. The council creates the departments, authorizes positions, and fixes compensation. The council may not direct the hiring of any employee by the chief administrative officer, although local ordinances may call for council confirmation of appointments in the mayor-council form of government. The mayor has the power to appoint and remove all appointive officers and employees consistent with the laws of the city. This authority to hire and fire may be delegated to department heads. In the council-manager form, the manager supervises city business, appoints and removes department heads and employees, executes laws, recommends activities to the council, submits reports, submits a proposed budget, and performs other duties directed by ordinance.

Mayors, county executives, city managers, and staff do not make policy decisions. However, they have strong influence on the policy-making process and its resultant decisions. For example, they propose budgets, oversee the studies and analyses carried out by staff, and make policy recommendations to councils. Through their ongoing contacts with key interest groups, elected and appointed chief administrative officers and department heads influence (and are influenced by) other participants in the policy development process.

See also:

Mayor's Handbook. Report No. 44 (Adobe Acrobat Document), MRSC, revised 12/2009. This handbook is intended to serve as a guide for mayors in Washington cities and towns operating under the mayor-council form of government. There are also materials on issues which directly concern mayors in council-manager cities and all mayor pro tems: presiding over council meetings, conducting public hearings, etc.

What Staff Needs to Know about the Needs of Elected Officials

Policy development processes are most effective and productive when key players work well together. Each party has a role to play and has defined responsibilities. Conflicts often develop when the legitimate needs and roles of one party are not understood by another. Here are some suggestions that might make the policy development process more effective:

  • Elected officials have different needs than staff. To be effective, they must be responsive to the needs of their constituents. Concerns for "fairness" and "minority views" may outweigh issues of effectiveness or efficiency.
  • Elected officials want to know where various constituent groups stand on an issue. This information is important in attempting to balance the conflicting values that often come into play during the policy-making process.
  • Elected officials do not like surprises, particularly at the end of a long and arduous process. (Who does?) A staff member's credibility can be seriously undermined if key interests introduce relevant new information at a final public hearing before action is taken. Councilmembers will think that the staff has not done their job of getting this information considered earlier.
  • Elected officials like to have choices. Nobody likes to feel backed into a corner where there is only one solution. A brilliant staff proposal may not carry the day if other choices were not seriously considered.
  • Staff can be an enormous help by showing how compromise can be reached on thorny issues.
  • Staff can make everyone on the policy/administrative team look good by sharing credit.

What Elected Officials Need to Know about the Needs of Staff

Some key staff belong to national and state associations that hold members to professional and ethical standards. For example, many city managers and administrators belong to the Washington City/County Management Association and are bound by the International City/County Management Association code of ethics. Asking staff to help on certain political matters, such as election and ballot campaigns, puts them in a difficult position. State laws also significantly limit the use of public resources for campaign issues.

Staff will sometimes assert that "we can't do this because it violates technical standards." While these standards are legitimate attempts to address important public goals, they often do not fully recognize other community values. For example, street design standards favor the movement of traffic. If the street is not critical for the movement of large traffic volumes, there may be ways to design the street to achieve other community goals by providing wider sidewalks, bike lanes, and space for recreational and social activities. (However, access may be lost to certain categories of state or federal funds if standards are not met.) Explore these issues with staff and challenge their creativity.

Competent staff can be a tremendous help in developing ideas, structuring good processes, and generally keeping you out of trouble. Get to know and trust key staff.

Treat each other respectfully. Otherwise the official may not get that extra effort that can make a difference in effectiveness.

Avoid public criticism of each other; it only makes for martyrs. If there is a legitimate concern, discuss the matter privately. If you are a councilmember, remember that you do not have the authority to direct employees. Discuss your concerns with the mayor or city manager. If on the staff, ask for policy clarification if you are not sure what was intended.

Show appreciation for good work. Say "thanks." Share credit.

Another way to improve policy-making and decision-making is to better understand the role of team members.

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.