Roles and Responsibilities
"Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the
- 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
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:
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, 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.
Mayor's Handbook. Report No. 44 , 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
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
- 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
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
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
Another way to improve policy-making and decision-making is to
better understand the role of team members.