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SubjectsGovernance › Trends in Forms of Government in Washington Cities
Published 03/2011

Trends in Forms of Government in Washington Cities

By Byron Katsuyama and Lynn Nordby,
Public Policy and Management Consultants, MRSC

Historically there have been three basic forms of municipal government found in Washington cities: the mayor-council form, the council-manager form, and the commission form. Each form represents a different approach to the political and administrative organization of municipal government. At one time or another, citizens of every city and town in Washington have taken up the question of which form of government would be best for their community. Every city of course must answer this question at least once upon their initial incorporation. Cities also have the ability to change their form of government at a later time and many have chosen to do so.

Table 1
Washington Cities by Population and Form of Government

Population Group All Cities (A) Form of Government [No. and % of (A)]
Mayor-Council Council-Manager Commission
Over 500,000 1 1 (100)    
101,000 - 500,000 5 2 (40) 3 (60)  
50,001 - 100,000 13 7 (54) 6 (46)  
25,001 - 50,000 21 8 (38) 13 (62)  
10,001 - 25,000 35 20 (57) 15 (43)  
5,001 - 10,000 40 28 (70) 11 (28) 1 (2)
2,501 - 5,000 33 30 (90) 3 (10)  
1,001 - 2,500 51 50 (98) 1 (2)  
Under 1,000 82 82 (100)    
Total - all cities 281 228 (81) 52 (18) 1 (1)

Current Picture

Table 1 shows the current distribution of Washington cities by population and form of government. Of Washington's 281 cities and towns, 228 (81%) operate under the mayor-council form, 52 (18%) have adopted the council-manager form, and one operates under the commission form.

The great majority of Washington's 281 municipalities are small mayor-council cities and towns. Of the 228 mayor-council municipalities in the state, 166 have populations of under 5,000, including 82 small mayor-council municipalities that have fewer than 1,000 residents. Ten of the state's largest cities, having populations greater than 50,000, also operate under the mayor-council form, including the city of Seattle, with over 500,000 residents. Mayor-council and council-manager cities in this population group (over 50,000) are in fact just about evenly split, with nine of the state's largest cities operating under the council-manager form. Most council-manager cities, 39 out of 52, fall within the 5,000 to 50,000 population range. Only one city, Shelton (8,545 population), is still operating under the commission form of government.

Historical Trends

Mayor-Council

The mayor-council form is the oldest form of government found in Washington cities and was the only option available to most cities from statehood in 1889 until 1910 when the commission form was first introduced.

This 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 is responsible for formulating and adopting city policies. The mayor-council form is characterized by a separation of executive and legislative powers and a system of checks and balances patterned after our traditional national and state governments. In all but the largest cities, elected city and town mayors and councilmembers serve on a part-time basis leaving most of the day-to-day operations to various full and part-time administrative personnel.

Nationally, mayor-council governments have been classified as either "strong-mayor" or "weak-mayor" types depending upon the degree of executive authority that is concentrated in the office of mayor. In Washington the state legislature basically provided for the "strong-mayor" type of mayor-council government except that mayors in towns do not have the authority to veto ordinances. By the time of statehood in 1889, there were 32 cities in Washington operating under the mayor-council form of government. From that time the number of cities operating under this form steadily increased, to 190 in 1920 and 208 by 1940, becoming the most popular form of government among Washington cities, particularly among those cities and towns under 5,000 population.

Progressive Reform Movement

On the national scene, the progressive reform movement of the early 1900s resulted in the development of two new forms of government, the commission form and the council-manager form. Concerned with the excesses of "political machines" operating in many of the country's cities and dissatisfied with the poor quality of municipal services, government reformers of this period sought to improve city government by removing politics from administration and by introducing the values of efficiency and professionalism borrowed from the model of America's successful business organizations.

Commission Form

Initially introduced at Galveston, Texas in 1901in response to a devastating natural disaster, the commission form was the first major alternative to the mayor-council form and was widely adopted in the United States during the early 1900s. The commission form featured a small council whose members functioned collectively as the city legislative body and individually as city department heads. In theory, combining executive and legislative responsibility in one small elected body was supposed to result in increased political accountability and a more efficient and responsive city government.

Tacoma and Spokane were the first cities to adopt the commission form in Washington, both in 1910. As first class cities, Tacoma and Spokane were able to adopt the commission form through their charter authority. For other classes of cities, enabling legislation authorizing adoption of the commission form was enacted in 1911. Other cities adopting this form included Yakima, Walla Walla, and Chehalis in 1911, and Centralia in 1912.

Council-Manager Form

Staunton, Virginia has been credited as the first city to adopt the council-manager form of government in 1908. 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 is directly accountable to, and can be removed by the council. Although mayors in council-manager cities have no administrative or executive duties they do serve as the chair of the city council and often play a prominent political leadership role.

It was not until 1943 that the enabling legislation for the council-manager form was enacted by the Washington legislature. First class cities had the authority to adopt this form under their charters, but none had successfully done so (reformers in Seattle made several early, but unsuccessful, attempts). The first city in Washington to successfully adopt the council-manager form was the city of Sunnyside in 1948.

Modern Trends

Table 2 shows the number of Washington cities adopting the mayor-council, council-manager, and commission forms of government from 1940 to 2010. Also included in Table 2 is the percentage of incorporated population governed by the three basic forms of government over the same period.

Table 2
Forms of Government and Percentage of Incorporated Population of Washington Cities - 1940 to 2010

Year Mayor-Council Council-Manager Commission Total No.
of Cities
Total
Inc. Pop
No. % of
Inc. Pop.
No. % of
Inc. Pop.
No. % of
Inc. Pop.
1940 208 65% 0 0% 13 35% 221 1,060,518
1950 221 61% 2 1% 15 38% 238 1,422,983
1960 234 60% 18 32% 9 8% 261 1,705,986
1970 233 57% 24 37% 8 6% 265 1,907,182
1980 230 55% 29 40% 6 5% 265 2,125,392
1990 228 54% 37 45% 3 1% 268 2,287,498
2000 224 50% 54 49.8% 1 <1% 279 3,387,824
2010 228 58% 52 42% 1 <1% 281 4,196,962

Mayor-Council Form

Since statehood the number of mayor-council cities increased steadily until it peaked in 1962 at 238, and then declined slightly, reflecting a growing number of Washington cities that were adopting the council-manager plan. Between 1990 and 2010, the mayor-council form has been adopted in nine cities. One city (Liberty Lake) incorporated as a mayor-council city. Two cities (Raymond and Wenatchee) changed from the commission to mayor-council form. Six cities (Goldendale, Ferndale, Spokane, Ephrata, Ocean Shores and Federal Way) changed from the council-manager to the mayor-council form. In 2010, Washington's mayor-council cities accounted for 58 percent of the state's incorporated population. Nationally, the mayor-council form is used in 44% of U.S. cities over 2,500 population.

Commission Form

Although the commission form enjoyed an initial period of popularity in Washington, the number of adoptions peaked in the early 1940s at 15 cities. In 1944 Shelton was the last city to adopt the commission form. At the height of its popularity, 38 percent of the state's incorporated population lived in cities operating under the commission form. Since that time the number of commission cities has steadily decreased, until today only one city, Shelton, continues to operate under this form, accounting for less than one percent of city residents. Of the 14 cities that abandoned the commission form, 10 changed to the council-manager form and four to the mayor-council form. Nationally, the commission form is used in only one percent of U.S. cities over 2,500 population.

Council-Manager Form

The number of adoptions of the council-manager form in Washington has increased steadily since the time of its introduction. After Sunnyside first blazed the trail in 1948, the city of Ellensburg followed quickly, adopting the plan in the following year. Other cities have followed over the years with 14 adoptions in the 1950s, seven in the 1960s, seven in the 1970s, and seven in the 1980s. Between 1990 and 2010 fourteen new cities incorporated under the council-manager form and nine cities abandoned the mayor-council form to adopt the council-manager form. Today the 52 Washington cities operating under the council-manager form of government range in population from 1,915 in Carnation to 204,200 in Tacoma. The total population in council-manager cities in 2010 was slightly over 1.7 million residents, accounting for approximately 42 percent of the state's incorporated population. On the national level, the council-manager plan is found in roughly 49 percent of U.S. cities over 2,500 population.

Merging Forms?

Over the last 20 to 30 years, a significant number of Washington's mayor-council cities have added a new professional position of city administrator or some other similarly titled position in the mayor's office. City administrators serve under the mayor, usually on a full-time basis, assisting them with their administrative and policy-related responsibilities. Typically, this position is responsible for budget preparation, personnel administration, and the daily supervision of departments. In theory, the appointment of a city administrator frees the mayor from the need to attend to administrative details and allows them to focus greater attention on policy development and political leadership and often to attend to their own private employment apart from city government.

This form is really a hybrid of the council-manager and mayor-council forms, since it borrows some of the characteristics of each. There is a single elected executive to represent the community and provide political leadership--assisted by a professional manager. Some local government observers have suggested that this trend actually represents a converging of the two dominant forms of government.

In Washington, this variation on the mayor-council plan has been growing in popularity particularly among cities and towns under 10,000 population. The 2009 Association of Washington Cities Salary Survey reported 75 mayor-council cities and towns that had established a position of city or town administrator, or other similar position. In addition, the lone remaining city operating under the commission form of government has also established a city administrator position, essentially adopting a hybrid council-manager form of government with the commission functioning as a three member city council.

While there continues to be a wide variation in levels of responsibility among city administrators in mayor-council cities, their numbers are significant and represent an important trend toward the further integration of professional management into Washington local government.

Conclusion

Reflecting national trends, the mayor-council form remains the most common form of government found in Washington cities and towns particularly among the smaller jurisdictions and for some of the very largest. For the smallest cities and towns with relatively few services and more modest budgets the mayor-council form is perhaps the most practical and economical form of government. For the very largest cities (i.e., Seattle) the mayor-council form remains a popular choice. However, a growing number of cities over 50,000 population now operate under the council-manager form.

The trend toward professional management in local government introduced through the council-manager plan during the 1940s has had a major influence on the structure of Washington local governments including many mayor-council cities. The continuing popularity of professional management in Washington reflects not only the growth in the number and complexity of local government services, but also the growing demands placed on local governments, both large and small, in the form of state and federal mandates. The growth in external demands in particular may be one reason that increasing numbers of small and medium sized mayor-council cities have also hired professional administrators.

Need more information?

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