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How Our City Governments Are Organized and Operated

"Because the services of our modern city affect the citizen's welfare every day, it is important that the city government be well organized and operated.”

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In the last chapter you studied the objectives of the city government. You learned that it does a great many services for its people, who depend upon it to guard their health, lives, and property. We know that these services are important; but how are they to be carried out? How is the city government organized to do its work?

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The cities of the United States have a number of different forms of government organization. However, there is almost always some kind of a central group or council of chosen representatives to direct the city's business, and a mayor or manager to act as the head of the organization. Then there are the heads of the important departments among which the work is divided, and there are a large number of employees who work under their leadership.

There are three general plans of city government. In some cities the voters elect a chief officer known as a mayor and a lawmaking group called a council, the members of which are usually called aldermen or councilmen and are elected from city districts called wards; in some cities, however, the voters of the whole city elect all of the aldermen. In other cities the voters elect officials to form a government group called a commission. In still other cities the voters elect a small group of representatives to make the city laws, but these are also given the special duty of choosing a city manager to act as the executive head of the city's government. These three forms of city government are usually spoken of as (1) the mayor-council plan, (2) the commission form of government, and (3) the city-manager plan. Many cities have worked out forms of organization which combine parts of these three general plans.

We cannot say that any special form of city government is “the best.” Any form of organization is good which works effectively for the good of the people and in which the people have the “last word” at the elections.


Until about 40 years ago the mayor-council plan of organization was used in almost all American cities. It is the oldest form of city government in the United States. In many ways it is like our National and State organizations. You can see in Figure 34 that in this form of organization the mayor is the chief executive officer of the city. He is elected by the people and is often given great power. He usually appoints the heads of the departments of the city government and a large number of lower officers, although the city council sometimes has the power to confirm or reject the more important of these appointments. The mayor may sign or veto city ordinances. He is responsible for putting the ordinances into effect and has many officials under him to help him do so. Sometimes he is required to prepare a budget, which is his recommendation to the council as to how the money of the city shall be collected and spent.

From your study of the objectives of the city government you know that there is need for departments of public health, police, fire protection, education, etc. All of these departments do services for the people. Hundreds of persons are employed in these departments and in other departments which enforce the city's building regulations, pave and clean its streets, make its plans about raising and spending money, conduct its lawsuits, and do many other necessary things. Under the mayor-council


The Mayor-Council Form Of Government Organization

For A City

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plan the heads of all these departments have their authority delegated to them either by the mayor or the city council, whose own authority is delegated by the people.

The council is the legislative group in this form of city government. The council passes the city laws, which are called ordinances, but it does not have the right to pass ordinances that violate the city charter, the National or State laws, or the National or State Constitutions.

In this plan the mayor and the council share the authority delegated by the people. The council makes the laws, but the mayor must enforce them through the police and other executive officers. The council has the power to decide the tax rate for the people. With the advice of the mayor,

it decides how much money is to be spent by each of the city departments and the purposes for which it is to be used.


A commission form of city government is much newer than the mayor-council plan. In this kind of city organization the voters elect three or more commissioners to represent them. These commissioners are usually elected from the whole city, rather than from districts or wards. They are given both the law-making and the law-enforcing powers of the city government. They decide on the tax rate for the city and plan how the city's money is to be spent. They grant permits to various companies whose work must be inspected (watched) by the city government. One of the commissioners is chosen to preside as chairman and is usually called the mayor, although in most cases he does not have more power than the other commissioners.

You can see in Figure 35 that the work of the city is divided into several departments. It usually relates to public safety, public improvements, finance, parks, and public property. Each commissioner supervises the work of one or more of the departments and is responsible for it.

The Commission Form Of
Government Organization

For A City

The Voters of the City


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of a Department Department Department Department Department

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Figure 35

The Commission Form of City Government Organization

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