|US local government and
Mayors of largest cities
By City Mayors Research with contributions by Robert O’Connor, Nick Swift and John White
ON THIS PAGE: American mayors ||| Forms of US local government ||| Table of mayors or largest US cities |||
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Capital cities and their mayors (2017)
December 2020: There are some 19,500 municipal governments in the United States. Many small towns use the council-manager system (most counties are run this way) and those that don’t, have a weak mayor-council system. Almost all large US cities have strong mayor systems. Towns with populations of 5,000 or less (varies between states) are not allowed to incorporate and are overseen by the county government.
Mayors, and the city council, are directly elected. The length of a term and the number of term limits are in the city charter, as is the day of election. Most mayoral elections take place on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November to coincide with Federal elections, which take place then (as per the US Constitution), but not all municipalities do this.
Democrats control most large US cities
Following the November 2020 elections, almost three quarters of the largest US cities are governed by Democrat mayors. Republican mayors rule in 23 per cent of US cities, while some four per cent of mayors of large cities describe themselves as independent.
Forms of US local government
More than eighty per cent of American citizens now live in large cities, suburbs of cities, or towns. People’s needs from police to sanitation, education to fire protection, housing and public transportation are seen to, most directly, by city governments. There are, broadly speaking, three forms of it: the mayor-council form the commission form and the city or council-manager form.
In the mayor-council form, which is the oldest of the three, there is (not surprisingly) a mayor and a council consisting of a number of members, sometimes called aldermen. The structure is patterned on that of the state and federal governments. While the mayor is elected at large, the aldermen are sometimes elected, in other cases selected from wards or districts. The mayor is head of the executive branch, presiding over council meetings, appointing chiefs of departments, perhaps with the council’s approval, and is often the budgetary officer of the city. He can veto ordinances passed by the legislative branch, the council.
Two forms of mayor-council rule the strong-mayor and the weak-mayor have evolved, although they have the points already enumerated in common. The ‘strong mayor’ can appoint and remove heads of city departments few officials, in that scenario, are elected. He is the preparer of the budget, and has power of veto. Throughout the 1990s, the strong mayor-council form of city government was most popular in cities where the form of government has been decided by the state, and declined in popularity in home rule cities (already mentioned), where the citizens of the city have and exercise the right under state law to decide their form of municipal government.
Where the mayor is a significant policy maker, an administrator may be given responsibility for daily operations. The legislature, in general, adopts the budget and general policy positions, passes resolutions with legislation, and audits the government’s performance.
The mayor in the other kind of mayor-council city government, the ‘weak’ mayor, has more limited powers of appointment, removal and veto, and the elected officials and boards are more numerous. The council’s more extensive legal powers preclude his being a chief executive in any truly meaningful sense.
The commission form of city government in the United States combines, in one group of usually at least three, and often five or seven, officials, the executive and legislative dimensions. It is also, sometimes, called the Galveston Plan, after the town in Texas where it originated in 1901 (and which has since abandoned it). All members are elected, and each commissioner is responsible for at least one city department. One of them is the chairperson and may be called the mayor, but he or she has no extra powers. Historically the commission form is regarded as an important manifestation of the impulse in the direction of efficiency through employment of experts, but others have seen that tendency in a negative light as a movement depriving those without any particular ‘expertise’ the working class, in other words of their influence.
It has also been seen as a stage in the development of the city manager or council-manager form of municipal government. Commissions whose members all have different interests but equal powers have a predictable predisposition to unresolved disagreement. Bringing in a business manager was, and has increasingly been (the commission plan has rarely been initiated since the First World War), seen as the solution. The city manager has most executive powers, including those pertaining to law enforcement and service provision. He carries out the decisions of the elected council, who decide on ordinances and policy, and he, again, produces the city budget. He is thus not elected, but hired, and has no term of office, continuing in his or her role while it meets with the requirements of the council.
Yet other forms of local government in the United States include the town meeting, the representative town meeting, the township, the borough and the village.
Town meetings are largely a phenomenon of New England states. As often as necessary, but at least once a year, a town’s registered voters meet, in open session, to elect officers, debate issues and pass laws. Practical issues such as taxes, budget and building and road construction and repair are decided. The board officers are called ‘selectmen’, board of supervisors, town council, or something similar.
The representative town meeting is very like the town meeting system, except that, while all citizens may attend meetings and take part in the debates, the right to vote belongs only to the (large) number chosen to be representatives.
In a township, there is usually a mayor and three, four or five committee members, who are elected, and who hold all legislative powers not held by the mayor. An administrator may be appointed to discharge executive functions.
A borough’s mayor and six members of council are elected, and the mayor only votes to break ties. The council is the legislature, and the mayor appoints officers. In a village, there is, usually, a board of trustees with five elected members, one of whom has mayoral powers.
Mayors of the largest American cities
*All population figures come from the 2010 US Census.