City Manager vs. Mayor: Who Runs this Town Anyway?

Effective local leaders make sure day-to-day services—everything from transportation to recycling pickup—are running smoothly, but they also need to have the ability to rally and empower their communities in difficult times, such as when a natural disaster strikes.

City manager and mayor are two local leadership roles that might appeal to those interested in running a town or city at a high level. A city manager is the hired executive officer of a municipality who works outside of the political realm to keep operations running smoothly. A mayor is an elected, sometimes volunteer, leader who represents the voters in any given city. Both officials work toward the goal of providing a variety of local government services while safeguarding taxpayers’ dollars and maintaining a policy of transparency.

If a career in local government sounds interesting to you, a master’s in public administration provides knowledge and training in areas such as economic development, city and county management, policy, and organizational leadership—all of which could help open up a variety of public sector job opportunities for you, including city manager and mayor.

Understanding the differences between the two career paths may help you determine the type of graduate-level coursework and work experiences you’ll need to pursue the local leadership role that’s right for you.

What Is the Difference Between a City Manager and a Mayor?

City manager and mayor are two of the most prestigious positions in local government. City managers, sometimes known as city administrators, are generally appointed by mayors or councils based on their education and experience in local government. Mayors are elected by their constituents or selected from among members of the council through an election or rotation.

Mayors come from all different backgrounds and deal with small- and large-scale problems. Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, had to declare a local state of emergency in 2017 when a fire got so out of hand it burned more than 11,000 acres and was threatening lives, land, and structures. The declaration allowed for state and federal assistance.

But mayors also get involved with less pressing but still important issues, including when community members are unhappy with local businesses. In the city of Raleigh, North Carolina, for example, Mayor Nancy McFarlane went toe-to-toe with a rental scooter firm over a $2-per-ride surcharge they were claiming was due to increased city fees and regulations. McFarlane is currently serving her third term as mayor of Raleigh.

City managers often play a more behind-the-scenes—but equally important—role. Ruffin L. Hall, Raleigh city manager since 2013, has been described as “Raleigh’s most powerful person you’ve never heard of.” He coordinates and oversees the activities of all city departments, providing direct staff assistance to city council members, including the mayor, and council committees. His staff leads the financial and budget management process for the city and directs the city's planning efforts. His staff also conducts research, develops policies, and evaluates potential public programs. As noted in Indy Week: “The council almost always acts on his recommendations, which means that what he and his staff do behind the scenes has a very real impact on where the city's headed.”

Prepare for a Career in Public Service Request information about the MPA@UNC program to learn how you can gain the skills you need to become a leader in the field.

Three Types of City Government Structures

There are three main forms of municipal government:

Council-manager

This is the most common form of local government and is the type used to govern most major cities in North Carolina, including Raleigh, Durham, Charlotte, and Greensboro. It is also prevalent in the Southwest and Pacific coast areas, in cities such as Phoenix, San Antonio, and Las Vegas. The city council oversees local policy and budgets and appoints a professional city manager to handle administrative tasks on a day-to-day basis. Typically, the mayor is a member of the city council.

Mayor-council

In this form of local government, the mayor is elected separately from the legislative body and has strong or weak powers based on the municipal charter, a legal document that includes everything a town or city government provides like water and transportation services. In some cities, the mayor plays a more ceremonial role; in others, the position involves responsibilities ranging from administrative to legislative to operational.

A mayor, sometimes referred to as the “chief executive officer of the city,” may deal with issues as diverse as immigration, infrastructure, the environment, public health, and the criminal justice system. Elected mayors are common in older, larger cities in the United States, such as Los Angeles; Birmingham, Alabama; Denver; and Philadelphia. But smaller cities have mayors, too.

City commission government

This is the oldest form of city government in the United States—and also one of the rarest. Voters elect individual commissioners to a governing board, with each commissioner in charge of a portfolio of city functions, such as police, fire, public works, finance, and health. The board has legislative and executive powers and elects one of its members as chairman or mayor to preside over meetings. This structure is most common in cities with fewer than 100,000 residents, such as Bismarck, North Dakota, and Nicholasville, Kentucky.

What Does a City Manager Do?

City managers—who are generally full-time workers—are expected to be nonpartisan and politically neutral as they carry out the decisions of the council or mayor. The International City/County Management Association (ICMA), a professional organization for city and county managers, states in its ICMA Code of Ethics that city managers should avoid political activity (other than voting). City managers following this code of ethics should refrain from campaigning on behalf of candidates, donating to political campaigns, and displaying political allegiances with bumper stickers or yard signs. If city managers violate the code, they can lose their ICMA membership. City managers are generally less public-facing, but it is becoming more commonplace for city managers to participate in community events and serve on community boards.

What Does a Mayor Do?

Because mayors run for office, they are permitted to engage in political activities and are often elected as a result of these activities, as well as for their platform, background, and personality.

In large cities, mayors are likely to work full-time. They are frequently in the spotlight, often attending ceremonial events like ribbon cuttings, fundraisers, and photo opportunities with the press. Salaries for a mayor vary depending on factors such as population, city size, education, form of government, location, and budget considerations.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, mayors and city managers fall into the same general job category: top executives. The average median annual salary for top executives in 2018 was $104,980.

Suggestions for How to Become a City Manager or Mayor

The following steps may help set the stage for a career as a city manager or mayor, but there are many paths to a profession in public service:

  1. Earn your undergraduate degree.
  2. Earn your graduate degree, such as an MPA.
  3. Gain experience in a specific city department to learn about the public sector.
  4. Work as an assistant or deputy to the city manager or mayor.
  5. Run for city council. It’s likely you will need to complete one term in a lower office to gain the experience required to qualify and run for mayor.
  6. Work on a political campaign to gain knowledge about how to solicit and spend contributions.
  7. Know the requirements for running for the office of mayor. Research questions such as these: Are you required to register with a political party, hire a campaign manager and staff, and solicit donations? Be sure to seek guidance on your state’s requirements for reporting campaign contributions and expenditures.

Do You Need an MPA Degree to Become a City Manager or Mayor?

For those interested in acquiring skills and knowledge to become a mayor or city manager or pursuing other careers in local, state, or federal government, the MPA is a professional degree worth considering. The degree can also lead to jobs in the nonprofit and private sectors. A main benefit of an MPA is that the coursework provides students with tools to develop skills in public service work.

The MPA is an interdisciplinary postgraduate degree that draws from several fields outside of the realm of a strictly business administration perspective. Students in the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government's online MPA program study public administration and policy, public administration law, economics, finance, urban planning, and human resources management.

Benefits of a Master's in Public Administration for a Career in Local Government

What can you do with a master's in public administration? While a master’s degree is not technically required to become a city manager or mayor, it is recommended to gain experience and maintain a competitive advantage for public sector jobs.

Some might consider substituting on-the-job experience for a degree. But Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA) Executive Director Laurel McFarland told the publication Governing: “A lot of learning on the job is what I’d call specific human capital—how this agency or office does something. What a degree does, typically, is it teaches you how to take a few steps back from a particular workplace and teaches you how to do [for example] budgeting in a more general setting … you understand what you’re doing and learning on the job in a broader context.”

Local leadership is invaluable. A 2017 Politico article called “America’s 11 Most Interesting Mayors” noted: “It’s easy to forget how much political energy—and important new thinking—emanates not from the nation’s capital but from city hall.”

UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government's online MPA program provides students with the tools and foundation of knowledge to prepare them for a career in public service.

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Citation for this content: MPA@UNC, UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government's online MPA program