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

Most people would agree that city manager and mayor are two of the most prestigious and important positions in local government. Fewer people, however, would be able to give a detailed explanation of the differences between these two positions. When considering the roles, it is good to know which position actually carries more responsibility and decision-making authority. The differences begin with the type of government in a given municipality, and there are two primary types in the U.S.

Council-Manager Government: This is the most common form of government and is most prevalent in the Southwest 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.

Mayor-Council Government: In this form of government, the mayor is elected separately from the council and has strong or weak powers based on the municipal charter. This structure is most common in the largest cities in the U.S., such as Houston, Minneapolis, and New York.

The National League of Cities explains the various forms of municipal government in more detail. Here, we explore several key differences between the roles of city manager and mayor.

Elected vs. Selected Office

Mayors are elected by their constituents or selected from among members of the council through election or rotation. City managers are generally appointed by mayors and councils based on their education and experience in local government. Many city managers have earned a Master of Public Administration, so they’re well versed in financial and legal issues, municipal regulations and processes, personnel management, and more. Oftentimes, city managers have worked their way up through the ranks of local government.

Salary

Salaries for these positions, and for municipal officials in general, vary depending on factors including population, city size, education, form of government, location, and budget considerations. One of the major differences between the two roles is that city manager is generally a full-time position, whereas many mayors work part time. In large cities, mayors are likely to work full time.

Role in Policy

Generally speaking, mayors and city managers handle the implementation of policies set forth by their respective councils. In large jurisdictions, city managers oversee separate departments that handle areas such as budget and finance, public works, and human resources.

Politics

Because mayors run for office, they are permitted to engage in political activities and are often elected as a result of these activities, their platform, background, and personality. City managers, on the other hand, are expected to be nonpartisan and politically neutral as they carry out the decisions of the council or mayor. In fact, the International City-County Management Association (ICMA) Code of Ethics specifically prohibits city managers from any political activity beyond voting. City managers following this code of ethics are forbidden from campaigning on behalf of candidates, donating to political campaigns, or displaying political allegiances with bumper stickers or yard signs. If city managers violate the code, they can be censured and lose their ICMA membership.

Public Persona

Mayors are frequently in the spotlight, often attending ceremonial events such as ribbon cuttings, fundraisers, and photo opportunities with the press. 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.

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