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Strong Vs. Weak Mayors

You probably learned about American government in high school. Three branches. Checks and balances. Bi-cameral legislature. You may even remember that, before the Constitution was drafted, the Articles of Confederation first adopted by the founding generation didn’t include a presidency separate from congress.

But you probably didn’t learn about the way cities and counties govern.

For that you’d need to read your local charter (it’s like the municipal version of the Constitution). Across the country, cities and counties have come up with thousands of diverse ways to organize a government. Sometimes the mayor is part of the local council and other times the mayor is a separate entity. Sometimes the mayor gets a vote at council meetings, other times not. Frequently the mayor is simply a figurehead who appoints a professional city manager to oversee the government’s various operations and departments.

Broadly speaking, all of these combinations can usually be classified as “Strong Mayor” or “Weak Mayor.”

There’s some variation in how cities refer to these arrangements, but more often than not a “Strong Mayor” system can also be called a “mayor–council government” system and a “Weak Mayor” system can be referred to as a “council–manager government” system.  

Usually, in a “Strong Mayor” system an elected mayor has direct administrative authority over the government and its departments. Under a “Weak Mayor” system, an appointed city manager (something like a municipal CEO) has that administrative authority.

Regardless of which form the government takes, we’re typically dealing with two branches of government: (1) the executive either in the form of a “Strong Mayor” or a city manager appointed by a “Weak Mayor” and (2) a legislature in the form of a city commission, town council, board of county commissioners, etc. and all of the lower boards and committees that may comprise or report back to the main legislative body.

Either way, it’s most often the executive who has direct authority over the government’s departments and professional staff while the legislature is able to enact laws or sit in a quasi-judicial capacity to authorize various permits, waivers, licenses, etc.

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Before speaking at your next public meeting, it’s a good idea to learn which form of government your city or county uses. This way, you know which officials have decision-making authority over your issue and you can prepare yourself to address their concerns directly. 

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