No governmental structure operates in exactly the same way in every city or town utilizing this form of government. Thus, with the council-manager form, a rather wide variety of operational variations exist in practice. While this generalized description of council-manager government cannot take into account all operational variations, it is, nevertheless, helpful in understanding the operation as well as the structural characteristics of this popular governmental form.
The basic structural features of council-manager government include a city or town council elected by the voters to exercise overall control of the local government and a chief executive - the city/town manager - appointed by and responsible to the council for the administration of local policies. Differences abound in the manner of selecting the council or the mayor or in details of administrative organization. The council manager structure has proved quite adaptable to variations in local circumstances and traditions.
Since the council is the elected legislative body, it must bear ultimate responsibility for all aspects of the government--administrative as well as policymaking. True, the council does rely on the manager to administer council policy. But, in practice, the extent of this reliance may vary from city to city and from time to time within the same city. Whatever arrangement works is the one used. It is important to remember that the council is ultimately accountable.
In some council-manager municipalities, the mayor is elected independently of other council members. Even though directly elected, mayors of such council-manager cities have no special functions other than presiding at council meetings and possibly serving ex-officio on boards of other city agencies. A few cities have vested their mayors with some degree of veto power.
But, mayors in council-manager cities are not chief executives for they have no formal administrative functions. It is the manager who is the chief executive and who is responsible to the council for the proper performance of virtually all administrative functions. This administrative responsibility is matched by the manager's authority to appoint and remove all department heads who report directly to him. In almost all council-manager cities, council members, both collectively and individually, are enjoined by charter from dealing with department heads except through the manager.
Structurally, then, the council-manager plans presuppose some division of labor between the council, who are primarily responsible for policy in the community, and the manager, whose job it is to direct administrative operations. In practice however it is widely recognized that this division of function is not as clear-cut as the structure may suggest. The manager is drawn into policymaking and a council can and does become involved in administration.
Because of the manager's position as the chief executive, he can and should be expected to have a broad grasp of the needs of the community and the means by which they can be met most effectively. It is normal to expect a manager possessing such a grasp of needs to make recommendations on community needs and their implementation. Such policy suggestions can be presented to the council in several ways: through formal reports, by informal suggestion, and by means of the annual budget proposal. The form, content and frequency of these recommendations are definite determinants of a manager's impact on policy-making. But the council has the final decision making responsibility.
As to a council becoming involved in administration, the council-manager structure provides to councils, so inclined, an opportunity to become as entwined in administrative matters as they wish through their direct and complete control of the manager and the budget.
Thus the relationship between council and manager is not truly one of a structural division of authority but rather of a practical division of work along broad functional lines. In dealing with municipal problems, the council and the manager must work together on the same subjects, each doing their part to reach a satisfactory solution. Such teamwork, often unstated in state laws and city charters, is implicit in the council-manager system.
Political or policy leadership in a council-manager structure is basically the responsibility of the elected council as a group. Again, in practice, this is not always the case. Sometimes the mayor alone assumes a strong policy leadership role. In other cities or at other times, this leadership may come from a bloc of council members which may or may not include the mayor. At still other times, individual members of the city council may vie for the part of principal policy leader. One criticism of the latter leadership pattern is that it often lacks continuity.
Several advantages are often cited in favor of council-manager government. Since the council is able to choose the best qualified person it can find to direct the administrative operations of the city or town, a consistently high standard of administrative management is usually achieved. Too, this structure centralizes authority for effective administration in one person whose reputation and future career depend on the quality of his work.
Another positive feature identified with the council-manager system is the concentration of responsibility in the elected council. So far as the voters are concerned, the council is responsible for effective governmental results. Failures simply cannot be blamed by the council on anyone else. There is no "buck-passing" in the council-manager structure. In the same vein, this governmental form is claimed to be, structurally, the simplest of all governmental forms.
As with any system, the council-manager plan has its critics who claim the structure has definite disadvantages. A major problem sometimes exists in developing effective policy leadership. In many governmental structures, the chief executive fills the policy leaders role. Yet, managers, being appointed rather than elected, are generally prohibited by charter from assuming this role. This has happened, however, in some council-manager cities. The mayor, lacking executive responsibilities which form part of the base for policy leadership, sometimes finds difficulty in developing and pushing policy proposals. When a group of council members attempts to act in a policy leadership capacity, they often find difficulty in reaching consensus. Thus, claim critics of the council-manager structure, the plan may not be best for cities where significant differences exist on major policy issues.
Another often heard criticism of council-manager government is that it is undemocratic in character. The basis of this charge lies largely in the fact that the appointed manager, while exercising much power, is not directly accountable to the voters.
As in the case of the mayor-council structure, there are rebuttals to these criticisms. Advocates of council-manager structures usually concede that development of policy leadership is more difficult to achieve under this form, but argue, with evidence, that it is clearly not impossible. Concerning the charge that the plan has undemocratic aspects because of the substantial power exercised by the appointed manager, it can be pointed out that this official may be replaced by the elected council any time he fails to respond to the council's interpretation of public needs, and that tie council may be replaced by the electorate.
In summary the council-manager form is a workable and adaptable governmental structure. It has grown, in just a little over seventy-five years from a mere experiment to one of the most popular plans for municipal government, used throughout the country in cities of all sizes even a few of the largest cities.