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Local Government Types in Michigan—Council-Manager, 'Strong Mayor,' and 'Weak Mayor'
Compiled by Kim Cekola
“…each municipality is the best judge of its local needs and the best able to provide for its local necessities.” This concept of home rule is what drives Michigan’s communities and makes them unique. Empowered by our state Constitution, the electors of each city and village were given the ability to frame and adopt a charter and “pass all laws and ordinances relating to its municipal concerns, subject to the constitution and general laws of this state.” (1908 Constitution, Article VIII, Section 21).
Michigan operates under three types of local government structures: council-manager, strong mayor, and weak mayor. Under home rule, all systems are viable—they were formed by the will and vote of the citizens of the community, who were given the power to judge their own needs.
The key components of the “strong” mayor form include a directly elected mayor who is not a member of the governing body, who appoints and removes the key administrative officials (those who, by charter, report directly to and assist the mayor); often has variations of veto power over council decisions; is usually salaried; and is expected to devote full-time to mayoral duties.
In the “weak” mayor form, the mayor or president is a member of the governing body, chairs council meetings, and normally is the municipality’s chief policy and ceremonial official by virtue of the position rather than through any specific authority extending beyond that of the councilmembers.
The duties of the mayor in any form of government are found in the charter. Both the Home Rule City Act and Home Rule Village Act provide for the election of an “executive head.” The role and duties of this individual, known as a president in a village and as a mayor in a city, vary greatly and are established by local charter. It should be noted the term “executive head” is not defined in either Act. In a general law village, the president is the chief executive officer and exercises supervision over the affairs of the village—but supervisory duties can be transferred to a manager by ordinance.
The city of Rochester Hills has a strong mayor form of government. The duties and responsibilities of the mayor are detailed in the city charter. The mayor is the administrative and executive head of the city. “The strong mayor form of government works well in Rochester Hills. Our citizens had the chance several years ago to change the form of government, and they voted 3-1 to keep the existing form intact. Citizens like having a direct link to the top decision-maker in the city. In turn, the mayor is directly accountable to them,” states Mayor Bryan Barnett.
In addition to the typical role of spokesperson for the city, the Rochester Hills city charter charges the mayor with these key powers and duties:
Mayors have strong feelings when it comes to governing their communities. In the following essay, Mayor Richard Root reflects on the mayor’s role in the city of Kentwood, where he has served as mayor for eight years and in varying roles in the city government since 1979:
“Any statement claiming a particular city has the best model for representing its citizens would be naive. The governance of each community (township, village, or city) is determined by its charter. A charter must conform to the laws provided for within the U.S. Constitution and the state of Michigan. Each municipality within this state has its own modified form of governance.
It becomes difficult to determine if a strong mayoral form of government is more effective or appropriate than a city manager-council format.
What I can share with you is: a city with a strong mayor is not necessarily void of traditionally trained public administrators. In the Executive Department here in Kentwood, I have a well-educated and experienced deputy administrator to assist in vetting policy and sorting out daily routine items. All of the city’s department heads are degreed within their specialties, as well.
What I feel the full-time mayor/CEO brings to this environment is an ability to mold the practice of public administration to the political climate of the community early in the process of design, delivery of service and policy. When a mayor is not a part of policy from its inception, the city manager becomes more politically entrenched, as the manager has to “sell” the policy to the council.
This process can be counterproductive, as time can be spent crafting policy that substantially deviates from the political will of the community. A mayor is typically more vested in the community as a resident (a manager may or may not reside in the community he serves) and is directly employed by his constituents.
Managers serve at the will of the council and, as an employee of the council, must submit to the majority will of this body.
It is important to understand that as the author of these comments and holder of a full-time mayor position, I (along with the past two mayors here) have had serious concerns regarding who will one day fill this leadership role. Our citizens have had several opportunities to vote on a new charter that would have installed a manager form of government. On both occasions, the proposed charter was overwhelmingly defeated.
I do fear that, one day in the future, someone with ample resources and a narrow agenda (the one-trick pony) may be successful in selling himself into this very complex environment. The choice of “who” will be the next leader in this city is up to the voters. If they get it wrong, the cost to a well-run community can be extraordinary.” (Lansing State Journal online August 29, 2010)
The mayor in a strong mayor city is akin to a manager in a council-manager city. In the weak mayor form, the responsibility of running the municipality is divided between the mayor/president and the council. The people of Michigan have a voice—they get to choose the type of government they want for the communities they live in. That is the beauty of our system of home rule. Let’s preserve it.
Kim Cekola is research specialist and publications editor for the League. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-669-6321.