How City Councils Work


District of Columbia Council Chairwoman Linda Cropp speaks as the council votes to clear the way for a baseball stadium financing agreement on Dec. 21, 2004, in Washington, D.C.
District of Columbia Council Chairwoman Linda Cropp speaks as the council votes to clear the way for a baseball stadium financing agreement on Dec. 21, 2004, in Washington, D.C.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

New Hampshire, the hotbed of presidential primary politics, is known for its town meetings. At these annual gatherings, every citizen eligible to vote can stand up and make his or her opinion heard. It's considered one of the truest forms of democracy in the United States.

In Manchester, the state's largest city, a town meeting style vote session would be impossible due to sheer numbers. Added to this volume is the complexity and diversity of decisions that even a small city requires. According to Manchester deputy city clerk Kathie Gardner, the key is the division of the city into wards or districts. Manchester has 12 wards within the city.

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"Each one acts like a small town," Gardener says. "Each ward has its own character and needs. The aldermen do their best to serve their [ward's] needs."

Manchester's wards and aldermen are at the heart of a form of representative government called a city council. Each city is sectioned off into chunks of space, called wards or districts, and residents from each piece elect a representative, usually known as an alderman or a councilor. These representatives listen to their constituents and bring their concerns, questions and demands to the city. City councils administer through consensus, although consensus isn't always easy to reach.

Added to the mix in a city council is a mayor or city administrator. Depending on the city charter, this can be an elected position -- the mayor -- or a hired position -- the city administrator. Mayors and administrators can have lots of power with the council or very little, depending on the charter and how much clout and support they have.

However it's structured, the city councilor form of government is dynamic. Cities change, and their governments change with them. With all the change, personalities and politics in play, the city council system can become messy and imperfect. But, it's one of the ways a large body of people can have a voice in a local government.

Read on to find out more about how city councils work.

What Does a City Council Do?

Aldermen, or councilors, generally act as the legislative branch of the city government, as well as its policy-making body. The council also looks to the city's goals, major projects and infrastructure improvements ranging from community growth to land use to finances and strategic planning.

The city charter is the driving document behind what the aldermen can and can't do. This document outlines the scope of what the government does as a whole, including its rules and responsibilities to the citizens, and what powers and checks guide and define the council. These duties and responsibilities can be summed up as "Do the very best to represent your constituents only after you've seen to the needs of the city as a whole."

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Manchester deputy city clerk Kathie Gardner says seeing the city as a whole is never far from an alderman's mind. "Even if they focus only on their ward they understand what happens to the city happens to them. This is local government and local politics and there isn't a lot of space to forget that," she said.

Consider, for instance, if one part of the city suffers a flood and another part stays high and dry. When money comes in from state and local authorities, the aldermen have a say in where it goes. The alderman of the ward with the most flooding will push for as much relief as possible. The other aldermen may see his plight and agree or try to get some of the money themselves. If aldermen grab a slide of the pie without considering long-term needs, the city could wind up facing a loss of tax revenue, increased crime and other problems in the flooded area. These problems could then spill into other wards. So, to run a city successfully, a council has to weigh the needs of a ward with the needs of the whole community.

Yet, those issues are often sticky, especially around budget season, when needs and wants often collide. But the councilors have a failsafe when it comes to numbers -- the mayor. A city mayor generally acts as the head of the council and enforces its decrees. He or she also acts as the budget officer and the city's chief executive officer. He has the power to pass or veto any legislation the councilors put through, though those mayoral powers often come with strings attached. With all of this in mind, politics within any government can be dicey, even when the councilors have the best interests at heart.

Given that, what does it take to run for a council seat? Read on to find out.

How to Run For City Council

Running for a council seat is relatively simple, but in the way chess is simple -- there are a few straightforward rules but an endless variety of strategies, challenges, and twists and turns.

The basic part is to meet the city charter's guidelines for eligible candidates. In Manchester, N.H., for example, the rules are simple:

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  • Aldermen representing a ward shall be residents and qualified voters of the ward. Aldermen at-large shall be residents of the city.
  • Aldermen shall be elected to serve a term of two years.
  • The board of aldermen shall be the final judge of the election and qualifications of its members.

The complex part is building on those rules to campaign for the office. In 2008, Manchester's Jim Roy, a retired firefighter and lifelong resident, decided to stop watching city meetings on television and run for the open Ward 4 seat. In June, he filed his intent to run and started gearing up for the run to the primary, slated for September. There were three people running for the same seat, and two had already served as the ward's representative in past years.

"The biggest thing for me was to get out there, go door-to-door, and get some name recognition," he says.

His strategy is similar to that for representatives in local governments: Knock on doors, introduce yourself, and say why you're running. While it is said all politics are local politics, larger cities mean bigger campaigns. And bigger campaigns mean more money. Larger city campaigns, like in Los Angeles, Chicago or New York, can cost hundreds of thousands of dollar and require managers and strategists. For Roy, the whole campaign cost about $2,000.

He says he didn't run for the money, but to help his constituents and bring some transparency to city hall focusing on what he said were either inefficient or ineffectual city departments or programs. This same motivation leads average people to brave politics and run for local government as well.

If you want to try your hand at local government the best way is check your city or town's charter, file for office, and start pounding the pavement. Local politics can be brutal, so be prepared, but they can be rewarding as well by giving a deeper insight into government.

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Sources

  • Gardener, Kathie; Deputy Clerk, City of Manchester, New Hampshire; personal interview; March 29, 2010
  • Roy, Jim; Alderman, Ward 4, City of Manchester, NH; personal interview; March 31, 2010
  • ICMA Council Manager Form of Government, brochure, accessed March 28, 2010http://bookstore.icma.org/FreeDocs/Council-Manager%20FAQ%20Brochure.pdf
  • Manchester City Charterwww.amlegal.com/nxt/gateway.dll/New%20Hampshire/manchest/cityofmanchesternewhampshirecodeofordina?f=templates$fn=default.htm$3.0$vid=amlegal:manchester_nh$anc=
  • National Civic Leaguewww.ncl.org