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."


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.