The council-manager government form is one of two predominant forms of local government in the United States and Ireland, the other being the mayor-council government form. Council-manager government form also is used in county governments in the United States. The council-manager form also is used for municipal government in Canada and in Ireland, among many other countries, both for city councils and county councils.
The council-manager form is much like a publicly traded corporation. Under the form, an elected governing body, usually called a council, board of aldermen, or similar title, is responsible for legislative functions such as establishing policy, passing local ordinances, voting appropriations, and developing an overall vision, similar to a corporate board of directors. The legislative body appoints a professional manager to oversee the administrative operations, implement its policies, and advise it. The manager position is similar to that of corporate chief executive officer (CEO), providing professional management to the board of directors. The position of "mayor" present in this type of legislative body is a largely ceremonial title, and may be selected by the council from among its members or elected as an at-large council member with no executive functions, similar to a non-executive chairman in a corporation.
This system of government is used in 40.1% of American cities with populations of 2,500 or more, according to the 2011 Municipal Yearbook published by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), a professional organization for city managers and other top appointed local government administrators.
The concept of the council-manager form of government was a product of a confluence of the prevailing modes of thought during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Probably the foremost influence was the Progressive Movement; following along the thought lines of the movement, the municipal reformers of that time wanted to rid municipalities of the pervasive "political machine" form of government and the abuses of the spoils system. The thought was to have a politically impartial administrator or manager to carry out the administrative function.
Another influence was the "Scientific Management" movement, often associated with Frederick Winslow Taylor. The focus of this movement was to run organizations in an objective, scientific fashion to maximize efficiency, among other things.
A third influence behind the council-manager idea was that of the organizational structure of the for-profit corporation, with its board of directors, which hires a professional CEO to run its operations.
Sumter, South Carolina, has the distinction of being the first city in the United States to implement council-manager government successfully, although Staunton, Virginia is credited as the first American city appointing a city manager in 1908. Some have traced the first occurrence of the manager position to as early as 1904 in Ukiah, California. However, it seems clear that all experts in the field credit the Staunton position as the first one, which began to focus attention on the fledgling profession and caught the eye of Richard S. Childs, who would become known, as the "father" of the council-manager form of government and the Model City Charter. The first large city to adopt the council-manager form was Dayton, Ohio, in 1913.
Currently, thirty-eight of Virginia's thirty-nine cities have a council-manager form of government, with the capital, Richmond, being the only exception. Richmond switched to a strong-mayor-council plan in 2004, after having had a council-manager system since 1948, as many large cities have because of their greater areas and populations.
The council-manager form of government developed, at least in part, as a response to some perceived limitations of the city commission government form. The council-manager form became the preferred alternative for progressive reform, and after World War I, very few cities adopted the commission form and many cities using the commission plan switched to the council-manager form.
Indeed, much has been written over the last decade regarding the variety of hybrid forms of local governments that have evolved from the two pure forms (council-manager and mayor-council). The cities that have modified their organizational structure from one of the pure forms now commonly are termed "adaptive" community organizations.
These variations necessitate a delineation of the distinguishing features of the council-manager form of government. ICMA has listed at least three defining characteristics that distinguish a truly council-manager government:
The Model City Charter (MCC), published by the National Civic League, formerly the National Municipal League, is closely associated to the council-manager form of government. The Model City Charter is in its eighth edition, adopted in 2003. Since its second edition, adopted in 1915, the model charter for municipalities has recommended this council-manager form of government.
Following the turmoil of World War I (1914-1918), the 1916 rising, the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921), and the Irish Civil War (1921-1923), the Irish government found it necessary to remove the members of several local authorities and replace them temporarily by paid commissioners.
Both Dublin and Cork city councils were so removed. In both cities, there was a body of opinion that the services provided by the councils were delivered more efficiently and fairly under the commissioners than under the previous system, where the executive function had been, in effect, vested in the councils and their committees.
In 1926, a committee of commercial and industrial interests in Cork came together to consider a scheme of city government. Having regard to the city's experience of commissioners and recent experience in the United States a council-manager plan of city government was proposed.
After discussion between the minister for local government and local representatives, the minister, Richard Mulcahy, introduced as a government measure, the Cork City Management Bill (1929) and it became law despite opposition. The minister proposed and the Oireachtas enacted similar provision for Dublin City in 1930. Similar laws were passed for Limerick in 1934 and Waterford in 1939 under the Fianna Fáil government.
Under the County (Management) Act (1940), which was brought into operation in August 1942, a county manager is the manager of every borough or town in that county, but since the 1990s, has the power to delegate these functions to any other officer of that borough or town council.
The system was modified also in subsequent legislation, particularly the City and County Management (Amendment) Act (1955), which made some adjustments to give greater power to the council members, and the Local Government Act 1985, which provided for the council-manager system in Galway City once detached for local government purposes from Galway County.
The above acts have been replaced since that time, in substantially the same form, by the Local Government Act 2001.