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What Power Does a Council Member Actually Have?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael R. Ford
March 4, 2024

Recently I was taken aback by a social media declaration that elected officials in my city had no power because of our form of government. My city, Oshkosh, WI, has a city manager with executive authority in charge of day-to-day operations, and a legislative body consisting of seven council members elected at-large. I am (at least until April) one of those seven elected officials. It got me thinking. What is the role of a council member in a professionally managed city? Why is that role hard to understand?

In my experience the basic role of a council member is to serve as a conduit between the values and policy preferences of the electorate and the professionals implementing government policy. In a professionally managed municipality, the council is akin to a popularly elected board of directors. The council sets policy through the passage of resolutions and ordinances, communicates goals to the city manager through formal strategic planning, budgeting and performance reviews and works with their legislative colleagues to set the city’s course. If the city manager does not implement the will of the legislative majority, the council has the power to find a new city manger.

The description is easy enough to write, but much harder to execute. Why? Making it work requires a healthy governing dynamic on the council. Council members often run for election on a single issue, or a dissatisfaction with an aspect of government operations, and will feel stifled when trying to use authority they do not possess. One example I witnessed was a council candidate upset with two city inspectors. The candidate wanted to fire the inspectors because he thought they were biased, and he vowed to do so if elected. This candidate was not elected. But if he was, he could not have unilaterally fired anyone. He could have attempted to change the city’s inspections policies. That would have required building a coalition, getting majority support on the council and passing an ordinance. If the city manager would not execute the ordinance, he would need to build support for replacing the city manager.

My assessment was the candidate did not understand any of this. He thought winning an election should give him operational authority. Reading between the lines, most complaints about the lack of power for council members is actually just role confusion. In other words, a council member wants, or expects, operational authority. Influencing operations through the legislative process is much more difficult; it requires convincing a majority of your elected colleagues on a course of action, and exercising legislative authority to set the policy from which operational changes will flow.

It would be a lot more efficient if a single elected official just made every operational decision. But it would also be undemocratic. As an elected official I have confidence in my policy preferences, but so do my elected colleagues. It is healthy that I need to convince a majority of colleagues on a policy change because they, like me, represent our constituents. Our power comes from our ability to work cohesively, even when we disagree or when we must compromise. As I frequently tell my students, the right course of action is often a balance between what is objectively best, and what is accepted or feasible.

Why is the role of a local legislator so hard to understand? Sometimes the confusion is purposeful, where elected officials misrepresent their authority in hopes of gaining power or influence. Sometimes it is the lack of onboarding and training for new council members. Sometimes it is the involvement of partisan actors supporting slates that prioritize membership on an ideological team rather than an understanding of the actual job.

But the bottom line is that city council members do have broad power to set policy that directs the course of their municipality. I would argue legislators have comparably more power in that operational decisions are immediate and often reactive, whereas legislative decisions are proactive with long-term implications. A government works best when everyone involved understands their role. True power comes from understanding and embracing one’s role. To put it another way, if you want to be a policymaker, run for office. If you want to be in charge of government operations, train to be a city manager.

Author: Michael R. Ford is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin  Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves an elected member of the Oshkosh, WI Common Council.

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