Scholarly Research on Local Government Reform

I was asked by the League of Women Voters to serve as an outside expert for the debate on City Charter Reform on September 28, 2010. After the meeting, I had a number of discussions with people about what scholarly research existed on the relative merits of different forms of government. Below are my links to a series of scholarly articles on local government reform. They will give you a good overview of how other municipalities govern themselves, the relative merits of different forms of government, and trends in local governance.

However, as Jane Weihe pointed out in the City Charter Debate, we are not voting on the theoretical advantages of a city manager versus the commission form of government, but rather a specific proposal for how to implement a city manager form of government.

How do other cities govern themselvs?

Form of Government Statistics This table shows the distribution of local government types by population. Of the 1,447 municipalities with more than 25,000 people, there only 25 governments with the commission form of government

Municipal Form of Government, 2006 Trends in Structure, Responsibility, and Composition ICMA surveyed 3,864 muncipalities and asks them 39 questions about their form of government. It is a good place to get a sense of what other local governments look like. Question 28 indicates the length of term for city council members. 20.7% have 2 year terms, 14.8% have 3 year terms, and 62.4% have 4 year terms. 84.3 of city council have staggered terms. 15.7 have concurrent. It also notes that the average salary of a part-time council member is $4,798.

TWO DECADES OF CONTINUITY AND CHANGE IN AMERICAN CITY COUNCILS by James Svara- This is a comprehensive review of city councils by one of the best political scientists working in local government. I would direct your attention to the tables on Council Salary by City Size and Form of Government (p. 8), Hours spent on council-related matters (p. 9), and the Council Effectiveness in Handling Major Functions by Form of Government (p. 39-40). Svara surveyed local officials and asked them whether they felt a good or excellent job in handling the major functions of government. In virtually every category, elected officials in city manager towns felt they did a better job than their counterparts in mayor-council forms of government. (There is no data on commission form of government since there are not enough commission governments for a point of comparison). In particular, more than 70% of Council members in City manager forms of government felt they did a good or excellent job in Establishing vision, Establishing long-term goals, Establishing objectives and priorities, and Addressing the city’s real problems. (See Council Effectiveness in Handling Major Functions by Form of Government p. 39-40

Guide for Charter Commission (1991) a how to guide for citizens thinking about how to change the city charter.

Articles in favor of the City Manager Form of Government

Council-Manager Form Resource Package The ICMA is one of the leading advocates for the council-manager form of government. They publish a Council-Manager Form Resource webpage with links to a collection of articles, statistics, and other information to help communities "gain a better understanding of the value that professional management brings to our cities and towns."

The Council-Manager Form of Government: Frequently Asked Questions, ICMA: A comprehensive argument for the advantages of the council-manager form of government.

Articles in favor of the Commission Form of Government

Muncipal Technical Advisory Service memo on the Structure of Local Government for the City of Dyer, Tennessee on "the advantages and disadvantages associated with changing Dyer to a commission form of government." This is the only recent article on the commission form of government I have found.

Commission Form of Government by Robert Argyll Campbell, The American Political Science Review, 1908.

Reformism and Public Policies in American Cities by Robert L. Lineberry and Edmund P. Fowler


The Convergence between the Mayor-Council and Council-Manager Forms of Government

Many scholars who study local government closely contend we are seeing a convergence between the mayor-council and council-manager forms of governments. These two ideal types no longer adequately describe the structure of most American cities. The increasing complexity of local governmentbetween the mayor-council and council-manager forms of governments are forcing Mayor-Council governments to hire Chief Administrative Officers who function similarly to a city manager. The increasing need for political leadership has led many Council-Manager government to directly elect their mayor.

Beyond Ideal Types of Municipal Structure Adapted Cities in Michigan by Jered B. Carr and Shanthi Karuppusamy

City Government Structures: An Attempt at Clarification Victor S. DeSantis and Tari Renner

Municipal Reform in Mayor-Council Cities: A Well-Kept Secret by H. George Frederickson, Brett Logan and Curtis Wood

The authors also notes, "The length of council member terms in mayor-council governments has also increased steadily. The trend toward longer council terms in mayor council cities promotes continuity and stability and is usually associated with increased administrative effectiveness and increased support by mayors and city council"

The Role of a Mayor in the Council-Manager Forms of Government

Mayoral Leadership in Council-Manager Cities: Preconditions versus Preconceptions. The Journal of Politics, Vol. 49, No. 1 (Feb., 1987), pp. 207-227. examines mayoral leadership in Council-Manager Cities.


Why Candidates Matter More than Voters

The United States of Ambition: Politicians, Power, and the Pursuit of Office by Alan Ehrenhalt is a lively read about why who runs for office can have a larger impact on the direction of government thant the views of the voters.