BGR Webinar: Designing City Governments for Success

• Bureau of Governmental Research


Click the video above to view the Bureau of Government Research webinar from May 24, 2023, “Designing City Governments for Sucess.”

During this webinar, you can:

  • Learn about the governing structures used in other large U.S. cities.
  • Hear from a panel of experts on how the basic arrangement of powers and duties within a large city’s government shapes its ability to deliver services and infrastructure effectively.
  • Learn how cities with strong mayor governments, such as New Orleans, can manage the benefits and risks of that form of government, and what the main alternative – a council-manager government – has to offer.

BGR’s panel featured two national experts on municipal forms of government, Dr. Kimberly Nelson of the University of North Carolina’s School of Government and Dr. Jered Carr of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs. To offer local perspective, the panel also featured David Marcello, executive director of The Public Law Center at Tulane University Law School. Mr. Marcello chaired the 1994-95 advisory committee that undertook the only comprehensive revision of New Orleans’ Home Rule Charter (City Charter) since its 1954 launch.

BGR has no current position on possible future changes to the City Charter. However, our report last fall on the charter amendment to require City Council confirmation of the mayor’s appointments of City department heads and certain other administrators raised questions among members of the public about choices in the City’s form of government and the implications of those. Because of that interest, BGR put together this webinar.

The following offers an introduction to city forms of government for attendees of the webinar and others interested in the topic.

Why Learn About City Government Design

When New Orleans residents look at a broken streetlight, an expanding pothole, uncollected garbage, or news of violent crime, the first question that comes to their minds is probably not, “Is this problem related to the structure of City government?” They are more likely to ask, “Who’s in charge and what are they doing about it?” While the mayor and City Council members bear responsibility for how the City of New Orleans (City) performs, their ability to make and sustain improvements is helped – or hindered – by the City’s basic governing structure.

Generally, cities adopt a governing framework, or “form of government,” that assigns authority and responsibilities to elected officials and appointed administrators and guides their relationships and interactions. It defines the players and basic rules for running a city.

Since 1954, New Orleans has had a mayor-council form of government that grants significant powers to the mayor as the chief executive, also called a “strong mayor” format. Established by voters in the City Charter, this format emphasizes the mayor’s leadership, political effectiveness and public accountability. It also empowers the mayor to appoint a chief administrative officer (CAO) and department heads to manage day-to-day government operations. The council, as the legislative branch, focuses primarily on budget matters, planning and zoning issues, and oversight of the administration.

Fall 2022 ballot report coverLast November, New Orleans voters adjusted this framework when they approved a charter amendment requiring City Council confirmation of department heads and certain executive branch administrators, but not the CAO. BGR supported the greater transparency benefits the amendment provides for current and future mayoral administrations and viewed it as a discrete change that would not have a broad impact on other areas of the charter. It can help ensure top administrators are well qualified and ready for the job. It can also help make all mayoral administrations more open and responsive to the public. BGR also found that city council confirmation of department heads is a widely used practice among 25 peer cities with strong mayor formats. In 20 of the cities, or 80%, the council confirms some or all department heads.

Opponents, however, criticized the amendment as usurping a key mayoral power and potentially leading to gridlock and political deal-making between the mayor and council. Further, the current mayor, in an April 26, 2022, letter to the City Council objecting to its proposed amendment, urged any reconsideration of New Orleans’ form of government to be done in the context of a full City Charter review, instead of an “ordinance-by-ordinance, piecemeal approach.” The new confirmation process awaits its first major test when the mayor appoints a new police superintendent.

BGR has no current position on possible future changes to the City Charter. However, our report on the recent charter amendment raised questions among members of the public about choices in the City’s form of government and the implications of those. Because of that interest, BGR put together this webinar.

Citizens’ understanding of the governance structure is important because there is no periodic, comprehensive review process required for the City Charter. A holistic review could identify a range of opportunities to improve City government and allow voters to judge the cumulative impact of the proposed charter changes. However, such a comprehensive review and vote have occurred only once in the nearly 70 years since the charter’s adoption. In absence of that process, citizens will need to be prepared to decide the incremental charter changes they may face at the polls.

BGR is uniquely positioned to help support this civic education. In the early 1950s, BGR assisted the City with developing a new charter and shaping the mayor-council form of government. Over the decades, BGR has advised voters on numerous proposals to amend the charter.

Forms of Government in Large U.S. Cities

BGR map of national distribution of forms of government

BGR analysis of various sources, including governance data on large cities provided by Dr. Kimberly Nelson.

The map illustrates the forms of government used by large U.S. cities with populations of 250,000 or more, including New Orleans. They typically have adopted either a mayor-council or a council-manager form of government. The essential distinction between the two forms is whether power is divided between the mayor and council, or whether it resides in the council. Furthermore, in the mayor-council form, the degree to which the mayor has executive authority independent of the council determines whether it is a “strong mayor” or “weak mayor” format.

As shown in Chart A, the strong mayor format provides a separation of powers and a system of checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches of city government, like what exists in the state and federal governments. Under this approach, a mayor is elected by a city’s voters and runs the day-to-day operations of the city, like a governor or the President. A city council, as the legislative branch, controls the budget and has oversight of the administration. A common hallmark of the strong mayor format is the mayor’s veto power over council legislation.

Twenty-six of the 45 large, strong mayor cities, including New Orleans, employ a CAO to manage daily government administration. BGR’s review of a sample of chief administrative officers found a substantial majority with graduate degrees, highlighting the professionalization of city administration today. In the other 19 cities, such as Houston and St. Louis, the mayor serves as both the executive and top administrative roles. Department heads, such as a police chief, report directly to the mayor, or to a layer of deputy mayors or similar assistants.


BGR diagram of strong mayor form of government

BGR analysis

Strong mayor - key responsibilities box

Under the council-manager form of government, the council acts as the city’s main governing body and appoints a manager to run the day-to-day operations of the city. The city manager’s role is more akin to a chief executive officer of a company who is responsible to a board of directors (i.e., the council) rather than the mayor who is elected by, and answers to, voters. The city manager is a professional administrator who makes day-to-day executive decisions, implements long-range plans to solve problems and advises on policies adopted by the council. As an appointed administrator, the city manager ideally is more insulated from elections and politics than a traditional strong mayor. The council may dismiss the manager and can utilize employment agreements to define compensation and accountability.

In practice, councils vary in how much authority they exercise over the city manager’s decision making. Aside from appointing a city manager, the city council in a council-manager system has many of the same responsibilities as city councils in strong mayor systems.

Council-manager cities often still have an elected mayor, but instead of serving as the city’s chief executive, the mayor is either directly elected to the council (in 69% of council-manager cities) or selected by the council from its members. The mayor often serves as its leader, presiding at council meetings, serving as the public face of the government, and facilitating policy goals and decisions, but with no additional executive power.


BGR diagram of council manager form of government

BGR analysis

Council manager - key responsibilities box

Both the strong mayor and council-manager approaches emerged from historical reform efforts in U.S. cities. In the 19th Century, with the nation’s population still largely concentrated east of the Mississippi River and city populations rising with immigration, the strong mayor format began replacing traditional, decentralized, “weak mayor” city governments. Strong mayors were viewed as more able to respond to the demands of larger, more diverse populations.

The council-manager structure emerged during the first half of the 20th century as part of an overall progressive push for broader municipal reform and professionalization of government. Council-manager governments grew in popularity and overtook the mayor-council model as the most popular form in the 1970s. As the U.S. population has surged in the West, Southwest and South, council-manager cities now account for a growing share of large U.S. cities.

Further Information

BGR compiled this additional data snapshot of large cities in a short video here:

Other sources that informed this primer for the webinar include:

  • More than Mayor or Manager: Campaigns to Change Form of Government in America’s Large Cities, James H. Svara and Douglas J. Watson, eds. (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2010).
  • Carr, Jered, and Shanthi Karuppusamy, “The Adapted Cities Framework: On Enhancing Its Use in Empirical Research,” Urban Affairs Review, Vol. 43, No. 6 (July 2008)
  • International City/County Management Association, Council-Manager Form of Government, November 30, 2019.
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