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What is a City Council?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A city council is a form of government that is used in many towns and cities around the world. The members of the council are elected by the citizens, and they work together to pass laws, make general policies, supervise city government, and appropriate funds for various needs. The work of a council is usually supported by a number of specialized commissions that focus on specific issues like police, urban planning, and public works. Typically, council meetings are open to the public, and public input is welcomed.

The exact organization of a city council varies, depending on where in the world it is. As a general rule, the members are elected by various districts in the city. Each is responsible for representing the needs and desires of his or her district. These members may be able to appoint members of other commissions, and they often vote amongst themselves to determine who will act as chair or speaker for the council.

In some cases, the mayor sits on the council, adding input and running meetings. In other instances, he or she works separately. One member of the council is also usually the mayor pro tem, the next in line in authority. When the mayor is unavailable for any reason, the mayor pro tem takes over the position temporarily.

Many cities have a council-manager government, in which most of the decisions about local government are made by the council. This type of government limits the power of the mayor, although he or she certainly contributes. In other cases, a mayor-council government is used, giving the mayor more authority and sometimes a veto power as well. Typically, the mayor will prepare the budget for a mayor-council government, although the council may veto it.

Requirements for serving on city council vary. In most cases, candidates must be legal citizens of voting age, although age requirements are sometimes more restrictive. Candidates may engage in debates during their campaigns, and like politicians at the larger level, they usually propose changes that they will enact if elected. In small towns, city elections can get quite tense at times, as the politics of smaller towns can get very tricky.

Historical Index is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon990916 — On May 15, 2015

I am a resident of Samson, Alabama Population 2,000. I am planning on running for city council. This is my first time in politics. Most of the residents here in Samson are asking me to run, because of the things I am doing for the city. What advice can you give me?

By anon356821 — On Nov 28, 2013

The article was very informative, however, what can the citizens do if the City Council is making decisions that are not best for the current or in need for the future residents? A close friend of mine lives off of an inlet where the city has began to build a board walk. They have threatened and even promised to take his land and home to continue building the board walk. He bought this home when he was 18 and is not 50-60. He also is a business owner running his fishing charter business contributing to the economy of this small town.

He is able to dock his vessels right outside his home, saving gas and money. He is active in the wildlife community. I intend to continue researching his options. There must be something he and the surrounding neighbors can do to keep their homes.

By anon138333 — On Dec 31, 2010

I am a resident of Trenton, New Jersey and I am planning on running for City Council. I am 24 and new to politics. what can I research so that I can become prepared and gain a little experience?

By GenevaMech — On Nov 30, 2010

@ Anon9664- You should read books on sustainability, urban form, economics, governance, social movements, social equity, and cultural diversity. These are a wide range of topics, but they are very relevant to what makes a city prosperous.

Also, try to learn about problems cities have faced, so that you do not fall into the same traps. These problems can range in scope from social, economic, environmental, and political. Every city starts somewhere. I live in Tempe, Arizona and it only had a population of 100 when it was founded. Now it is the most livable cities in Arizona. You might follow Highlighter's advice and look at the city council news in Tempe. Most minutes can be found online.

By highlighter — On Nov 28, 2010

@ Anon9664- There are few concrete requirements to become a mayor and they will vary by locale. You should be able to research most of the legal ins and outs at your local law library. You will likely need to be a citizen of the town, over 18 years old, and be a person of integrity. Your job is to look out for the future of the residents. If you are looking for information on how city governments work, you can probably find good books in a library. Look for books on history, small government, and politics. You also might want to search for city council meeting minutes from a city of a similar size and attributes. Most places will post these online, and archive them for the public to view. Good luck!

By anon9664 — On Mar 10, 2008

Hi all. I am a resident of a small area, that is soon to be made a city. It will consist of about 25 residents. We are also going to elect a mayor, and 3 board members. I would like to run for the Mayors position, but I don't know the legal ins and outs, and all that is required. How can I find good reading on the forming of a small new city, and all its electives?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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