What is It?
Can you fight city hall? Well, hopefully you have a great city council and you can just ask nicely. Here’s what you need to know.
Your city council is a group of people who make decisions for – wait for it – your city. It might have a different name, like the city board, board of aldermen, or board of selectmen.
City council members typically work with the mayor or city manager, depending on which system your city has. They’re responsible for hearing from constituents (aka the people who live in their district, whether those people voted for them or not), deciding how to spend tax dollars and other funding, and getting involved in all kinds of policy decisions (we’ll get into that later).
City council members are usually elected, but those elections look different in different cities. Some places have an at-large system, where all residents vote for every member of the city council, and all city council members are accountable to every city resident. In other places, the city is divided into districts or wards, and one council member represents each district or ward.
Another big difference between different city councils is whether candidates run as partisans – in other words, whether they run as members of a political party. In some places, candidates for city council run clearly as Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Greens, etc., and those parties are clearly listed on the ballot when you go to vote. In other places, candidates run as non-partisan, even though they may have views consistent with a particular party or get endorsements from a political party.
It’s also worth knowing where your mayor or city manager fits into all this, because that impacts how decisions get made where you live. There are three common systems:
- Local residents elect a mayor as the city’s main executive. The council functions as the city’s legislature, passing laws and ordinances, and the mayor can veto things the council decides.
- The mayor shares most responsibilities with the city council and might even be a member of the city council. Usually, they have limited or no veto power.
- The city council appoints a city manager who handles the administration of the city and proposes an annual budget.
There are some other variations, too, but the main thing to know is that if you want to get something done, you’ll need to find out exactly what powers and responsibilities the city council has where you live.
Why It Matters to You
City councils can truly create a vision for their city: what the new park will be like, where new affordable housing will get built, whether your local gas station can have gaming machines, and much more.
Your budget reflects your priorities, as they say. Typically, a mayor or city manager will propose a budget, which the city council goes through with a fine-toothed comb. Council members will eventually have to approve that budget, but before they do, they’ll suggest changes. Maybe a council member wants to see more funding for the police department or a needle exchange program. Maybe they want to raise money by selling a city-owned building or change the trash collection schedule to save cash.
Cities rely on tax dollars to pay for city services and administration. Your city council can set the rates for income, sales, and property tax.
Your city council acts as the main law-making body for your city. They can enact all kinds of ordinances or laws, whether it’s installing a new stoplight, carving out a new bike lane, banning DIY guns, or prohibiting drag shows.
Can a real estate developer build tall apartment buildings in a neighborhood of single-family homes? Do those new apartment buildings need to have a certain amount of parking? Are there any restrictions on what kinds of businesses can be on the ground floor of those buildings? If you love rules, you might love zoning – and the city council might be for you. City councils can pass zoning laws that determine what can get built where (can you turn that old factory into apartments?) and where different kinds of businesses can operate (can you open a liquor store near a school?). They can also create boards or commissions to solve complex problems or create a master plan for development in the city. The council will oversee these boards and often have council members sitting on them.
What You Can Do
If you’re one of the many Americans who votes for president but not in local elections, remember that your city council makes decisions that impact your daily life. First, you’ll want to find out what different city council candidates plan to do once they’re elected. Tune into debates, attend a town hall, and see what your local newspaper has to say about the different candidates. You can even reach out to them directly to learn more – start with their campaign website.
City council meetings don’t happen in secret. These meetings are public and anyone is allowed to attend (these days, you can often participate online). Usually, the council will save time on the agenda for the public to share their support or concerns, so that’s your time to shine. Hot tip: bringing friends and neighbors to these meetings signals to your city council that they need to take you seriously. (Is this your first public meeting? Here’s what you need to know.)
Council members live in your community, so they tend to be easy to get in touch with (perhaps less so in big cities). You can – and should – certainly reach out when there’s a problem but the smart move is to build a relationship with your city council member even when nothing exciting is happening. Sign up for their mailing list, go to their public events, or even set up a face-to-face or online meeting. Let your council member know that you’re a real human who cares about the community, and you’ll get a lot further next time a big issue comes up. (Here’s how to get that meeting.)
Under the Freedom of Information Act, every state has a law that allows ordinary people to obtain public records. If you don’t think you have all the information to advocate well on a particular issue, learn how you can request public records to build your case.
On the Ground
The Pittsburgh City Council passed a zoning ordinance that created three new districts to encourage more residential and commercial activity in the neighborhood of Oakland. The ordinance came after three years of public debate, and is part of a plan to grow housing, livability, and job opportunities within the area.
In June 2022, the Boston City Council approved a $3.99 billion dollar budget. City council members and the mayor went back and forth on various budget priorities, like policing, the fire department, and youth programs. In particular, the debate focused on whether to increase or decrease the police department’s budget (in the end, the budget stayed the same).
Civil rights groups sued the city of Jacksonville, Florida, saying that the city council drew racially gerrymandered district maps. Almost a year later after the lawsuit began, the city council was responsible for approving or rejecting a settlement where the city would pay $200,000 and use a new map (they approved it).
In Bellevue, Kentucky, the city council passed an ordinance that banned smoking in public places throughout the whole city. This ordinance passed with a unanimous vote, making Bellevue the state’s 34th city with a no-smoking ordinance.
Portland, Oregon has a new election system that uses ranked choice voting and does away with primaries and special elections for empty council seats – thanks to its city council.