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May 2017 Brief: Volume 24, Number 13

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The Role of a Good City Councilor


by Don Racheter, Ph.D.



As time has passed, most Americans have moved from farms to cities. As a result, they are governed at the local level by elected members of a City Council. The women and men who perform the role of Councilor have a variety of duties, including serving as a legislative body; selecting and evaluating the City Manager or City Administrator who runs the city on a daily basis; formulating a yearly budget and authorizing appropriations consistent with that budget; and acting as a public official who relates to the citizens of the community as an agent, representative, liaison, and ambassador.


Just as the United States Congress and the General Assembly of the State of Iowa make laws at the national and state levels, the City Council can enact ordinances with the force of law, providing they don’t directly contradict national or state law. It is important for Councilors to attend not only every Council meeting where the business of the city is conducted, but also the various committees they may be appointed to. Councilors must also take advantage of the efficiency of division of labor as applied to governing.


Ideas for what needs to be done by the City Council will come from Councilors’ personal experiences of being a resident of the city; listening to suggestions from friends, neighbors, co-workers, city staff, the media, and residents who attend Council meetings; and reactions to events in the world like floods, tornados, economic downturns, etc. Much of what is done is routine and is the same from year to year, but a good Councilor will keep their eyes and ears open for new ideas as they consume information, travel for business and pleasure, and commit time to fulfilling their role to the best of their ability.


Even when Legislators are full-time, which most City Councilors are not, they hire administrators to carry out the laws on a day-to-day basis. Thus, one of the most important actions of a Councilor is the hiring (and perhaps firing) of a City Manager or City Administrator. To do this well, a Councilor needs to be as unbiased as possible and a good judge of character. They must also be willing to put time into studying the credentials of the applicants for the position. Once a selection is made, the Councilor needs to continue to put time into checking up on the quality of work the employee performs for the city, while at the same time refraining from micromanaging. Indeed, most city codes specify that only the Council as a group has authority, not individual members of the Council. An important extension of this role in most cities is appointing and/or ratifying mayoral appointments of citizens to serve on a variety of boards and commissions, such as parks and recreation, planning and zoning, and the local library.


There is an old saying that you can tell a person’s priorities by what they spend their money on. This is true for a City Council, so formulating and administrating a city budget is a key duty. A good Councilor seeks to be frugal with the taxpayers’ money, but not to the point of being “pennywise and pound foolish.” Buying a second-hand piece of equipment for the city may end up costing more in the long run if extensive repairs have to be made that would have been avoided if a newer and more expensive piece of equipment had been purchased initially.


There is a well-established body of literature in political science about the proper role of elected representatives.[1] Some argue elected officials should take polls and then give the majority what they want. Others agree with Edmund Burke that the official owes their electors their judgment and that they should act as a trustee instead of a mere delegate. Politicos adopt one position or the other depending on the issue. Whichever view is adopted, all would suggest that a good City Councilor should serve as a two-way liaison between the citizenry and the City Council. As an ambassador, they have a duty to put the best face on city policy and encourage everyone to obey the laws, even if they are simultaneously working to amend them in directions they believe would be more desirable.


In summary, a good City Councilor exhibits sound judgment and is attentive, hard-working, pragmatic, and a team-player.


[1] See for example Chapter Four in Donald P. Racheter, Representation and the Congratulation-Rationalization Effect: The Impact of Election Outcome on Candidates’ Attitudes, University of Iowa: Iowa City, 1972, pp. 70-83. Also see Chapter One in Donald P. Racheter, The Magnifier Effect: Representative Myth and Democratic Government, University of Iowa: Iowa City, 1978, pp. 1-13.


Dr. Don Racheter is President of Public Interest Institute, Muscatine, Iowa. Contact him at



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