Council-Manager Form of Government Summary

Posted on May 4th, 2024

The council-manager form of government is common throughout the country and has existed for decades in Harbor Springs. While some key aspects of this form of government are shared by most cities implementing it, each city’s charter defines the relationship between the council and manager and their respective functions and duties. In this regard, no two forms of council-manager governments are identical.

In Harbor Springs, the City Council serves as the City’s legislative (policy forming) branch. The Council is headed by the Mayor who chairs Council meetings and has some other additional powers and duties. Section 4.1 outlines the Council’s powers, noting that unless otherwise expressed in the Charter, Council shall have the authority to exercise all powers conferred to the City, especially adoption of ordinances and resolutions.

Of course, Council also has other extremely important duties according to the Charter, the biggest two being the appointment of a City Manager and a City Clerk (Sections 4.7 & 4.11), and adoption of an annual budget (Section 8.11). Aside from enacting ordinances, these other responsibilities have some of the greatest impact on the day-to-day functioning of the City.

The Manager is the administrative head of the City.  Section 4.9 highlights the Manager’s primary administrative duties, which include: 

  • Supervising all departments and public improvements
  • Enforcing all laws
  • Keeping Council informed about the City’s conditions
  • Appointing officers and employees
  • Recommending a plan for administering the City
  • Acting as purchasing agent
  • Executing contracts for budgeted improvements
  • Advising council on long-term contracts

There are other administrative duties, as well, such as preparing a budget for Council review (Section 8.9) and managing utilities (Chapter 11).

However, while the Charter creates a policy-forming branch and an administrative branch of government, and while it is clear that the distinction between the two should be preserved, this does not mean that the Council has no room to speak about administrative issues or that the Manager has no ability to speak to policy.

For example, Section 4.6 encourages frank discussion between Council and the Manager on administrative issues, but stipulates Council cannot take administrative action (such as directing the work of an employee). In this way, the Council can opine on administrative matters, but it has no authority to act on administrative matters.

Further, while the Manager cannot vote on legislative issues, he has an important role in the legislative process. For example, Section 7.8 mandates that the Manager recommends legislation he finds to be in the best interest of the City:

“It shall be the duty of the City Manager to advise the Council of any legislation which in his judgment may be necessary or desirable in administering the affairs of the city.”

So, while it is imperative the Manager not vote on any matter before Council, it is equally imperative he advises Council on ordinances, policies and other matters under Council consideration. Therefore, the Manager is not only the administrative head of the City, but he also acts as an advisor to the Council on issues before Council.

However, the Manager’s powers are not unchecked:  Council can remove the Manager from his position and appoint a new Manager (Section 4.8). In this way, the people entrust their elected officials (Council) to make the best decisions on behalf of them, which includes selecting a Manager and could include removing a Manager.

As the governing document for the City of Harbor Springs, the City Charter sets the stage for how our government must operate. We hope this summary of the Council-Manager form of government helps residents better understand the intricacies of our government. Ultimately, government is accountable to the voters and voters who understand how government works are better prepared to make decisions that are in their best interests and the best interests of the community.

A copy of the City Charter can be found here: