District of Columbia Home Rule Charter Review
in collaboration with
the Federal City Council
"Options for Managing D.C. Government"
Prepared by
Georgetown University's Graduate Public Policy Institute

This policy briefing report is one of a series of policy seminars supported by Georgetown University's Graduate Public Policy Institute (GPPI).

The GPPI's "D.C. Project" provides faculty and student research resources as a community service to support collaborative efforts addressing the needs of the District of Columbia.

I. Introduction

Washington, D.C., is widely perceived as a city in crisis. Reports appear virtually daily on the absence of strict accountability, the lack of responsible management, and the ineffecient delivery of services.

Congress has the constitutional right to intervene in the governance of the District, and in 1995 it acted to address the fiscal crisis and the perceived mismanagement in District governance. The District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Authority (the Control Board) was created, which effectively suspended major elements of District home rule for a minimum of eight years. The Office of Chief Financial Officer (CFO) to the Mayor was redefined so that the CFO is now appointed by the Mayor and can only be removed from office by the Control Board.

These measures may or may not be temporary. The larger issue is whether the basic structure of government must be changed to achieve honest, responsible, and efficient government in the District. A change in the basic form of government -- a reallignment of power and authority -- must proceed with caution and careful deliberation. This Background Briefing Report does not judge present or past District Administrations. Rather, the report discusses the current structure of D.C. government and presents the proponents' arguments for the alternative forms of municipal governance.

II. Current District of Columbia Government

The District of Columbia government, as established in the Home Rule Act in 1973, is a system that resembles the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal government.

The executive branch is headed by a mayor who has broad powers that include, but are not limited to:
*appointing a city administrator to serve at the mayor's discretion;
* appointing, promoting, and supervising all personnel in the executive department of the District government;
* supervising and directing all activities of all offices and divisions of the executive branch;
* vetoing Council legislation and line item-vetoing Council budget acts (both subject to two-thirds council override); and
* serving as the "central planning agency" for the District.

The legislative branch is a 13-member partisan council. The chairman and four of the members are elected at-large and the remaining eight are elected in ward elections. The council's powers include, among others:
* creating, abolishing, or organizing any office, agency, department, or instrumentality of the government of the District;
* legislating for the District, subject to mayoral and congressional veto;
* amending the Charter of the District, subject to referendum approval by the electorate and no resolution of disapproval by the Congress;
* adopting a balanced budget;
* taxing;
* enacting 90-day emergency legislation by two-thirds vote; and,
* adjusting levels of compensation to its members and setting the level of compensation for the mayor.

The D.C. government as created under the Home Rule Act is a mayor/council form of government. This form of municipal government was a natural progression from the commissioner form that existed immediately prior to home rule. In 1967 President Johnson proposed and Congress adopted a restructuring of the District in an attempt to move the city toward self-government. The reorganization established a single commissioner, deputy commissioner, and a nine-member council to be appointed by the President, replacing the three-member board of commissioners that had existed since the late 1800s. President Johnson appointed Walter Washington as the first commissioner/mayor of the District.

City residents still pushed for the right to elect their leaders. While discussing the possibility of home rule for the District, Congress gave little consideration to other forms of municipal government aside from an elected mayor/council form. The alternative council/manager form was perceived by many as closely resembling the prior commission form of government, which the majority wanted to discard. It seemed natural, therefore, to simply provide for the election of a mayor and council that was essentially already in place.

The balance of power in the District was dramatically altered by Congress in 1995, with the establishment of the District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Authority (the Control Board). The Control Board has vast budgetary authority over the city and it reviews and approves all spending, borrowing , hiring, and contracts. Members of the Control Board are appointed by the President. Moreover, Public Law 104-8 specifies that the District shall have a Chief Financial Officer (CFO) appointed by the Mayor who can only be removed by the Control Board.

The current District government structure is difficult to describe by textbook definitions of alternative forms of municipal government. Moreover, it may be incorrect to ascribe structural reform alone as the determinant of honest, responsible, efficient government.
III. Mayor-Council System

Two general models of mayor-council governments can be identified in American cities, the strong-mayor and the weak-mayor governments. Most city governments with the mayor-council form have strong-mayors, although many have structures that fall somewhere in between the strong and weak-mayor. Cities with the largest and smallest populations are most likely to have a mayor-council form of government. This form is most common in cities with a population of 500,000 and over, and a population of 2,500 to 9,999.

In both the weak and strong-mayor forms of mayor-council government, the executive and legislative powers are separate--the mayor has the executive power and the city council has the legislative power. The mayor is the city's chief executive, although most mayors' powers are limited by enabling legislation or a city charter. The mayor's primary responsibility is to ensure that the laws passed by the city council are implemented. The city council's primary role is to pass laws including the provision of taxes and spending of revenue. The mayor and council members both are directly elected.

Many cities have instituted a modified version of the mayor-council government. In these cities, the mayor appoints (and the council may approve), a chief administrative officer (CAO) to assist him or her in the day-to-day administration of the city. This officer reports directly to the mayor and does not have the same level of responsibility as the city manager in the council-manager form of government. The mayor-council government with the CAO was created to address the needs required by the multi-faceted job of mayor in a modern city. By managing much of the administrative duties of the job, the CAO frees the mayor to focus on his or her role as the political leader of the city. The addition of the CAO has made the mayor-council form of government more closely resemble the council-manager form.


This form of government was copied from the model of state governments with a strong executive office and an elected legislative body.

Roles and Responsibilities in the Strong-Mayor Government

The official responsibilities in the strong-mayor government are divided as follows:

The mayor has almost total administrative authority. The mayor is typically not a member of the council and therefore cannot vote on legislation except to break a tie. His responsibilities include:
* heading the political and policymaking agenda;
* preparing and administering the budget and making policy jointly with the council;
* vetoing legislation; and,
* appointing and removing department heads and directing the organization of agency functions.

City Council
The powers of the council in the strong-mayor government include:
* drafting legislation;
* approving or vetoing the mayor's policies; and,
* modifying and approving the budget.

In this system, the mayor usually serves a renewable four-year term. The strong-mayor form "requires that the mayor be both a good political leader and a competent administrator."

In some strong-mayor cities a chief administrator (CAO) is appointed by the mayor to serve at his or her pleasure to direct the day-to-day administration of government. The CAO is usually given extensive "authority over program implementation, operational concerns, and budget formulation, as well as advisory roles in developing other policy recommendations."


The weak-mayor form of government is a product of Jacksonian democracy... Implicit in the weak-mayor plan are the beliefs that if politicians have few powers and many checks upon them, they can do relatively little damage and that if one politician becomes corrupt, he or she will not necessarily corrupt the whole city government.
Robert E. England and David R. Morgan, Managing Urban America

In weak-mayor systems power is divided among the department heads, the mayor, and the council. These systems offer no centralized authority and therefore power and administrative control is divided and fragmented. Because of the fragmentation of power, this form of government is most effective in small cities. The effect of the weak-mayor system is to give greater control to the bureaucracy.

Roles and Responsibilities in the Weak-Mayor Government

The mayors in this system are "weak" because they have lesser administrative and appointive powers. Some of the executive offices are directly elected and others are appointed by the council. Weak-mayors have limited authority to develop the budget and they lack administrative control over the agencies of government.

The official responsibilities in the weak government are divided as follows:

The powers of the mayor in the weak-mayor government include:
* overseeing agency heads;
* recommending legislation;
* vetoing legislation; and,
* presiding over city council meetings.

City Council
The council possesses both legislative and executive authority. The powers of the city council in the weak-mayor government include:
* appointing and supervising some department heads and approving the mayor's appointees; and,
* monitoring the municipal budget.

IV. Council-Manager System

Because municipal government structures in the United States have primarily been adopted from the English, the council-manager system is one of the only facets of government that this country can claim as its own creation. Dayton, Ohio is credited as the first city to adopt the council-manager form of government in 1913. Today, the majority of cities with a population of over 25,000 use this form of local government, although the council-manager system is most common in cities with a population between 100,000 and 250,000. The large cities in the Sunbelt typically have this system because these cities do not have "entrenched political machines." Many counties have also adopted the council-manager form of government. Business leaders and upper- and middle-class citizens tend to favor this form of government because they presume the city manager improves efficiency.

Roles and Responsibilities in the Council- Manager Government

The official responsibilities in the council-manager government are divided as follows:

The mayor is generally is not involved in city administrative affairs and fulfills strictly ceremonial duties.

City Council
The city council is often elected at large on a nonpartisan ballot. All legislative power rests with the council. Its other responsibilities include:
* making policy and passing ordinances; and,
* appointing the city manager who assumes primary executive responsibility for city management.

City Manager
The full-time, professionally-trained city manager acts at the council's request and can be removed by the council with a majority vote. The city manager is responsible for day-to-day city operations including:
* hiring and firing city department heads;
* preparing and administering the municipal budget;
* overseeing the execution of policy made by the council;
* preparing and submitting the budget to the council;
* appointing and removing department heads; and
* developing recommendations on policy to submit to the council.

The city manager fills the roles of manager, policymaker, and political operator. All administrative functions fall under this managerial role, thus managers enjoy a large amount of autonomy. In policy formation, managers are the main source of information on policy issues for the council. The manager often shoulders the responsibility for developing policy ideas and alternatives.

V. Comparison of the Two Forms


Much of the research evaluating these two types of governments is inconclusive. The advantages and disadvantages are clear, but it is not clear which advantages are more crucial to fostering cost effective, accountable, and responsive city management. These generally accepted critiques are abstracted from references in the bibliography.


* Its centralized administrative control provides for strong leadership in policymaking and better-coordinated implementation.
* Powers are separated between an executive and legislative branch of government.
* The chief executive is elected and directly accountable to the citizens.
* It provides for more clarity of roles within government.

* Centralized leadership may not be as responsive to all interests within the city, especially those outside government.
* The government may be weakened by competition between the council and mayor.
* The government may be prone to political patronage and partisan influence.


* Its business-like approach to city government maximizes efficiency and technical expertise.
* It fosters consensus and coalition-building, which is needed to bridge diverse interests within a city.
* It attempts to take politics out of city government through neutral management of local functions.
* It controls political patronage and decreases partisan influences in city management.

* It lacks the traditional separation of powers.
* The appointed chief executive is not directly accountable to the citizens.
* It creates confusion among the council and the citizens as to who is really in charge of city affairs.
* It causes a lack of formal provision for strong policy leadership.
* This structure is more easily led to factionalism and divisiveness because council members often represent the interests of their district rather than the city as a whole.


Jurisdictions with the largest and smallest populations are the most likely to have mayor-council systems, while council-manager systems are most common in mid-sized jurisdictions. Mayor-council municipalities declined from 51.7% in 1981 to 43.8% in 1986 and 47.4% in 1991. Council-manager jurisdictions increased from 45.5% in 1981 to 34.3% in 1986 and 37.6% in 1992. The council-manager jurisdictions include additions of newly incorporated municipalities with populations below 15,000 persons.

In recent years mayor-council jurisdictions have increased. Currently, out of 7,284 cities, 3,584 (49.2%) have the mayor-council form and 3,056 (41.9%) have the council-manager form of government, the remainder have some other form.

In 1986, the International City Manager's Association conducted a study of these two forms of government and concluded that municipal government structure did not account for differences in efficiency, expenditures, and quality of life. These differences were due to regional variation in expenditures, and therefore, changes in the government structure of municipalities would not solve the problems that their proponents anticipated. The study advocates regional approaches to management and a greater federal role in helping struggling municipalities with service delivery.

The evidence from other major cities supports the above contention that there is no conclusive "winner" among the various structures of municipal government. Many cities with different government structures are suffering from the same ailments. Miami, a city with a mayor-commission-manager form of government is facing a fiscal crisis. Much of this crisis can be blamed on poor fiscal management -- taxpayer money is often shifted around to pay off the most urgent debts. This spring, voters will consider abolishing the city government and being governed by Dade county.

During the past few years, the city manager system in various parts of the country has been under increasing attacks from critics who say it does not generate the political leadership necessary to solve the divisive problems of the 1990's. Cities with long histories of council-manager government, such as Rochester, New York and St. Petersburg, Florida, have abandoned it in favor of strong-mayor government, with an elected mayor replacing the manager as chief administrative official. Even Dallas, long regarded as the flagship city of the (council-manager) movement, has debated making such a change.
Alan Ehrenhalt, "Good Government Bad Government,"

Los Angeles is another city struggling with the council-manager form of government. Friction between the weak-mayor and the council have have frustrated both and have weakened the city's management structure. The city is currently reviewing its charter and Mayor Riordan is campaigning to increase his powers of appointment to become a strong-mayor. He is seeking an April referendum and the council is fighting him every step of the way.

Although many city governments have recently abandoned the council-manager form of government, many successful models of this structure still operate throughout the country. Phoenix, a city government that has won numerous awards for its innovative and efficient government, has maintained a council-manager structure since 1914. In Phoenix, "the mayor and city council debate the issues, set policy goals and listen to constituent opinion. But the manager and his staff hire and fire, handle the money and essentially run the city." Phoenix is a particularly interesting case because it has had the council-manager form of government since 1914, but its government was not particularly successful until 1980. In 1980 and then in 1990 two outstanding city managers set the precedent for innovation that has made the government the success it is today.

IV. Regional Approaches to Governance

As increasingly complex challenges overwhelm the capacity of local governments, neither the council-manager nor the mayor-council structures will be able to adequately address the needs of any city. Regional approaches to governance are becoming a necessity to improve the efficiency and delivery of select municipal services.

The decline of central cities and the resulting urban crisis that began in the 1960's spurred a mass exodus of residents from central cities to their suburbs. Today, city and suburb often maintain an artificial separation which is an impediment to the development of both. The result is the failure of most members of society to see regions as a whole and to realize that urban problems affect and are influenced by their surrounding suburbs. This problem is particularly challenging to the District as the "core city" of the suburbs of two separate states.


There are two main types of regional governance mechanisms--private initiatives and government authorities which deliver specific services.

Private Initiatives

Private initiatives generally work to expand economic development within the regions they serve. Many private initiatives have grown out of city chambers of commerce. Some also sponsor related regional planning, including tax studies, public works improvement, leadership training, and other regional problem solving. A newer development is business research institutes which provide technical support and information about economic development throughout the region.

Private regional governance mechanisms are primarily organized as nonprofit 501(c)6s or 501(c)3s. For funding, they often depend on the contributions from members and community foundations and they sometimes receive state and local government support as well. With some government financing, these private entities frequently became more closely coordinated with the respective government interests and goals.

The strength of private initiatives is that they provide "the knowledge, discipline, funding, and clout" of the businesses that work with them.

Their main weakness is that they are not intended to be democratic institutions and are motivated by market incentives. Other similar weaknesses include :
* their elitism, they tend to be closed networks.
* the lack of community involvement in decision making.

Government Authorities

Regional single-service authorities are special purpose governments formed by two or more local governments to deliver a service or a collection of related services throughout a region. Regional authorities make it possible to deliver services that cannot be easily provided by any local government or nonpublic entity, or services that can be provided in a more cost-effective manner over a larger defined territory. Authorities may be established by local governments with state enabling legislation or by state government. The funding formula may include state contributions.

Regionally supplied services include: water treatment and supply services, air pollution control services, transportation services, industrial development services, port services, parks, housing and urban redevelopment, and solid waste management. Some single service authorities are able to function as regional problem-solving bodies. Regional authorities for water, sewer, and transit have had success in addressing challenges that have implications even outside their authority.

Most authorities charge fees and use revenue financing, and some are also subsidized by annual government contributions or dedicated tax funding. Some authorities are empowered to levy taxes specifically dedicated to that respective service provision.

The strengths of single-service government authorities include:
* the ability to bypass restrictions on local government financing.
* the receipt of federal support.
* their greater powers than any single local government.
* the ability to address challenges that cut across government jurisdictions.

The weaknesses of single-service government authorities include the:
* lack of political accountability to the electorate or any government;
* increased fragmentation in service delivery; and,
* the increased overhead costs of maintaining separate units of government.

Regional Multiple-Service Authorities

The most common illustration of a multi-service authority is the regional port or development authority which may provide transportation, economic development, and other services in addition to constructing and operating port facilities. Regional multi-service authorities can supply numerous services such as developing land and buildings, buying, leasing, and selling property, air, and water pollution controls. They also operate a range of facilities like: airports, bridges, and tunnels.

The strengths of multiple-service authorities include the following:
* They can be run like a business with a professional governing board.
* They may be unhampered by the bureaucratic politics of the cities they serve.
* They are able to plan long term and invest in the region they serve.

The weaknesses of multiple-service authorities include the following:
* They have limited political clout.
* They provide a slow return for an investment, which may be politically difficult and may weaken their funding opportunities.
* They still need to be complemented with other public and private efforts.


Although it is helpful to study regional models in other cities, regional approaches in the District are unique. Due to its small geographic size, the presence of the federal government, the complexity of inter-state relations, and the restrictions of the Home Rule Act, the District faces many formative obstacles in coordinating regional governance. The District's "taxing and political power stops abruptly at its borders," making it a weak partner in any regional cooperation effort. The District is a "core city," and the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia are its suburbs. These suburbs are in different states, however, and the respective states fail to acknowledge the benefits of collaboration with the District. Despite this difficulty, several organizations within the Washington area are presently working on regional approaches to governance. Some of these include the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the Greater Washington Initiative, the Metropolitan Council of Governments, and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

The Greater Washington Board of Trade has existed in the District for several years and has been working on implementing long term structural changes to ensure the city a role in the region's economic growth. The Greater Washington Initiative was established in 1994 as a private/public partnership and is the "official business development organization of the region, bringing together the talents and resources a company might need for evaluating, planning and implementing an expansion or move."

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) is the regional organization of the Washington area's local governments. It is considered "the premier intergovernmental organization in the Washington area." COG was founded in 1957 as an independent, non-profit association, with funding coming from participating local governments, federal and state grants, and donations from foundations and the private sector.

From 1957 to 1965, "COG functioned as an instrument for inter-local coordination." In 1965, COG was incorporated and those local governments that participated in COG began contributing to its operation. In 1966, the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia decided to bring the National Capital Regional Transportation Planning Board under the auspices of COG. Because of this move, COG became "the administrative mechanism through which transportation planning was conducted." Additional federal legislation, such as the Clean Air Amendments Act of 1990 and the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 led COG to expand its influence in the metropolitan area. COG has emerged as the official planning agency for the region's local governments.

Presently, COG is composed of 18 local governments in the Washington area, including the District. It is involved in several different projects, including the Washington Area Housing Partnership, drug treatment and prevention, a Directory of Services for the Homeless and a health care coalition. Arguably "many of the functions carried out by COG would never be as successful or even possible if attempted by an individual local government."

Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority

Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) is a government authority that is working for the residents of the D.C. metropolitan area. It serves D.C., Alexandria, Falls Church, Fairfax, the counties of Arlington and Fairfax, other political subdivisions of the Commonwealth of VA, the counties of Montgomery and Prince George's in the State of Maryland, and other political subdivisons of Maryland. Metro is primarily funded by its users, although additional funding is provided by the federal government and by the participating local governments.

The Metro system is governed by a board of six appointed directors, two from each state. The Board members are selected by various government agencies within each state and the District. The Board develops and adopts a mass transit plan including transit facilities to be provided by the Authority, and the locations of terminals, stations, platforms, parking facilities, and their design.

VII. Conclusion

The goals of accountability, responsiveness, and efficiency in the management of District government have been a challenge to achieve. Much of home rule has been suspended by the assumption of powers by the Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority (the Control Board). This decisive action by Congress in 1995 allows the Control Board to impose management decisions by fiat. After the District's fiscal crisis has been addressed and immediate management inefficiencies alleviated, what comes next? Whether the current problems in District governance can be resolved primarily by a change in municipal structure is debatable. The evidence on the success of the two generalized government structures is inconclusive. The only definitive conclusion that can be drawn is that competent managers and better cooperation between branches of government can improve management in either structure.


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