Mayor-council is the oldest and most common form of government in Washington, including small towns and large cities alike. However, while most cities in Washington use the mayor-council system, the vast majority of cities that have incorporated or successfully changed form of government since 1970 have adopted the council-manager system.
The basic structure and organization of mayor-council cities is set out in chapter 35A.12 RCW for code cities; also see chapter 35.22 RCW for first class cities, chapter 35.23 RCW for second class cities, and chapter 35.27 RCW for towns.
The mayor-council form consists of a mayor elected at-large, who serves as the city’s chief administrative officer, and a separately elected council (elected either at-large or from districts) which serves as the municipality’s legislative body. This separation of powers is based on the traditional federal and state models in the United States.
The council has the authority to formulate and adopt city policies and the mayor is responsible for carrying them out. The mayor attends and presides over council meetings but does not vote, except in the case of a tie.
The mayor also has veto authority over legislation (except for towns), but the veto can be overridden by the council as specified in the municipality’s statutes or charter. (For more information, see our page on Council Voting.)
In all but the largest cities, elected mayors and councilmembers serve on a part-time basis, leaving most of the day-to-day operations to administrative personnel.
Nationally, mayor-council governments are often classified as either “strong mayor” or “weak mayor” types depending on the degree of executive authority that is concentrated in the mayor’s office. However, by providing veto authority (except for towns), the Washington State legislature essentially provided for a strong mayor system.