Municipal or City Government

Municipal governments are also called city governments. Like counties, they are also general purpose governments, providing many public services to their residents. How do municipal or city governments differ from counties? Historically, counties developed as local agents of the state government. They provided certain key services, such as law enforcement (the county sheriff), justice (the county courthouse), and road maintenance for a mostly rural population covering a large geographic area.

Municipalities served a smaller geographic area within an urban population; municipal governments were incorporated (or recognized by state law) primarily because the residents of a community wanted to have a city government that could provide a wide array of services, such as sidewalks, street lighting, and water and sewer systems. Thus, the answer to the question of how cities differ from counties is this: cities are incorporated (counties are not), cities cover a small, urban area (counties a large, often rural area), and cities provide a range of services (counties only a few).

Still, in some places at least, counties and cities are more similar than different. These differences are not so great as they used to be. Some counties, such as St. Louis and Jackson in Kansas City, are as densely populated as many cities and the county governments provide as many services as major cities. In addition, these large, urban counties have home rule charters, making them even more like cities. The range of services provided by city governments varies depending primarily on city population. Larger cities generally demand more services than smaller cities.

Organization...Missouri currently divides cities into two classes, based on its population at the time it incorporates. Third class cities have a population of 3,000 to 29,999 people, while fourth class cities have a population of 500 to 2,999 people. (Missouri law also recognizes villages--places with fewer than 500 people.) When a city gains population, it does not automatically change classes. Because of this, a city may have a population well above the limits set for a particular class.

State law sets out the form of government and powers of cities in each class. However, the Missouri Constitution allows a city with population of over 5,000 people to write a home rule charter, in which the city can decide for itself what structure of government it will have and what kinds of powers it will exercise.

The home rule charter becomes effective when the voters of the city approve it. Most of Missouri's larger cities now operate under home rule charters (there are now about 38 home rule cities in the state).

Needless to say, not all cities have the same form of government. Most of Missouri's smaller cities (with population under 5,000) and its second largest city (St. Louis) have the mayor/council form of government. Most of its larger cities (those with a population of 25,000 or more) and most of its home rule cities use either the mayor/council/administrator model or the council/manager form.  Kansas City, the state's largest city, uses the council/manager form.

Mayor/Council/ Form... More than 80 percent of Missouri's cities, including the city of St. Louis, have this "traditional" form of government. A city council or board of aldermen makes the city's laws or ordinances. The mayor administers the law. The mayor and council members are all elected officials.

People who study government often distinguish between two kinds of mayor/council government: the strong mayor plan and the weak mayor plan. Under the strong mayor plan, the mayor can appoint most important city department heads and has substantial control over the city's budget. Under the weak mayor plan, the mayor shares appointive authority with the council and other elected officials and may have only modest budgetary power. The difference between the strong and weak plans is not clear-cut. Of Missouri cities, the city of St. Louis comes closest to the strong mayor plan.

Council/Manager Form...Under this plan, an elected city council makes laws for the city and hires a professional city manager to carry out the law. The mayor in this plan is merely another member of the council. The city manager appoints and removes department heads.

Mayor/Council/Administrator Form... This plan is a "compromise" between the mayor/council and council/manager forms described above. An elected council makes laws for the city, and the mayor has important executive responsibility to carry those laws out. But the council and mayor appoint a city administrator  to look after the day-to-day affairs of the city. More than 100 Missouri cities use this form of government.

Follow-Up Activity:  Students may want to research their city and find out what form of government their city operates under.  Students can then make a chart showing various cities in Missouri and list the form of government that is used.  Students may want to lead a class discussion as to which form of government best serves the people.