A municipality may have separate legislative and executive branches but state constitutions often do not mandate separation of powers in local government. The requirement of separation of powers in local government exists only if dictated by the state constitution, or if set forth in its charter[i].
Under some jurisdictions, a municipal government is denoted by the legislature as the commission form of government[ii]. Under this form of government, the municipal governing body consists of a board of commissioners having all the executive, administrative, judicial and legislative powers and duties. The powers and duties are exercised by the mayor and city council and all other executive or legislative bodies in such a municipality. The board of commissioners will have complete control over the affairs of such a municipality.
Unlike the conventional paradigm of governance that adheres to the doctrine of separation of powers, the commission form of government does not separate the legislative function of a city council from the executive authority conferred upon a chief executive like a mayor.
Under the mayor-council plan, significant power is concentrated in the hands of a highly-visible, independently elected chief executive who has substantial power over the administration. Among the mayor’s executive functions is the authority to negotiate and sign all contracts for the municipality. The council is empowered to approve or reject contracts presented by the mayor[iii].
Some towns are governed by an elected town board or board of supervisors. Town boards only have those powers the legislature has given them.
A municipality is created by the state sovereign and is an extension of the state[iv]. Its legislative body, the city council, exercises the legislative powers delegated to it by the general assembly. Where a legislative body such as a city council has the power to do something, it cannot be subject to inquiry by the courts as to good faith, motives, reasons or purposes[v].
A city council’s power to investigate in aid of the legislative process is broad, and the judiciary lacks authority to intervene based on an adjudication that examines beyond the legislature’s stated purpose if that statement is sufficiently specific and, on its face, is a proper purpose[vi].
The public powers or trusts devolved by law or charter upon the council or governing body of a municipality is to be exercised by it and cannot be delegated to others[vii]. So far as its functions are legislative, they rest in the discretion and judgment of the municipal body entrusted with them, and that body cannot defer the exercise of the power to the discretion and judgment of its subordinate or any other authority.
However, powers of a purely ministerial, administrative, or executive nature may be delegated to a committee or some appropriate officer.
While the personnel of a municipality may change, the municipality itself is a continuous body[viii]. Business started in a municipal council may be completed after its members have left office and a new council has been elected.
[i] City Council of Reading v. Eppihimer, 835 A.2d 883 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2003).
[ii] City of Wildwood v. DeMarzo, 412 N.J. Super. 105 (App.Div. 2010).
[iii] Thompson v. City of Atlantic City, 190 N.J. 359 (N.J. 2007).
[iv] State ex rel. RAS Inv. v. Landon, 75 S.W.3d 847 (Mo. Ct. App. 2002).
[v] Thompson v. City of Austin, 979 S.W.2d 676 (Tex. App. Austin 1998).
[vi] City Council v. Greene, 856 A.2d 217 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2004).
[vii] Donnelly v. New Haven, 95 Conn. 647 (Conn. 1921).
[viii] Biddeford v. Yates, 104 Me. 506 (Me. 1908).