There are more than 520 cities and towns in Georgia. Each possesses a charter of municipal incorporation approved by the Georgia General Assembly. Because municipalities are creatures of the state legislature, their boundaries, their structure, and even their existence can be altered or abolished by the state.
In many states there are significant legal differences among the designations city, town, village, and hamlet. Georgia law, however, makes no distinction among cities, towns, and municipalities. Accordingly, the only legal difference between the city of Claxton and the town of Tyrone is that Claxton happened to be incorporated as a city and Tyrone as a town.
A municipal charter is a written document that provides a municipality with the authority to exist and function. The charter is a city’s fundamental law. In this respect it is similar to a national or state constitution.
Each municipality in Georgia has a charter that establishes its basic governmental structure, form of government, corporate boundaries, and municipal powers. A city’s municipal powers may include, but are not limited to, appropriations and expenditures, contracts, emergencies, environmental protection, nuisance abatement, planning and zoning, police and fire protection, public transportation, sanitation collection and disposal, streets and roads, taxes, and water and sewer services.
Forms of Municipal Government
In Georgia most municipalities have one of the following forms of government: the strong mayor–council form, the weak mayor–council form, or the council-manager form. Under both the strong and the weak mayor–council forms, executive and policymaking roles and responsibilities are divided between the mayor and the city council. Under the council-manager form, the city council fills the primary policymaking role, and an appointed city manager is responsible for the primary executive functions. Although several cities in Georgia refer to their legislative bodies as commissions, most, if not all, of these cities actually operate under another form of government and not the commission form in its purest sense.
The strong mayor–council form of government provides for a distinguishable separation of powers between the city’s executive branch (the mayor) and its legislative branch (the city council). In some respects the separation of powers is similar to that found in American national and state governments.
The mayor serves as the city’s chief executive officer and has full responsibility for the city’s daily operations. Accordingly, the mayor normally possesses the power to hire and fire department heads and other city staff, to prepare and administer the city’s budget, and to execute contracts. The mayor may also have the authority to appoint council committees, veto legislation passed by the city council, and appoint members to city advisory boards. In some cities, particularly larger ones, the mayor may appoint a professional administrator (often called the chief administrative officer or city administrator) to assist in carrying out the daily operations of the city.
The city council is responsible for enacting the city’s policies, through the adoption of ordinances and/or resolutions. Although the mayor may possess the authority to veto actions of the city council, the council may possess authority to override the mayor’s veto.
Under the weak mayor–council form of government, the mayor and city council normally share the primary policymaking role, and the mayor fills the primary executive role. In many cities, however, the “weak” mayor’s role is primarily ceremonial; the mayor possesses few, if any, of the executive powers provided to a “strong” mayor. For example, the mayor may not have the authority to appoint council committees, develop the city’s budget, or veto actions of the city council. He or she may have limited authority to appoint department heads, subject to confirmation by the city council, but does not always possess the authority to fire department heads.
The council-manager form of government was first advocated in the early 1900s by reformers who envisioned a more businesslike approach to municipal government. Thus, the structure of a municipality operating under the council-manager form of government is similar to that of a corporation. For example, the municipality’s citizens are treated as shareholders who elect a city council to serve as their board of directors. The city council sets the city’s policies and hires a professional manager to implement them.
Under the council-manager form of government, the mayor normally serves as the ceremonial head of the city. The mayor may be elected citywide or selected by the city council from among its members. He or she is usually a member of the legislative body (the city council) and, as such, does not possess the authority to veto legislation passed by the council.
The city manager is normally hired on the basis of experience and qualifications and serves at the pleasure of the city council. The manager typically possesses complete administrative authority over the city’s operations, including the hiring and firing of department heads. He or she is also responsible for development and administration of the city’s annual budget and for advising the mayor and council on matters affecting the city.
Under the commission form of government, the council members (“commissioners”) are elected at large. A chair is normally selected from among the commissioners to preside at their meetings and to serve as the ceremonial head of the commission. The chair may be rotated on an annual basis. The commission form of government is unique in that each elected commissioner oversees one or more departments (e.g., police, recreation, water/sewer). Thus, this form of government combines legislative and executive responsibilities.
Although most of the county governments in Georgia are organized in the commission form, it is not used, in its purest sense, by municipalities. A few cities in Georgia, including Decatur, Rome, and Toccoa, refer to their legislative bodies as commissions rather than councils, but each of these three cities operates under the council-manager form of government with an appointed city manager.