Municipal Government in Texas: The Basics

Municipal governments oversee the operation and functions of geographic areas that are smaller than counties, including cities and townships.  In most places, municipal government is considered the level of government closest to the people.  Municipal governments provide a variety of services to local residents, including utilities, parks and recreation, street maintenance/construction and public transportation, and public safety.  Municipal governments are responsible for addressing issues relating to zoning, building regulations, and economic development.  Municipal governments generally have more ordinance authority than do counties.

Unlike Texas counties, which are created by the Texas legislature, Texas cities develop more directly from citizen input: to create a new municipal government, residents directly petition the state of Texas.  The Texas Constitution of 1876, as amended and statutory laws passed by the Texas legislature, give cities more discretion than counties to adapt to change in areas such as city organization, election systems, local laws, and forms of government.  The resulting flexibility better equips cities with the ability to carry out local government functions in a rapidly changing state.

Mayor-Council &  Council-Manager Systems

Most municipal governments in the United States use one of two basic structures:

  • mayor-council system, in which  voters elect both a mayor and members of the city council
    • in a weak mayor-council system, the mayor acts in a ceremonial capacity and does not have more power or authority than do individual members of the city council
    • in a strong mayor-council system, the major acts as an executive officer and can veto actions of the council, appoint department heads, and/or develop a municipal budget
  • council-manager system, in which the city council appoints a professional city manager to carry out the administrative functions of municipal government.  In council-manager systems, voters may either elect both the mayor and members of the city council or elect members of the city council, who then appoint a mayor

Direct Link: Local Government That Works: The Council-Manager Form of Government

General Law Cities

General law cities are the default organization for Texas cities.  Most Texas cities are general law cities.  General law cities operate under Dillon’s rule – their exact form of government, ordinance powers, and other aspects of city government are specified in the Texas Local Government Code, and they “are not authorized to perform any act or organize themselves in any fashion not expressly allowed by state law” (Blodgett, n.d. ).  Because of this, general law cities have limited powers.

There are three different forms of general law cities: type A general law cities, type B general law cities, and type C general law cities.

Type A General Law Cities

Type A general law cities operate under a city council whose size is determined by whether the city is divided into wards.  If there are no wards, the council consists of 5 council members and a mayor.  If the city is divided into wards, the city council consists of two council members per ward and a mayor.  The mayor only votes when there is a tie.

Type B General Law Cities

Type B general law cities operate under a board of aldermen, which consists of five aldermen and a mayor, all of whom are elected at large.  State constitutional and statutory law is unclear as to whether the mayor in Type B general law cities can vote.

Type C General Law Cities

Type C general law cities operate under a commission, which consists of a major and two commissioners, all of whom are elected at large.

Home Rule Cities

A general law city with a population of at least 5,000 may petition the state of Texas to become a home rule city.  Once a city has been granted home rule status, it maintains this status, even if its population falls below 5,000.

As their name implies, home rule cities operate under home rule – they are granted greater freedom in their structure and functions than general law cities.  “Generally, home rule municipalities are authorized to take any actions necessary to effectuate their governance and structure, as long as those powers are not specifically restricted in the Texas Constitution or by statute” (Texas Senate Research Center, 2014).  Home rule cities also have greater annexation powers than general law cities.

Home rule cities are governed by a city charter, or plan of government that details the structure and function of the city government.  In the city charter, a home rule city will identify how it will be structured (i.e., whether it will use a mayor-council system or a council-manager system).  Most home rule cities in Texas use a council-manager form of government.

Home rule cities may choose from four election systems to select council members:

  • at-large elections, in which candidates compete for city council seats without any reference to specific seats or districts, and voters may vote for as many candidates as there are seats on the council
  • at-large by place elections, which are similar to at-large elections, but with candidates declaring which seat they are running for
  • single-member districts, in which a city is divided into several election districts equal to the number of seats on the city council; each district then elects one member, with voters in each district casting a single vote for their most preferred candidate
  • cumulative voting systems, which are similar to at-large elections, but voters can give all their votes to a single candidate or spread them across candidates