Machinery of Municipal Government

… a core concept in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100

City Hall, Toronto

City Hall, Toronto

Concept description

Richard and Susan Tindal (reference below) describe the machinery of municipal government and how it differs from that found in Westminster systems.

They write (p. 248):

“… the basic structure of municipal government is certainly simpler than that found at the provincial and federal levels, with their separate executive and legislative branches. There aren’t separate branches of government at the municipal level; responsibilities are concentrated in the elected council and are carried out by appointed staff who are mostly organized into a number of functionally specialized departments.”

Municipal council

The Tindals write (p. 247):

“The powers assigned to a municipality are exercised on behalf of its residents and ratepayers by a council elected by them. Provincial legislation usually includes provisions for the form of council and such details as the number of councillors and whether election is by general vote or by ward (a distinction discussed below). However, the new municipal legislation passed in most provinces over the past decade (and discussed in Chapter 6) often gives municipalities somewhat more discretion with respect to such matters. Municipal councils consist of a head (known as warden or chair in counties and other upper tier governments, as mayor in cities and towns, and as reeve, chair, or overseer in villages and townships) and a widely varying number of councillors. While the total membership varies greatly, there has been a tendency to have small councils of from 5 to 15 members, largely on the grounds that a small group is less unwieldy and more efficient in making decisions.”

Head of council

The Tindals write (p. 251):

“This position has become important over the years in spite of its lack of formal powers. While heads of council in Canada are not limited to the largely ceremonial role of their British counterparts, neither are they comparable to the American “strong mayor” who, in many states, has extensive authority with respect to preparation of current and capital budgets, planning, hiring, and firing.

“Consider Ontario’s new Municipal Act, which took effect on January l, 2003. It provides that the role of the head of council is to act as chief executive officer, preside over council meetings, provide leadership to the council, represent the municipality at official functions, and carry out the duties of the head under this or any other Act. Not only are these duties quite vague and general, but also the new Act actually omits three provisions that used to be found in the legislation. For reasons that were never explained, the province ignored the opportunity to strengthen the position at the time of the new Municipal Act. Nor was this oversight addressed in any significant way in major amendments to the Municipal Act (in Bill 130) at the end of December 2006. The amendments defined the role of the head of council as chief executive officer but again in vague terms such as uphold, promote, participate in, and foster.

“The legislation goes a little farther in some provinces. For example, Manitoba, British Columbia, and Quebec provide a limited form of veto by authorizing the head of council to return any matter to the council for reconsideration. The latter two provinces and Saskatchewan empower the head of council to suspend any officer or employee, subject to confirmation by council. Changes to the City of Winnipeg Act in 1998 provide for the mayor to chair the Executive Policy Committee (EPC), to appoint its members (four of whom are simultaneously appointed as chairs of the city’s standing committees), and to suspend the chief Administrative officer for up to three days – by which time the EPC must reinstate the CAO, extend the suspension for 30 days, or recommend to council dismissal of the person. As a result of these changes, Winnipeg’s mayor “became arguably the most powerful municipal executive in Canada.”

Chief administrative officer

The Tindals write (p. 269):

“Chief administrative officers (CAOs) are found under a variety of names and with a variety of powers and responsibilities. Titles used include city administrator, city manager, commissioner, chief commissioner and director general.”

and they describe the role of the CAO in different systems (p. 270 and p. 272):

Council Manager System – As it developed in the United States this system is predicated on a complete separation of the policy and administrative activities of the municipality. It involves the appointment of a professional administrator (the manager) to whom is delegated complete responsibility for administering the programs of the municipality, including coordination and supervision of all staff.”

Commissioner System – This system involve the appointment of a few commissioners, who are charged with supervising and coordinating the various departments under their juri diction. They may also meet as a board of commissioners under the direction of a chief commissioner. to provide overall coordination of municipal operations.”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Municipal Governance (core topic) in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100 Governance and Institutions.


Richard C. Tindal and Susan Nobes Tindal (2009), “Municipal Governing Structures,” in Local Government in Canada, 7th ed., pp. 245–56, 264–73. Toronto: Nelson. They use the following reference for the quotation on the Winnipeg mayor: Christopher Leo and Mark Piel, “Municipal Reform in Manitoba,” in Joseph Garcea and Edward C. LeSage Jr .. (eds.), Municipal Reform in Canada, Toronto, Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 117.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 6 September 2016.

Image: Wikipedia, Toronto City Hall, at, accessed 29 August 2016.