South Carolina state law allows municipalities to choose their governance model by referendum from one of three forms of government authorized in
SC Code Section 5-5-10.
In all three forms, every power granted by the state to municipalities rests with the council, except as otherwise provided for specifically by law. State law vests the full power of the municipality in the council, which as a legislative body is the only entity in the municipality that may enact ordinances, adopt resolutions and establish rules that apply to the public. The council cannot delegate these legislative powers to anyone else.
“Ultimately, and regardless of the form of government, the council is in charge,” said Jeff Shacker, field services manager for the Municipal Association of SC. “The key is working together — the mayor, all other councilmembers — with everyone staying in the lane established by law, because accidents usually happen when you swerve from your lane into another.”
A summary of the differences between the three forms can be found in the Forms and Powers of Municipal Government handbook.
Here’s an overview of some of the key differences:
Here are some common questions about municipal operations
under each of the forms:
Q. Who sets a meeting agenda under each form?
In most municipalities, the municipal clerk compiles the agenda and supporting materials for distribution to council and under the SC Freedom of Information Act. In all forms of government, the municipality should designate an officer or elected official — for example, the mayor in the mayor-council form, or the manager or administrator in the other forms of government — to review and approve the agenda before it is made final.
Sometimes, disagreements among elected officials about the content of an agenda can raise difficult questions for the clerk. To address this, the council should adopt rules of procedure
to define the process for placing items on the agenda. Many mayor-council municipalities have ordinances stating that the mayor controls the agenda. In council and council-manager
municipalities, the executive officer often controls the agenda. Some councils also provide that two or more councilmembers can authorize placing an item on the agenda before the 24-hour
notice period expires.
Q. Is the mayor-council form the “strong mayor” form and the council form the “weak mayor” form?
These forms are sometimes described in this way, but the terms are best to be avoided to prevent confusion and difficulties. In the mayor-council form, the mayor needs to work with and communicate with all councilmembers. In the council form, the mayor may not have administrative power, but is nonetheless perceived as a leader of the council and community.
Q. Who has responsibility for adopting and administering the budget?
The first step in the annual budgeting process is preparation of a proposed budget. State law delegates this power to the mayor in the mayor-council form and to the manager in the
council-manager form. State law is silent on this question in the council form, but council may delegate it by ordinance to the Administrator.
In all three forms of government, the council retains responsibility for approving the final budget. Once a budget is adopted, only the council can approve amendments to the adopted budget. Many municipalities include some executive flexibility in their budget ordinances, for example by allowing the mayor, the manager, or the administrator to transfer funds
within or between budget categories, subject to dollar or percentage limitations.
In any event, the mayor or executive officer should not act alone and make unbudgeted purchases. The council’s control of the budget is one of its most powerful tools to control the legislative priorities of the municipality, and elected officials in all forms of government should be careful when delegating budgetary functions to the executive.
Q: Who makes personnel decisions in each form?
Personnel decisions include the power to hire, and conversely, the power to fire. State law always gives this power to the council for municipal attorneys and judges. In the council-manger form, the manager hires clerks, and in the other two forms, council hires clerks. For other offices, the power resides with the mayor in the mayor-council form, the manager in the council-manager form, and either the council or the administrator, if any, in the council form.
Q. How do committee appointments work under the three forms?
Councils that want to establish standing committees of their members should enact an ordinance to govern the system — how appointments are made, length of terms and so
on — because state law does not specify how appointments occur. Unless an ordinance states otherwise, the committee appointment authority should belong to the entire council.