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What Does a City Councilman Do?

By Jason C. Chavis
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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A city councilman is a person who is elected to office within a certain area of a town or city and helps make decisions that impact said municipality. Generally, he is part of a council ranging from a few individuals to dozens of elected officials, depending on the location and size of the city or township. While serving on the city council, a councilman works to establish the parameters of local government. Usually, a city councilman acts as a member of the legislative branch, creating laws and mandates that need to be approved by the city's mayor. The members of the body both introduce and vote on certain aspects of a city's needs and how to pay for them.

The first thing a city councilman must do in order to obtain the job is stand for election by a constituency. This constituency is usually divided into a series of wards within the city. The city is segmented into different sections, each with a similar population count. Depending on local ordinances, an election is held with various candidates and a winner is determined on voting day. The city councilman then takes his position on the city council with the elected officials from other wards.

Some cities provide for an equal relationship between the city council and the mayor in terms of legislation and voting rights. This means that the mayor and city council work together as if the executive and legislative branches were merged, in which case the mayor is essentially the chairman of the council. Other cities make the mayor a chief executive that maintains veto authority over the council. In these cases, the mayor and the city council often find themselves in disagreement over policy. This means that the city councilman needs to work with other members in order to accomplish goals.

A city councilman is responsible for a large variety of duties necessary for the continued function of the municipality. The most prevalent of these responsibilities is urban planning and zoning. This means that the councilman must work to determine the continued economic development of the community, how public works projects are handled and where parks on publicly-owned lands will go. A city councilman also must perform necessary functions in terms of establishing a budget, accounting for tax collections and how to hire the required staff for city functions, most notably fire and police services. He is also responsible, with the mayor, to ultimately enforce municipal, state and federal laws when they impact the city and its residents.

How Much Does a City Councilman Make?

The average salaries of city councilmen vary from state to state and can even be slightly different between cities within the same state. That being said, there is a common range to expect if you are looking into taking on a position as a councilman. The average compensation for councilmen across the United States starts at about $35,000 a year.

While this salary may seem low, it reflects the fact that being a city councilman is usually a part-time job. Most councilmen keep another part-time job or even a full-time job along with their duties in the local government.

Future Outlook

Due to concerns about the increasing cost of living, the question of potentially raising city councilmen's wages has recently been a hot topic in many city and state legislatures. While it is usually considered a part-time job, some city councilmen have pointed out that there is a lot of work that happens behind the scenes that can lead to the job taking much more than 20-30 hours a week. While there is no guarantee that substantial changes will be made across the US, it is something to watch for if you are interested in working for the local government as part of your career.

What Are the Duties of a City Councilman?

As elected representatives, it is the duty of city councilmen to represent the interests of the people in their local area. A councilman works as part of a larger council to make decisions that will affect the way the city is run.

Some common areas that councilmen focus their efforts on include the following:

  • Reviewing current city laws and policies and adjusting them when needed
  • Overseeing the operation of city-run organizations, such as public buildings and spaces
  • Making decisions concerning budgeting
  • Allocating funds for use in city-run amenities and services
  • Reaching out and communicating with the public about policies and decisions being made

These are just some of the many decisions that a councilman will be involved with. Specific duties will be slightly different depending on the needs of the community where the councilman is working. Sometimes councils are made up of just a few people, but in large cities, there will be dozens of councilmen that will need to work together to reach decisions.

You will not be able to remain a city councilman indefinitely. Most terms for local positions last two years before you need to run for re-election or find alternative employment.

How Do You Become a City Councilman?

To be considered for a position as a city councilman, you will need to meet a few requirements. Firstly, you will need to have completed some education. You will usually need at least a bachelor's degree. There is no specific type of degree that you must have to qualify, but having a degree in political science, law, or similar can increase your chances by making you more marketable for the position.

In addition to completing some form of higher education, you should also try to develop professional experience relevant to working for a local government. Similar to the fact that there is no single degree needed to become a councilman, there is no one career path that will make you a perfect fit. A wide range of skills can be useful to councilmen, including those gained from working in leadership for a business, working for the legal system in some capacity, or any other jobs that involve people skills and the ability to keep information organized.

Skills and Involvement

Since it is a position that requires you to get elected, you will need to be able to clearly demonstrate your skills and what you have to offer to the community. While the participation of voters varies from city to city, the more involved you can be in your local area, the more likely people will recognize you on a ballet. Being active in your city and working with people who live there allows you to gain insight into areas where you could help make improvements. You will be able to develop clear examples of why people should vote for you, showing how you could represent their interests as a city councilman.

You will need to have the practical skills involved with creating a campaign. You will likely need the support of other people to help market yourself and increase your chances of winning a seat. These are skills that can be learned through research as well as observing or helping with other people's campaigns.

Practical Adult Insights is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By backdraft — On Apr 12, 2012

My dad was a city councilman in Kansas City in the 70s. He only served one term. He ran again but was voted out.

I don't think he regretted losing that much. It was a really intense job and it took an obvious toll on him. The hours were long, the pay was relatively low and the burden of some of the decisions he had to make really weighed on him. We were all glad when he went back to private practice.

By tigers88 — On Apr 11, 2012
In some major cities the city council elections are as aggressive and nasty as any presidential campaign. I have seen city council campaigns devolve into vicious personal attacks and all kinds of unlawful and unethical behavior.

The reason is that the city council is really a consequential body. They have authority over certain things that no other body can claim. The decisions they make affect a lot of people and there is often a ton of money involved. This makes for some nasty campaigning.

By chivebasil — On Apr 10, 2012

Becoming a city councilman or woman is one of the best ways to affect politics on a local level. You actually see and work with the people who your decisions will effect.

Working on the local level is also a great way to introduce new ideas and alternative opinions. The politics are not as entrenched as they are on the state and national level. If you run as a third party candidate you actually have a shot of being elected. There are green party city councilman in cities across the country.

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