What do city councils do and why should I vote in the elections for mine?

A row of council members
Minneapolis City Council members listen to a presentation about the results of a survey regarding the proposed future location of the Third Precinct police station at Minneapolis City Hall on July 18.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Local races for city councils across the state including in St. Paul, Minneapolis and Duluth are underway and on Tuesday voters will decide who will represent their ward. It’s an off-year election, which means fewer people vote than in  a statewide or general election. 

This year, every seat on the Minneapolis and St. Paul city councils is up for grabs, meaning the election could bring great change to those cities. Here are some commonly asked questions about city councils, what they do and how effective they really are, answered.

What is a city council?

A city council is a group of people that live in a community and come together to make decisions on behalf of everyone that lives there. That’s according to Luke Fischer, executive director of League of Minnesota Cities, a Minneapolis-based membership association representing thousands of city leaders and elected staff across Minnesota.

“The most common type of city council in Minnesota is probably a five-member city council,” Fischer said. “And that means that there is a mayor and four council members.”

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Size can range, with others having up to 13 like in Minneapolis (bigger cities across the U.S. have even more). There are 855 cities in the state of Minnesota, which means there are 855 city councils.

This year, 19 cities are having regularly scheduled elections for mayor or city council. A mayor is usually the head of the city council, but not always. More on that below.

What do city councils have power over?

They’re responsible for setting the strategic direction of the city, from setting a yearly budget to creating policy for various departments to provide services to residents (think planning and zoning, police and fire or public works).

In Minneapolis, the public works department is the arm of the city that provides water, trash and recycling pickup and street maintenance to its roughly 425,000 residents. City council approves funding for them and other departments and sets guidelines they must follow.

“The city owns thousands of miles of streets — which the public owns, then — and helps manage those streets,” said Cam Gordon, who represented the east part of Minneapolis from 2006 to 2022 as the only Green Party member in city council. That includes building and repairing streets.

“One of the biggest things that councils have power over is setting the budget and approving the property tax levy,” said Gordon, which affects how much residents and businesses pay in property taxes.

Another big thing is the city council has the power to regulate building sizes and establish where industrial, commercial and residential uses should be.

City councils take up the day-to-day issues that residents run into, like a stoplight not working.

“City councils often have an individual complaint or observation that they hopefully try to elevate to a larger level,” said former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who was mayor from 2002 to 2014.

“Often with the city council members, they’re the closest person to the community and it’s the person who very often you can call to get the most direct response. The city council member can then change and solve that problem,” Rybak said. 

How can I learn more about my city council?

Fischer advises anyone who’s interested in learning about their local city council or wants a say in what’s happening in their community should check their city’s website.

“You can call a city councilmember or a mayor and ask questions,” Fischer said. “And I can guarantee you they’re going to be interested and excited that you want to know more, and they want to hear from you.”

Going to city council meetings and community engagement events around topics that personally interest you are other ways to get informed on your city council. Rybak suggests following local news outlets, like MPR News, Sahan Journal and MinnPost, to learn about what a city council is deciding on and how you can get involved.

How can I impact my city council?

Attending a city council meeting and making your voice heard can influence a vote or the way certain issues are discussed.

“So often, one person who makes sense at a council meeting can change a vote,” Rybak said. “I don’t think people have any idea how much impact one person speaking in a council meeting can really have.”

Organizing with others is another way to have a huge impact on city council, Gordon said. Take for example, Minneapolis’s Climate Equity Plan.

“The groundwork has been laid for a long time on this moving forward, but there were actually people organizing ward by ward to meet with their councilmember, planning a meeting, organizing a meeting, having other people with you at the meeting,” Gordon said. “And having really clear asks can have dramatic influence.”

Your voice is more likely to be heard at the local level. Gordon said it’s impressive if councilmembers get even 10 emails from constituents on an important decision.

“That’s a lot of people weighing in on a decision, and it gets your attention,” said Gordon. “So you can imagine if you get 50 or 100, or you get to different groups who want to meet with you about an issue, those things do make a dramatic difference at the local level.”

Are all city councils the same?

The short answer is no. The long answer is it depends on if the city is a “home rule charter” city, meaning it has a charter, which is basically its own constitution. That can dictate the number of members on a city council and let voters to have a bit more control over their city government powers compared to the other type of cities, which are “statutory” cities, according to a League of Minnesota Cities handbook.

The biggest difference between a charter and statutory city is how it runs organizationally. Most cities in Minnesota are incorporated as statutory.

“So every city gets all of their authority from the state, then the state can change the rules on cities — what they can and can’t do — in the state legislature,” Gordon said. “In Minnesota, there are some ‘home rule’ or charter cities and Minneapolis is one of them. St. Paul. Generally they’re larger cities. Duluth, Bloomington, Rochester. And they have their own charter that sets their own rules and they can be run differently.”

Charter cities exercise any power outlined in their locally adopted charter as long as they don’t conflict with Minnesota laws. They have to get the state to approve their charter.

What does it mean if my city has a ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ mayor?

A majority of city councils in Minnesota operate as a weak-mayor council, which means that “the mayor has the same vote as everybody else does on the city council, just one vote,” according to Fischer.

By contrast, a mayor under a strong-mayor council oftentimes doesn’t vote or participate in council discussion but has the ability to veto an action of the council. You can think of a “strong” mayor as the “CEO” of the day-to-day operations of a city, according to Fischer.

Only four cities in Minnesota have a strong-mayor council: Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth and St. Cloud. In 2021, Minneapolis adopted a strong-mayor council structure after operating on a variation of a weak-mayor council.