What’s the best city council in America? Austin, TX? Irvine, CA? Seattle, WA?

There are countless lists ranking the best Presidents ever, the best Governors currently, the best-run states in America, and tons of other political stuff. There’s a popular show about local/city government (Parks and Recreation), but broadly, we don’t speak about it that much. This makes sense, of course: there are thousands of cities/towns in America, and a good percentage of them use a Mayor-Council format. How could we possibly know what the real differences between Jacksonville and Topeka are, for example, without having lived and been embedded in both places for a period of time? And while a President is a national figure, and a Governor is a state figure, a city council is relevant to residents of that city — and not even all the time, depending on (a) the power they can have and (b) how the city is drawn up from a legal + political perspective.

Still, I was interested to try and figure out if there’s a best City Council in America, and I discovered a couple of things: (1), no, there’s not and (2) there’s not even much consensus out there on what would make any given City Council be considered good.

Let’s start with that second part. Here’s a primer from Alaska on what makes a good City Council member (“upholding the public interest”), and here’s a bit more from a personal blog:

What makes a good council member?  A good council member (CM) works hard with their constituents by listening, recommending, empathizing, and ensuring they are truly “hearing” and understanding what the current opinions and issues are out there.    They then take those opinions to Town Hall and use those opinions to shape their own when a decision needs to be made.   The good CM recognizes that he or she serves as a voice of the people, and adequately represents those voices at the table.

Basic political stuff: listening, constituents, voice of the people. Indeed. This may be even more true at the City Council level, though — that’s nearly the closest elected office in terms of direct ties back to those who voted you in. Here’s some more, from Havre de Grace, Maryland: 

  • Earn trust by being authentic.

  • Speak calmly and courteously at council meetings to one another and to the public. Everyone deserves respect.

  • As the voice of the people, be well informed. Do not use hearsay as testimony. Be a fact checker.

  • Give room to one another to disagree, knowing that all council members intend the best for the greater good.

  • Ask for help.

  • Be a team player.

  • Be willing to admit a mistake.

  • Accept your public services as a privilege.

Cool. All of that makes sense too. This guy in Tulsa also wrote a blog post about it:

The Council performs three crucial functions that no other body can perform: representation, legislation, and oversight. If it fails to fill these roles adequately, Tulsa loses.

Alright. Now … if we have a general idea of what would make a City Council effective, do we have any way to actually measure a City Council as opposed to other ones? Not really, just because the make-up of the cities involved — and their charters, their Mayor-Council relationships, and their borders — are different. Still, we have some metrics we can turn to. 24/7 Wall Street has been releasing data on “the best-run cities” in America for years; here’s the January 2014 report. The No. 1 city for that report was Irvine, CA, with this blurb:

Irvine has a very well-educated population. Last year, 97% of Irvine adults had at least a high school diploma, and more than two-thirds had at least a bachelor’s degree. The city is home of the University of California, Irvine, which is the top local employer. The heavy concentration of well-educated adults has also led to higher incomes. Irvine’s median household income was around $96,000 last year, exceeding that of nearly every other large city. The typical Irvine home cost about $630,400 last year, more than any other large U.S. city except San Francisco. The city was also one of the safest in the nation, with only 51 violent crimes per 100,000 people.

So see, this is a bit more based on straight demographic data — education, home values, crime — then on the quality of the City Council, but there’s still a small tie therein. Here’s the Irvine City Council; notice it’s fairly lean in terms of bureaucracy. That has to help, no? The worst-managed city on that 24/7 Wall Street research was San Bernardino, CA; they have a fairly lean City Council too, although their website definitely looks a bit old and outdated.

That was another thing I thought might tie back into this: quality of city websites/City Council websites. Government websites are notorious for not having easy access to the information you’re looking for when you arrive. Smart Cities Council — which has an interesting site itself — actually has rankings for this, and Austin, TX won out for 2013. Austin’s city website is here, and it is pretty good — direct links to find members, to submit ideas, to connect via social, or to see upcoming meetings. I liiiiike. Tampa, which I wouldn’t have thought was a “smart city,” came in fourth on the website front; here’s the Tampa website.  It’s actually organized pretty well, and I just found out about a Mayor’s “Mac and Cheese Throwdown” on May 10, so there’s that.

Seattle’s City Council gets praised around the web too — their website looks a bit old, but does have necessary intel — and they got some buzz this year when they elected an avowed socialist.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors actually has a best practices database on their website for managing a city (and working with your Council), so that’s helpful. There’s also this list about the top 30 cities for using green power — which is an important thing that any and all City Councils should be looking into — and surprisingly, Houston tops that list (I would hope it tops it because everyone drives everywhere otherwise there).

The Smart Cities Readiness Guide, a kind of blueprint for mapping out civic relationships and development into the next decade, was in beta-test last summer; that could lead us somewhere on this front, or we could all follow Pittsburgh’s model, I ‘spose.



Ted Bauer

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