What is the difference between the mayor-council, commissioner, and manager forms of city government?

Mayor-Council: The mayor-council plan is distinguishable by the clear separation of powers between the mayor (executive) and the council (legislative). The city council may enact ordinances, levy taxes, adopt a budget and set compensation, in addition to other legislative duties. The mayor's principle function as chief executive and administrative officer of the city is to oversee the management of the city's daily affairs (See KRS 83A.130). He or she serves no legislative function and may only vote in order to break a tie.

Commission Plan: The commission plan has a mayor and 4 elected city commissioners who together comprise the city commission, and all share legislative, executive, and administrative authority. Thus, the commission plan does not have the strict separation of powers of the mayor-council plan. The mayor acts as a voting member of the commission with only limited responsibilities and authorities as mayor, such as presiding at commission meetings and executing contracts. Although the ultimate authority is vested in the city commission as a body, KRS 83A.140(6) requires that administrative functions of the city be separated into departments by ordinance. Each of these departments is placed under the supervision of 1 of the city commissioners, unless the commission has created the office of city administrative officer. If there is a city administrative officer, that person may be delegated the supervisory authority over the departments.

Manager: The city manager plan is similar to the commission plan in that it provides for a mayor and 4 commissioners who together make up the board of commissioners. The distinction, however, is that significant administrative powers are vested in the city manager, which is a position the board of commissioners must establish (See KRS 83A.150). The manager is appointed to serve an indefinite term by a majority vote of the board and is responsible for the supervision of all departments of city government and the conduct of city employees. As in the commission plan, the mayor is a fully functioning member of the board of commissioners with only a limited role as mayor.

More information on this topic can be found in Chapter 4 of the 2011 City Officials Legal Handbook.