Milwaukee's Government Structure

The City of Milwaukee's municipal government is comprised of a Mayor and Common Council. The Mayor exercises executive powers through preparation of the annual city budget and appointment of department heads, who serve at the pleasure of the Mayor. The Common Council reviews the Mayor's budget recommendations and may make changes to them. The Council also reviews the Mayor's appointment of department heads and may confirm or reject appointments.



The Mayor

As chief executive of the City, the Mayor is responsible for assuring that state laws and City ordinances are observed and enforced. He also insures that all officers of the City discharge their respective duties. The Mayor provides the executive direction for the City's operating departments, by appointing department heads or board members. He also has the power to veto Common Council actions.



The Common Council

Fifteen elected members comprise the Common Council in Milwaukee. Each Council member is elected to a 4-year term, and represents a district of about 39,800 residents, larger in size than all Milwaukee County suburbs except West Allis and Wauwatosa.  

A Council member serves both as legislator and district administrator. As legislator, the alderman or alderwoman helps to shape city policy. As administrator, he or she is responsible to citizens in the district for the services they receive. Together, the Council members control the finances of one of the largest corporations in the state. They determine the course of city services, statutes, development and thus, its future.



Standing Committees
The committee system forms the cornerstone of the governmental process in Milwaukee. With few exceptions, once a proposal is introduced, it is referred to one of the standing committees for study. Each committee meets in Room 301 of City Hall, 200 E. Wells St., at least once between Council sessions. The full Council convenes after all the committees have met once, in the Council Chamber on the third floor of City Hall.

A standing committee holds public hearings, takes expert testimony and researches topics pertinent to the proposal. Members may refer an idea to City departments, boards or commissions. After their evaluation, committee members draw up a recommendation to present to the full Council as part of their committee report. Citizen interest and input is always welcome at meetings of standing committees as well as the Common Council.

The Council ordinarily accepts the committee's recommendations. Specific ones, however, may receive separate discussion on the Council floor in a closed debate among Council members. A recommendation may be amended during this debate process, and acted upon by an individual roll call vote. After Council approval, a proposal becomes law or policy when it receives the signature of the Mayor and other officials. The seven standing committees of the Common Council are:

  • Licenses: Its responsibilities include evaluating license and permit applications for bartenders and alcohol beverage establishments, tobacco sales, extended-hour establishments, home improvement businesses, loading zones and rooming houses. It also handles the registration of bicycles and domestic partnerships.

  • Finance and Personnel: It considers appropriations, finances, labor relations, personnel, pensions and other benefits, insurance, audits, the annual budget and contracts.

  • Judiciary and Legislation: It acts on legal claims against the City, and on matters involving other governmental units at the local, state or federal level. It also handles matters of elections and referendums, ethics, annexation, detachments and boundaries, deferred assessments, lobbying, and refunds or cancellation of taxes or billings.

  • Public Safety: It's concerned with issues brought forth from the departments of fire, police, health, neighborhood services, traffic and engineering, emergency medical services and parking. It also handles the licensing of public passenger vehicles.

  • Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development: It meets to discuss issues relating to city development, zoning, historic preservation, tax incremental financing districts, code compliance and housing projects.

  • Public Works: It's responsible for matters dealing with physical services provided by the city, such as sanitation, general maintenance for streets and alleys, sewer, water and flood control projects, assessments, playgrounds, totlots, parks and green spots, public building and land operation, construction, leasing and maintenance, harbors, rivers and creeks. It also handles the topics of transportation and utilities.

  • Community and Economic Development: It hears matters relating to community development, business improvement districts, implementation and assessment of federal block grants, job development, city public relations, industrial land banks and revenue bonds, emerging business enterprises, recreation and cultural arts.

  • An eighth committee, Steering and Rules, consisting of the Common Council president and the chairs of the seven standing committees, formulates policies and rules for the Common Council, oversees charter school and hears extraordinary matters not covered by any standing committee and matters within the responsibility of more than one committee.


City Clerk
The Common Council chooses the City Clerk after the general aldermanic election. The City Clerk in turn appoints the Deputy City Clerk. Together, they direct the office which serves as the support staff for the Council.



Council Proceedings

Opening ceremonies include a roll call, the pledge of allegiance, an opening prayer or a moment of silent meditation, and corrections to the official record. Members next consider any unfinished business. The meeting proceeds with reports and recommendations from standing committees. A vote is taken after each full committee report. But individual roll call votes are taken on items considered under separate action. Usually, a simple majority vote suffices to adopt proposals. However, specific provisions of state statutes, the City Charter, the Code of Ordinances or Council rules may require a larger majority in certain instances. Such Council action can be vetoed by the Mayor, who in turn can be overridden by a two-thirds majority of the Council. New business may be submitted to the City Clerk at any time during each 3-week Council cycle for introduction at a meeting. Claims, petitions and letters to Council members represent some ways in which new business is brought before the Council. These items are referred to the appropriate standing committee for study, hearing and report. Introduction is considered the first "reading." Each proposal ordinarily receives a second "reading," at another Council meeting, before members can act on it.



Parliamentary Procedure
Parliamentary procedure permits special actions. Three in particular are:

  • Separate action: A Council member can call for this action when he or she would like further discussion on a committee recommendation. This action requires a separate vote on a recommendation.

  • Committee of the whole: The Council goes into this session to hear from speakers other than members. They might include the Mayor, department representatives or citizens.

  • Resolutions for immediate adoption: A two-thirds vote of Council members waives the hearing of some items before a standing committee. Certain business, however, such as ordinances and funding appropriations, cannot be adopted in this way. They must receive a hearing, and carry a committee recommendation to appear before the Council for action.

Council members govern the City through three kinds of statutes:

  • Ordinances: Laws of the City.
  • Resolutions: Policy statements of City operations.
  • Charter ordinances: Amendments to the City constitution.

Council members can take these actions on a proposed ordinance:

  • Passage: A proposal is written into law.
  • Placed on file: It is set aside until further requests for discussion or action.
  • Postponed indefinitely: Action on a proposal is terminated.


The Council President

Each term, Council members select an alderman or alderwoman to serve as president for the entire four-year period. He or she presides at Council meetings, and directs items to the standing committees. The president appoints the chair and vice-chair of each committee. He or she also makes appointments to the many citizen boards and commissions. The Council president stands first in the line of succession to the Mayor. He or she assumes this duty when the Mayor is unable to conduct the affairs of that office.