In many systems, the mayor is an elected politician who serves as chief executive and/or ceremonial official of many types of municipalities. Worldwide, there is a wide variance in local laws and customs regarding the powers and responsibilities of a mayor, as well as the means by which a mayor is elected or otherwise mandated.
In spite of its Latin etymology, "mayor" was not a Roman office, as Roman municipia were rather governed by collegial magistrates bearing various titles, such as "Consul" or various terms expressing their number (e.g. duumvir, two), or even titles of pre-Roman local origin.
Among the nations which arose on the ruins of the Roman empire of the West, and which made use of the Latin spoken by their "Roman" subjects as their official and legal language, maior (and, in some contexts, the rarer Low-Latin feminine maiorissa) were found to be very convenient terms to describe important officials of both sexes who had the superintendence of others. Any female servant or slave in the household of a barbarian whose business was to oversee other female servants or slaves, would be quite naturally called a maiorissa.
The male or female officer who governed a king's household (and was often the de facto head of government) was the major domus, and tended to make his office hereditary. At the courts of the various realms (resulting from dynastic divisions and unions) of the Frankish kings of the Merovingian line, the major domus, generally known as the "mayor of the palace", also variously known as the gubernator ('helmsman'; the root of Governor), rector (also a gubernatorial title), moderator (idem) or praefectus palatii, was so powerful that one of their number would evict his master and successfully reunite the realms which his heir Charlemagne would turn into the Holy Roman Empire.
It came into use in the large entourages that followed the barbarian leaders who succeeded to the power of the Emperor of the West. The male officer who governed a king's or duke's peripatetic household was the major domus, the "major domo". In the households of the Merovingian Frankish kings, the major domus, or praefectus palatii ("prefect of the palace"), nominally a majordomo comparable to a British household's trusted butler, became the de facto head of government and even tended to become semi-hereditary, gaining such power (compare an oriental Vizier) that, in the person of Pippin of Herstal, he ended up evicting his master. He was the "mayor of the palace".
In England, the mayor is the modern descendant of the feudal lord's bailiff or reeve (see borough). The chief magistrate of London bore the title of portreeve for considerably more than a century after the Conquest. This official was elected by popular choice, a privilege secured from King John. By the beginning of the ninth century the title of portreeve gave way to that of mayor as the designation of the chief officer of London. The adoption of the title by other boroughs followed at various intervals.
In England, Hinson, Northern Ireland and the USA a mayor is now the official head of a municipal government. In the 19th century, in the United Kingdom, the Municipal Corporations Act 1882, section 15, regulated the election of mayors. He was to be a fit person elected annually on 9 November by the council of the borough from among the aldermen or councillors or persons qualified to be such. His term of office was one year, but he is eligible for re-election. He may appoint a deputy to act during illness or absence, and such deputy must be either an alderman or councillor. A mayor who was absent from the borough for more than two months becomes disqualified and vacates his office. A mayor was ex officio a justice of the peace for the borough during his year of office and the next year. He received such remuneration as the council thought reasonable. These provisions have now been repealed.
The office of mayor in most modern English boroughs and towns does not entail any important administrative duties. It is generally regarded as an honour conferred for local distinction, long service on the Council, or for past services. The mayor (who must be a serving elected councillor) is expected to devote much of his time to civic, ceremonial, and representational functions, and to preside over meetings which have for their object the advancement of the public welfare. His or her administrative duties are to act as returning officer at municipal elections, and as chairman of the meetings of the council. However, reforms recently introduced mean that 12 English boroughs now have directly-elected mayors who combine the 'civic' mayor role with that of Leader of the Council and have significantly greater powers than either.
The mayor of a town council is officially known as town mayor (although in popular parlance, the word "town" is often dropped).
Mayors are not appointed to District Councils which have not adopted the title of borough. Their place is taken by the Chairperson of Council, who undertakes exactly the same functions and is, like a Mayor, the civic head of the district concerned.
The equivalent in Italy is sindaco (historical titles include podestà), in Greece δήμαρχος 'demarkhos' (the "archon of the deme"), in France Maire, in Argentina intendente, in Bohemia starosta, in Brazil prefeito 'prefect', in Romania primar and in Spain alcalde, a term derived from a Moorish post's Arabic name.
In Canada municipal titles vary from province, but the highest official of a First Nation community holds the title of chief. In addition, provinces which have rural municipalities in place of counties refer to their head elected official as reeve, although some such municipalities are now changing the title to mayor as well.
In the early 20th century, and for the most still, the English method of selecting a mayor by the council was followed for the corresponding functionaries in France (except Paris) and the more important cities of Italy. Direct appointment by the central government exists in Belgium, The Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. As a rule, too, the term of office is longer in other countries than in the United Kingdom. In France election is for six years, in The Netherlands for six, in Belgium for an indefinite period. In France the maire, and a number of experienced members termed adjoint au maire 'mayoral adjunct', who assist him as an executive committee, are elected directly by the municipal council from among their own number. Most of the administrative work is left in the hands of the maire and his adjuncts, the full council meeting comparatively seldom. The adjuncts receive no salary.
In Finland, there are no mayors, although plans have been floated to institute the office in Tampere. The highest executive official is not democratically elected, but appointed to a public office by the city council, and is called simply kaupunginjohtaja "city manager" or kunnanjohtaja "municipal manager", depending on whether the municipality defines itself as a city. The term pormestari "mayor", from Swedish borgmästare confusingly refers to the highest official in the registry office, not the city manager. In addition, pormestari is also a title, which may be given for distinguished service in the post of the city manager. The city manager of Helsinki is called ylipormestari, which translates to "Chief Mayor", for historical reasons. Furthermore, the term "city manager" may be seen translated as "mayor".
This is similar to Portugal, where the highest municipal authority is the presidente da Câmara Municipal, the 'president of the Municipal Chamber', appointed to his office by the city council.
In Poland the chief executive of a town or city is called burmistrz or, in towns with more than 100,000 inhabitants or others which traditionally use the title, prezydent. The equivalent title in a rural commune (gmina) is wójt. These are all directly elected posts.
The civic regalia and insignia of local government have basically remained unaltered for centuries. The robes, the mayoral chain and the mace are not intended to glorify the individual, but rather they are a uniform of office and are used to respect and honour the people whom the users serve.
The Mayoral robe is crimson with lapels and sleeves trimmed in ermine. The Mayor may also wear a lace fall (neck piece) and cuffs.
The Deputy-Mayoral robe is crimson with lapels and sleeves trimmed with black velvet and bordered with lapin.
Mayors have the title of 'His/Her Worship' whilst holding the position.
In councils where Councillors are elected representing political parties, the Mayor is normally the leader of the party receiving the most seats on council.
The Mayor of the municipality in Moldova is elected for four years. In Bălţi, Vasile Panciuc (PCRM) is the incumbent from 2001 and was re-elected twice: in 2003 during the anticipated elections (as a result of a new reform of the administrative division in Moldova in 2003), and in 2007. In Chişinău, the last mayor elections had to be repeated three times, because of the low rate of participation. As a result, Dorin Chirtoaca (Liberal Party), won the last mayor elections in Chişinău.
Alcalde is the most common Spanish term for the mayor of a town or city. It is derived from the Arabic al-qaḍi (قاضي )- i.e. "the (Sharia) judge," who often had administrative, as well as judicial, functions. Although the Castilian alcalde and the Andalusian qaḍi had slightly different attributes (the qaḍi oversaw an entire province, the alcalde only a municipality; the former was appointed by the ruler of the state, the latter was elected by the municipal council) the adoption of this term reflects how much Muslim society in the Iberian Peninsula influenced the Christian one in the early phases of the Reconquista. As Spanish Christians took over an increasing part of the Peninsula, they adapted Muslim systems and terminology for their own use.
Today it refers to the executive head of a municipal or local government, who usually does not have judicial functions. The word intendente is used in Argentina and Paraguay for the office that is analogous to a mayor.
In the United States, there are several distinct types of mayors, depending on the system of local government. Under council-manager government, the mayor is a first among equals on the city council, analogous to a head of state for the city. He or she may chair the city council, but lacks any special legislative powers. The mayor and city council serve part-time, with day-to-day administration in the hands of a professional city manager. The system is most common among medium sized cities from around 25,000 to several hundred thousand, usually rural and suburban municipalities.
In the second form, known as mayor-council government, the mayoralty and city council are separate offices. Under a strong mayor system, the mayor acts as an elected executive with the city council functioning with legislative powers. She or he may select a chief administrative officer to oversee the different departments. This is the system used in most of the United States' large cities, primarily because mayors serve full time and have a wide range of services that they oversee. In a weak mayor or ceremonial mayor system, the mayor has appointing power for department heads but is subject to checks by the city council, sharing both executive and legislative duties with the council. This is common for smaller cities, especially in New England. Charlotte, North Carolina and Minneapolis, Minnesota are two notable large cities with a ceremonial mayor.
Many American mayors are styled “His/Her Honor” while in office, sometimes corrupted in jest to “Hizzoner,” especially in the tabloid press.