The 1886 Act of Incorporation of the City of Vancouver provided for ten Aldermen and a Mayor to form the Council. Aldermen were renamed Councillors in 1992. The broad function of Councillors, as direct representatives of the public, is to participate in the governance of the city through Council and its various Committees, Boards and Commissions. As members of Council, they propose by-laws and resolutions, consider and vote on all matters governed by the Council, and generally bring public and political concerns to the decision-making process. In carrying out these responsibilities, Councillors have no authority as individuals other than those powers delegated by Council as a whole. An example is the appointment by Council of one of its members as Deputy Mayor. Until 1936, Councillors were primarily elected under the ward system, in which Councillors were representatives of their respective wards. Since 1936, they have been elected in the present "at large" system. The nature of Councillors' duties have also changed over time. Before 1956, they were involved in all aspects of the governance of the City, including its daily operations. Since 1956, when the Committee structure of governance was abolished and a Board of Administration was established in their place to manage all operations, Councillors have become more involved in policy development and deciding long term goals for the city. They have also had the opportunity to specialize in their own areas of civic interest.
Under the Vancouver Charter Council has authority to delegate its executive or administrative powers to any committee comprised of members of Council or employees of the City. In many respects the "special committees" established during their particular periods indicate the issues or administrative trends of their day. For example, from 1930 to 1959 Council struck a very large number of special committees for brief periods to carry out a wide variety of activities, while more recently, since about 1975, special committees are fewer and generally remain in place for a number of years. Special committees have been assigned power to act or charged with reporting and preparing recommendations for Council. During 1930-1959 it was particularly common practice to also consider the following types of groups "special committees": ad hoc subcommittees of standing committees, working groups of senior staff who submitted reports (and sometimes recommendations), and small delegations of Council members in search of information or to communicate with higher government offices. Special committee memberships have varied widely, including many combinations of Council and/or City staff, private citizens, and members of outside organizations.