The ayuntamiento was the principal governing body of Spanish municipalities. It functioned as the town council and had a wide range of administrative duties. Its size varied and was generally based on the population of the town. The council members consisted of the alcalde, who served as president, a varying number of regidors (see REGIDOR) or councilmen, and a síndico procurador, the equivalent of a city attorney. Other local administrators-police chiefs and fine collectors, for instance-sometimes held positions in the council, though often these additional members were not allowed to vote. The ayuntamiento was in most cases not a democratic institution. Often it received little voluntary support from the people it represented. Many offices were inherited, and others were sold by the crown or their current holders. Although elected officials did exist, by the late colonial period many ayuntamientos had to resort to forced service, for often few men of consequence volunteered to serve. Spanish colonists in America commonly referred to the ayuntamiento as the cabildo, though this term first meant the building in which the council met.
The ayuntamiento managed police and security matters, hospitals, health measures such as the inspection of food markets and the removal of stagnant ponds, public roads, weights and measures, taxation, and agriculture. Though the powers of the ayuntamiento seemed wide, the body operated within the limits imposed by a higher authority, whether viceroy or governor. One of its primary functions, in fact, was to relay the orders of officials in Spain or Mexico to the local populace. In turn, the ayuntamiento often represented the interests of town citizens to the royal authority. Thus the ayuntamiento served as a mediating institution between local and central authorities.
The 1812 Constitution of Cádiz called for popular election to the ayuntamientos and thus ended lifetime appointments to the bodies. The new document also officially made the colonies of Spain part of the empire and thus entitled them to representation in the Spanish congress, the Cortes. The writers of the constitution relied on municipal governments to appoint deputies to the congress, and municipalities throughout New Spain restructured their councils as a result. In 1820 San Antonio altered its ayuntamiento to conform, as did Goliad.
Mexican independence did not fundamentally change local government. The number of ayuntamientos increased in Mexican Texas as the number of colonists grew. Spanish law had allowed any settlement of more than ten married men the right to a local council, and this right continued under Mexico. The constitution that unified Coahuila and Texas as a state merely formalized office-holding requirements by setting standards for age, residency, and literacy. By incorporating these minor changes, the ayuntamiento continued to function as a viable institution until the Texas Revolution.