Making Sense of Local Government
By Joseph Fawbush, Esq. | Legally reviewed by FindLaw Staff | Last reviewed June 30, 2021
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Local governments in the U.S. typically have more influence over our day-to-day lives than the federal government. Local government is responsible for funding police departments, schools, parks and recreation, zoning ordinances, and various community services such as operating libraries and distributing state or municipal assistance programs. Yet, because most political and government news involves the national or state level, many Americans remain in the dark about how to be an active participant in local government.
This article briefly introduces the types of local government that exist in the U.S., general principles about how they operate, and simple ways to become involved. While not every county or municipal government operates the same way, their general purpose is usually similar.
Federal and state governments issue laws and mandates that apply to county governments, school districts, and municipalities. Still, local government usually has a fair amount of leeway to operate according to the goals and preferences of their elected officials, which is just one of the reasons it can be beneficial to become involved.
Different Levels of Government
America's system of government is hierarchical. At the top is the federal government. Any powers not specifically granted to the federal government in the U.S. Constitution belong to the states. While county and municipal governments existed at the time the U.S. Constitution was ratified, the founders did not give them any specific responsibilities. As such, each state sets up its own system of local government in their constitutions and state laws.
County governments typically act as local branches of the state that deal with administrative matters such as delivering electricity and water to homes. States often limit the responsibilities and powers of county governments.
Local governments also include municipal (city) governments. These are set up by state law. They are usually the smallest in geographical terms, but they can be responsible for overseeing millions of residents and can wield a great deal of influence over the homes, businesses, and services available to those under their jurisdiction. Municipal governments can sometimes have more powers than county governments, in that they may be able to pass ordinances and regulations on a wider range of issues.
Other Local Government Bodies
When people talk about local government, they're generally referring to county and municipal governments. Townships, which can be the only form of local government in some rural areas, generally operate similarly to city governments. Other administrative units of the states exist, however. One example is independent school districts, which act as their own administrative bodies of the state. Some states also have special district governments, which are independent government units created for a limited, specific purpose. One example is a fire district, where a state may create a special fire district to improve the budget and services of fire departments throughout the state or in a highly-populated or at-risk area.
How County Governments Work
County government positions are elected. The most common form of county government in the U.S. involves a commission system. Usually, there are several elected county commissioners who act as both a legislative and executive branch of the county. The board of commissioners is responsible for the budget, executing state law within the county, and managing county services such as utilities, sheriff's departments, jails, regional parks, and libraries.
There are tens of thousands of county governments in the U.S. In Alaska, county equivalents are called boroughs, and in Louisiana they are called parishes. Rhode Island and Connecticut do not have county governments. While a county commission system is the most common, states vary in how they elect county government and what specific responsibilities county governments have.
How Municipal Governments Work
Municipal governments are set up by state law. There are various types of municipal government systems throughout the U.S. In the Pacific and Southeast U.S., many large cities use a council-manager system, where the mayor serves on a rotating basis from the council. In this system the council will often appoint a city manager to oversee the day-to-day operations of the city.
Another common form of municipal government is a mayor-council system. In this setup, there is a clear distinction between the mayor (the executive branch) and the council (the legislative). The mayor will run their own campaign and have their own platform independent from someone running for city council. Several large cities in the Northeast and Midwest, such as New York City and Chicago, operate this way.
Municipalities are generally free to enact whatever ordinances they see fit on a variety of issues, provided those ordinances do not violate federal or state law.
How Independent School Districts Work
States set up independent school districts separately from county or municipal governments. Residents of these school districts then elect a school board, which is responsible for operating the budget and conducting other administrative matters for the schools within its jurisdiction. The school board then appoints a superintendent to oversee the day-to-day operations of the school.
While local and independent, school districts must still comply with state and federal law. One example is the Every Student Succeeds Act, a 2015 law Congress passed to replace the No Child Left Behind Act. In ESSA, Congress increased protections for disadvantaged and high-need students, among many other provisions. While the federal government does not directly control public education, one way that the federal government obtains compliance is by tying federal funding to a certain policy. If a school district does not meet the set standards, they could lose federal funding, which is why school districts work hard to comply with federal initiatives.
Still, school districts usually have a lot of control over local schools, and federal laws may encourage school districts to try out new ways of accomplishing a goal set by Congress.
Getting Involved in Local Government
If you send your children to a public school, want to start a business, build a new home, check out a book from a library, or need assistance with food or housing, you should be aware of how to participate in your local form of government.
The most straightforward way is through voting. Voting in local elections is no different than voting in state or national elections. However, it does require a bit more research on your end. Fortunately, people running for local office should have a platform with clearly stated goals and ways of achieving those goals. If they don't have one, feel free to contact them for more information. While fewer people vote for local government officials than in state or national elections, elected officials will still have ways of contacting them directly, or may have town hall meetings or other events to interact with their constituents.
Even when there is no election, your voice matters. Feel free to contact your elected officials to report concerns, offer support for a policy, or build support for a cause you believe in. Because local officials are elected, it is in their own interests to listen to your concerns and preferences, particularly if you have first-hand knowledge of the issue you are bringing up. Most elected officials are available and even eager to hear from you about positions you care about.
Take some time to become aware of the local governments affecting you. Concerned about a new planned commercial or residential development in your neighborhood? You may benefit from reaching out to your county commissioners. Is your school district asking for more money to provide facilities or equipment for its schools? Make sure to vote in the ballot referendum so you have a say in whether it is passed or not. A quick search online will reveal the elected officials you want to reach and how to contact them. If you have a specific legal issue in mind, you can also find local lawyers familiar with county and municipal government issues.