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Although the professional administrators within the ICMA network have a commonality in their ultimate responsibility to provide programs and services to the people within their jurisdictions, they also operate under widely diverse government structures and political realities. As a leading voice for local government management and administration across the globe, ICMA identifies the unique contexts professional managers operate within by bringing to light the types and roles of local government in various nations. To that end, form and structure of local governments across the world will be highlighted in upcoming issues. This issue of the newsletter provides an overview of local government in the United States. Future issues will spotlight Japan, Belgium, Georgia, Sri Lanka, Kenya, and Mexico.

International members, affiliates, and partners are encouraged to provide content that helps us better understand local government where they practice, so that we can begin to better appreciate the distinctions and commonalities within which we all practice as professional administrators. Share your contributions with Berna Oztekin-Gunaydin (boztekin@icma.org).

Local Government in the United States

The history of the United States as an autonomous nation is rooted in the fundamental belief that individuals have the right to establish laws for the good of their community. Upon the adoption of the Constitution of the United States of America in 1789, the United States was established as a democratic republic with the role of government clearly articulated in its preamble

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Through the Constitution, “the People” are viewed as the source of government legitimacy, and government exists to secure their rights and freedoms. And so, in the United States, the federal government affords the people significant authority to determine how their communities are governed locally.

To this end, the United States is divided into 50 states, which adopt their own constitutions and are extended substantial autonomy in how they manage their affairs—provided they preserve the rights of the people as enumerated in the U.S. Constitution. Likewise, each state (through their own constitutions, laws, and policies) further recognizes the authority of the people to establish laws and ordinances within localized geographic areas. Consequently, the United States has one of the most complex and diverse local governance structures in the world with vast differences in form and function not only from state-to-state, but within states as well.

Counties

Each state has established geographic areas most commonly referred to as a “county.” In Louisiana, they are called a “parish,” and in Alaska they are referred to as a “borough.” These geographic regions have specific boundaries and were originally formed as administrative arms of the state government to provide greater oversight and implementation of state laws and mandates.

However, as populations grew and demands for services increased beyond the capacity of the state, most states granted greater authority to counties to meet those demands. Today, nearly every state has organized county governments that operate independently from each other with powers expressly granted through the state. Rhode Island and Connecticut have geographic areas called counties, but they do not have county government organizations. States maintain a high level of authority and mandate counties to meet state-adopted levels of service and to deliver state services and programs within their jurisdictions. States also have the authority to stipulate how counties can levy taxes upon their residents and enumerate the powers counties actually possess.

Municipalities

In the late 19th century, the industrialization of American society sparked a population boom in cities and towns. This accelerated the demand for commercial enterprise and ultimately increased service levels that counties were largely unable to manage. States granted authorities for municipalities to become incorporated and establish government structures to address the needs of the people—primarily including sanitation, utilities, infrastructure, public safety, and regulation of both civic and commercial activities.

The lack of consistency from state to state in classification of municipalities, along with differences in power and authority granted to municipalities, creates significant complexity and ambiguity in how government operates at the local level. In most states, municipalities are referred to as cities, towns (with the exception of the six New England states, New York, and Wisconsin), villages, and boroughs (with the exception of New York and Alaska). States establish criteria (population, land area, infrastructure, etc.) and legal processes required to incorporate municipalities. In most states, counties still have obligations to deliver certain programs and services to residents inside their borders with the exception of cities in Virginia, which are independent and function primarily in the same capacity as counties. There are independent cities in other states, but they are limited.

Special Districts

States often establish special districts to fulfill specific government functions with relative autonomy from any other government entity. Special districts may operate under a variety of names, most commonly as a “bureau,” “commission,” “authority,” or “district.” Special districts have specific authorities granted by the state and often include the capacity to receive revenue through taxes, levies or fees, and may have the authority to receive grants or incur debt to finance projects. Boards may be elected or appointed by the appropriate governing body.

Forms of Government

Just as the types of localities vary from state to state and even within state borders, so too are the forms of government rather disparate at the local level. Since the governance structure of special districts are largely determined by statute with little opportunity for public input on the form or function of the special district, our emphasis here is on the forms of government chosen by the people in counties and municipalities. Additionally, this article articulates the broad principles underlying the primary forms of governance to offer insight into the benefits and challenges of each form. Yet, it is important to note that there are modified versions and different names for these forms of government found throughout the country.

Mayor-Council

The mayor-council form of government is the original model of municipal government in the United States. Under the mayor-council form of government, the mayor serves as the executive overseeing the daily operations and administration of government. While a candidate’s professional experience may be a factor for voters in the election process, the only requirement to run for office is that the candidate reside within the jurisdiction and be eligible to run for public office under state laws.

The mayor in a mayor-council system is generally elected at-large and serves as the executive of the government operations. The powers granted to the mayor vary in different municipalities and exist along a continuum from stronger to weaker, but generally the mayor has the autonomy in hiring and firing department heads, developing the budget, and administering the operations of government. The council is elected by the people to represent their interests and serves as the policy-making body. The mayor is separate from the council and has no voting rights on policy decisions.

Councilmembers may be elected at-large or by district/ward or a combination thereof. Council has the authority to pass ordinances and establish policies to which the residents must abide. However, the mayor’s power to veto such actions and the inability of council to direct government to accomplish goals and outcomes limits the ability of council to achieve the outcomes they desire if the mayor disagrees with the council position.

Counties operating under an “elected executive” form of government are very similar to the municipal mayor-council form. In this form of government, an executive is elected at-large by residents with powers similar to that of a municipal mayor and a legislative body is elected (typically by district) with powers similar to that of the council.

Some larger cities operating under the mayor-council form of government include Houston, Texas; Boston, Massachusetts; Denver, Colorado; Los Angeles, California; Chicago, Illinois; and Detroit, Michigan.

Commission

Under a commission form of government, members of the commission are elected at-large. As a representative body, the commission makes policy decisions, passes local ordinances, and adopts the budget. The commission also manages the daily operations of government with each commissioner given oversight of specific departments and functions of government. As the administrator over specific departments, each commissioner presents budget recommendations for the departments under their purview and hires/fires staff within those departments and agencies.

Because each commissioner separately oversees particular divisions of government, commission forms of government have less consistency in leadership or operations across the organization. And so, very few cities operate under the commission form of government any longer. Portland, Oregon, remains the only large city operating under the commission form. However, several counties across the country operate under a commission form.

Council-Manager

In the early 20th century, municipalities sought ways to reduce the political corruption prevalent in strong mayor cities. At the time, “political machines” were headed by a “boss” who determined which candidates could run for political office within a particular party. In many major U.S. cities, bosses wielded significant influence though rarely held any political office themselves or had any check upon their power by the people. In cities where corruption was rampant, mayors and their appointed government staff were able to leverage their positions to solicit bribes and punish political adversaries.

The council-manager system was established as a way to reduce the likelihood of public corruption in government. Under the council-manager form of government, the mayor, along with each councilmember, collectively comprise the council as a singular policy-making body. Thus, the mayor and the councilmembers each have an equal voice and all vote on the policy decisions. The mayor has the additional authority to set the agenda, run the council meetings, and serves as the figurehead for the city. However, because the mayor is an equal member of the council, he or she has no authority to veto or otherwise alter the majority decision of the council of which the mayor is a member.

The council (inclusive of the mayor) hires a manager/administrator to manage the day-to-day operations of the government. City managers/administrators are responsible for hiring government employees based on professional qualifications and competitive service. City managers remain accountable to the people through the people’s elected representatives on the council. If the city manager fails to meet the council’s expectations, they may be fired at any time and replaced through a simple majority vote of the council. City managers are ethically prohibited from participating in political activities. As articulated in the ICMA Code of Ethics, city managers must “Refrain from all political activities which undermine public confidence in professional administrators.” City managers may not donate money to campaigns, advocate for political candidates, run for elected office, or otherwise position themselves as political actors. This assures that the confidence of the public that the city manager serves all people equally regardless of political interests.

Some larger cities operating under the council-manager form of government include Austin, Texas; Olympia, Washington; Phoenix, Arizona; Sacramento, California; and Charlotte, North Carolina. Many counties operate under a county manager or commission-administrator form of government, which are generally similar to the municipal council-manager form of government.

Town Meeting/Representative Town Meeting

Town meeting is a form of direct democracy whereby every eligible voter comes together during a public town meeting to vote on policy issues and adopt the municipal budget. Representative town meeting has an elected representative board to represent the interests of the people and are the only ones permitted to vote on policy issues and budget adoption. Decisions on how to manage daily operations is determined through policy as adopted during town meetings.

Town meeting and representative town meeting are practiced almost exclusively in New England towns and townships.

Conclusion

Ultimately, residents look to their local government to provide programs and services that enhance the quality of life of the people in the community. The one constant across all forms of government is a fundamental belief in a democratic system whereby policies are voted on to guide government action. Where the distinction between the forms of government emerges is the degree to which professionals are relied upon to deliver programs and services approved through that deliberative process and the level of authority the people have to directly put in place individuals to lead local government.

In the United States, there is an expectation that the local government respond to the will of the people. The extent to which the majority of voters believe that is best accomplished through direct democracy (where voters make decisions through ballot box) or through a representative democracy (where their elected representatives cast their vote in public meetings) changes the degree to which one form of government is preferred over another. As demands for efficient, effective, and equitable government increase, so too does the need for individuals with specific training and experience to manage government operations. Likewise, as partisan politics influence local government decision-making, expectations for elected representatives solidify around party platform positions.

Regardless of the form of government, the trend for greater professionalism and reduced political influence in the administration of government has increased over the years as professional administration has proven to be a critical component to effective local government.

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