Write a letter to the newspaper in your community about the concerns or positive comments you have about your local government’s actions or lack of actions

Local Governments: Counties, Municipalities, Special Districts

There are about 90 thousand local governments including counties, municipalities (cities and towns), townships (primarily in northeastern and Midwestern states plus New England “towns”), school districts, and other special districts.

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Most people live under a number of separate, sometimes overlapping local governments, e.g., a town or a city and a county and a state and the United States.  Many local governments (cities and counties) are general service governmentsthat offer many different services.   People are also governed and taxed by “hidden governments” called special districts (school districts, water districts, hospital districts, and so on).
All local governments are legally “creatures of the state.”   Local governments are not mentioned at all in the United States Constitution.  State governments are basically unitary governments with all legal power. Local governments have little if any legal power independent of state government control. The problem for local governments, especially highly populated ones, is that state legislatures have operated under the idea of minimal government of any kind so that many growing local governments have struggled to serve the additional needs.

*The constitutional/legal role of local governments is in Dillon’s Rule (John Dillon was an Iowa jurist who wrote about this in his 1911 legal treatise):
A local government has only those powers specifically expressed (in a state law or state constitution) and those powers essential to carrying out express powers (e.g., state requires a police force so the local government must hire police officers but the state imposes tax limits so the local government must struggle to find the revenue to pay for them).

Participation (voting) in local government is often very low even though local governments affect people every day.  More people know about and participate in state politics, and participation is highest at the national level.  Elections at the local government level are mostly nonpartisan (about two-thirds).

Government Revenue Sources.  Local governments depend primarily on property taxes for their revenue while state government depend primarily on sales taxes and other fees (although most states also have income taxes).  National government relies primarily on the income tax for revenue.


A lot of studies have been done on cities and many political and social reforms began in the cities.  Counties on the other hand were called by political scientists “the dark continent” of American politics.—they were seldom run very professionally, seldom studied.

There are over 3,000 counties in 48 states.  Rhode Island and Connecticut have no counties.  In Louisiana, counties are called parishes, and in Alaska, boroughs.  Hawaii has only 4 counties but no incorporated municipalities and a consolidated city-county government in Honolulu. Hawaii’s Kalawao is the smallest by population (less than 100 people). Texas has the most counties – 254 of them. Texas also has the county with the (second) smallest population – Loving County. Of course, Texas also includes some of the largest counties in the country including Harris (Houston), Tarrant (Fort Worth/Arlington), Bexar (San Antonio), and Dallas counties.

County governments are traditionally administrative arms of the state. They were created by states to carry out state business—whereas cities and special districts were created at the request of communities. States are strict with county powers. Texas requires an elected judge-at-large and four elected commissioners, regardless of population size.

As the United States becomes more urban, more county governments now play major, independent roles in the governance of a geographic area.  They are general service governments, offering many different public services.

County governments remain the most important units of government in rural areas. There, they are primarily responsible for law enforcement (through county sheriffs), official records (land and property deeds, marriage licenses, etc.), and other government functions.

In urban areas, counties are still in charge of record keeping, and law enforcement for areas outside city limits.  City governments in urban areas are usually more important in terms of performing most governmental functions and service delivery (utilities, water, waste removal, law enforcement within the city, etc.). A few metropolitan areas have consolidated city and county government.

There are 3 basic forms of county government (see Figure 11-2):

*Commission:  all executive, legislative, administrative functions belong to elected commissioners who represent different parts of the county. County governments usually have the commission form of government.

*Council-executive system:  this form also has elected commissioners, but here the commissioners have legislative powers.  An individual elected county-wide serves as the county executive.  The executive may have veto powers over commissioner decisions and can appoint department heads.  This form exemplifies the separation of powers concept.

*Commission-Administrator system: the commissioners appoint and delegate executive and legislative functions to an administrator who runs the county on a day-to-day basis.  This form of reform county government occurs mostly in larger urban counties.

Many counties face the “plural executive” issue (that also affects state governors’ power).  Many county positions like district attorney, sheriff, treasurer, and clerk of records are separately elected positions.


People in communities ask states to be incorporated as municipalities while counties are created by the states. Incorporation means the municipalities (cities and towns) are recognized by the state for the purpose of self-government at the local level. States have very detailed sets of rules for different categories of cities when communities ask to be incorporated, usually depending upon the size of the city (municipality).

State constitutions create governmental structures for local governments and outline their powers according to their state category/legal classification (generally by population). Now, many cities (usually large cities) have some form of home rule, givingthem more ability to respond quickly to unique situations.  But even here, state governments can usually limit and control what these cities do through passing and enforcing statewide laws.

Types of Charters / Forms of Government for Municipalities

A charter, a document granted by state government to a municipality, is a city’s “constitution” since it sets up the structure of government for a city and specifies what services it must provide. A few cities, usually older or larger cities, may have individual (often home-rule) charters that give them little independence. State constitutions set up charters for all cities, or for all cities of similar size.

The two most common types of charters create either mayor-council or council-manager forms of government. Alternatives are New England towns, an old form of direct democracy for smaller towns; and commissions, rarely used today, but still used in some cities (they originated after the 1900 Galveston hurricane).  In a commission form of city government, elected commissioners also head individual city departments.  One major problem is that commissioners aren’t always competent administrators.  Another problem is that elected commissioners tend to be concerned with their own department within city government rather than making decisions for the good of the entire city.

The older, traditional form of city government is the mayor-council form.

*In the strong-mayor city, the mayor is always directly elected and has substantial executive powers including appointment, budgetary, veto, and administrative authority. In this type of system, the city in effect has separation of powers, with the mayor in a position analogous to that of governor, and the city council in a position similar to that of the state legislature. Older and larger cities in the Midwest and Northeast are likely to have this form of government. Generally councils and mayor are picked in nonpartisan elections, although many still have partisan elections (see Figure 11-3).
*In the weak-mayor version, executive and legislative functions are generally shared among all council members and the mayor’s post is mostly to preside over council meetings and in ceremonial settings. In a weak-mayor city, the mayor may be either separately elected or chosen from among the council members by themselves. Small cities and small towns are likely to have this form of government (see Figure 11-4).

Council members may be chosen either through a district (or ward) electoral system, or through an at-large electoral system. A district or ward system, which divides the city into different sections, helps certain factions or political parties because people in smaller areas can be easier to mobilize.  The at-large systemwas a political reform measure to get better qualified people; it was argued that people representing the entire city would be less parochial and less likely to engage in logrolling; however, it does have the effect of favoring majorities in that a minority candidate can rarely get elected.  The U. S. Supreme Court has ruled that at-large systems are constitutional although a city may not change to an at-large system as a means of dividing and limiting the influence of minority voters. To do so would violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Council-manager form:  This is the form advocated by political reformers in the early 1900’s.   It is based on a business oriented structure and is designed for efficient city government administration.  This form of city government separates legislative action by council members from the day-to-day administrative duties (see Figure 11-5).

Cities with this form of government have a weak mayor who is a member of the city council. The mayor’s and council members’ duties are legislative. Administrative/executive authority is exercised by a professional city manager who is hired by the city council. This form of government is used more often by newer cities, by cities in the Southwest, and by medium-sized cities.

Regardless of government form, the title “mayor,” like that of president or governor, has to contend with a plural executive system with many independently elected officials, special districts, independent commissions, and school districts.  We can measure the strength of a particular mayor by looking at:  the salary: the ability to appoint staff; veto powers; media support; and interest group support.

Rural and urban municipalities

*Rural municipalities: tend to offer just basic services because the few people living there can see that they will have to pay more taxes; staff may be less professional (trained) and part-time; often city council members will also do another job

*Urban municipalities: tend to offermore services because of the diversity and the existence of problems affecting many people; staff are full-time professionals actually carrying out city duties while city council makes policy generally

*Concerns in urban areas:  Inner cities are often hollowed out by people moving to the suburbs-urban flight.  So the inner city loss of people with education and incomes and jobs means leaving the city to the poorest, least educated, most needy citizens-“the truly disadvantaged” as Professor William Julius Wilson labeled them.  This means that there is more need and demand for services by people who cannot pay additional taxes.

Town Meetings

Town meetings are mostly found in the oldest states in New England.  They are the oldest form of government.  These local governments are the closest approximations of direct democracy in the United States. Periodic meetings are held with all citizens who act as the legislative decision makers.  In some areas citizens may appoint a board to carry out day-to-day administrative decisions.  Modern problems facing the town meeting form of local government include lack of citizen attendance at the meetings and providing practical ways to involve a growing population.  They still exist in smaller communities.Texas does not have Town Meetings.


Townships are geographic subdivisions of counties with little power, or they may be in some states a form of general purpose local governments.  Texas does not have townships.

Special Districts

Special districts are the fastest growing local governments; they are governments which offer just one service (as opposed to “general service governments” like counties or municipalities).  There are many types of special districts:  school districts, hospital districts, transportation districts, water districts.  They may use different names (e.g., Authority, Board, or Corporation).

Special districts are run by boards of 5-7 people generally, each elected or, if appointed by other local governments, fairly free from intervention by those other governments.  They have benefits and costs.

Benefits of Special Districts:
*If people in a certain geographic area within a country or municipality want more or better services they can pay more taxes and get these.
*They can offer services across jurisdiction boundaries –a way to deal with metropolitanism, or population sprawl across county and city lines
*They are beneficial for suburbs since they often don’t want to pay full-scale taxes but want/need a very specific service (e.g., fire district).
*They are cheap government=boards are seldom paid and have few staff (except for school districts).

Costs of Special Districts:

*They have economies of scale problems that small businesses have: purchases cannot be made in large quantities so as to save money
*They contribute to fragmentation, meaning that they work independently rather than as part of larger area
*Investment-they are generally required to plow revenue back into services or return surplus to users rather than use revenue to investigate improvements, expansion, changes
*Invisibility to the public, except for school districts, and lack of accountability.  This invisibility includes property taxes that all people in a district have to pay in addition to their taxes for general service governments.

Terms and Ideas

Dillon’s Rule
Counties-administrative arms of the state
General service governments
Where and when are county governments more important
Local government revenues-primarily from property taxes
State government revenues-primarily from sales taxes
National government revenues-primarily from income taxes
Citizen participation levels at the local, state, and national levels
Three types of county government
Municipal corporation (municipalities)
Municipal charter
Forms of city government
*mayor-council: weak-mayor / strong mayor

District (ward) elections
At-large elections
Rural municipalities
Urban municipalities
townships Special districts
How are special district board members selected?
Benefits and costs of special districts

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