Local Government

[This webpage is a condensation of two things: first, of a free e-book by Al Arnold, former major of Rice Lake, Wisconsin, and second, of the Wikipedia article on U.S. Local government.]


Tips for getting the most from local government

1. Understand that the officials at the local level range from very bad to very good, with most in the middle. Mayor Arnold’s experience is that 2/3s of people run unopposed at the local level.

2. Attend a meeting (or watch it if it’s being broadcast) to get an idea of the personalities and the process. Some people know what’s going on; others don’t. Later, when you want something to happen — or if you want something not to happen, this who-you-know knowledge will come in handy.  It also comes in handy at the next local election.

3. If there is an issue of great concern to you, ask questions or give information before the meeting during which the important decisions will be made. Often these unpaid and over-worked decision-makers don’t have all the information. It’s not always their fault.

4. Be polite and considerate, even if you’re upset about things. No one appreciates threats or statements like, “I won’t vote for you,” “People like me pay your salary,” or “I will fight to get you out of office.” 

5. Do your homework; do your own research. You will look bad if you don’t have the information that people expect — that you could have gotten in 15 minutes from the Internet. You also won’t look good if you have inaccurate information based on hearsay. 

6. Understand that sometimes city council or local leaders are forced to choose the lesser of two evils, or of two fairly unsatisfactory outcomes. This is often due to not enough money to address every issue or problem.

7. Watch, listen and learn. Even if you go to a meeting concerned about one issue, your presence helps people be more thoughtful and make better decisions. People don’t want to look bad.

Our own thoughts in addition:

8. Compliment people on effort; good decisions; any creative win-win decisions; or a job well-done. Also show respect. So many people are critical of local leaders that your compliment will stand out. Even if positive feedback someday doesn’t get you direct help, it will probably indirectly help your local government by helping leaders endure and cope. It will also be an example to others at the meeting to be more appreciative of effort.

9. Encourage pro-activity. If you sense something could become a much bigger problem and cost much more, encourage your city counsel to “pay early, pay easy.” If you can document how much money was spent in some other town or township to fix a disaster, or document suffering and misery — in other words, if you can properly horrify your leaders as to cost of inaction, you will be doing a good public service.

10.  Say thank you when you win. A written thank you that shows effort, expressing how you personally felt makes a much better impression than a bare “thank you.” Lose graciously when you don’t get what you want. You might need their help in the future.

11.  Support the good local leaders in campaign season and at election time.

12.  Get the support of others for what you want, or what you think your town or city needs. Getting signatures on a petition, or having several people attend a meeting, or call in a request is much more powerful than just appearing alone and making a heartfelt speech. Even if the local politician is not sincerely interested in your issue, he or she knows that more people mean more potential votes at election time.

 13.  Before spending a lot of energy to ask for some local change, get a sense of local priorities and budgets. Your broken-down sidewalk may seem a huge issue to you, but there are probably much larger issues on the table. Knowing about these other issues may help you either to better time your request or decide it’s not a priority.

14.  Keep your promises when entering into coalitions — and think twice about the tradeoffs. Many people will help you — for a price. Be sure that it’s worth it. Also, if you don’t keep your promises to help others, you’ll probably get far less help in the future and may get increased opposition.


Types of Local Government

According to the U.S Census there are four kinds of government in the United States:

  1. County Governments
  2. Town or Township Governments
  3. Municipal Governments
  4. Special-Purpose Local Governments

This webpage will teach you a little about each.


County governments


County governments are organized local governments authorized in state constitutions and statutes. Counties and county-equivalents form the first-tier administrative division of the states.

All the states are divided into counties or county-equivalents for administrative purposes, although not all counties or county-equivalents have an organized county government. Connecticut and Rhode Island have completely eliminated county government, as have portions of Massachusetts. The Unorganized Borough in Alaska also does not operate under a county level government. Additionally, a number of independent cities and consolidated city-counties operate under a municipal government that serves the functions of both city and county.

In areas lacking a county government, services are provided either by lower level townships or municipalities, or the state.


Town or township governments

Town or township governments are organized local governments authorized in the state constitutions and statutes of 20 Northeastern and Midwestern states, established to provide general government for a defined area, generally based on the geographic subdivision of a county. Depending on state law and local circumstance, a township may or may not be incorporated, and the degree of authority over local government services may vary greatly.
Towns in the six New England states and townships in New Jersey and Pennsylvania are included in this category despite the fact that they are legally municipal corporations since their structure has no necessary relation to concentration of population, which is typical of municipalities elsewhere in the United States. In particular, towns in New England have considerably more power than most townships elsewhere and often function as independent cities in all but name, typically exercising the full range of powers that are divided between counties, townships, and cities in other states.

The term “town” is also used for a local level of government in New York and Wisconsin. The terms “town” and “township” are used interchangeably in Minnesota.


Municipal governments

Municipal governments are organized local governments authorized in state constitutions and statutes. They are established to provide general government for a defined area, generally corresponding to a population center rather than one of a set of areas into which a county is divided. The category includes those governments designated as cities, boroughs (except in Alaska), towns (except in Minnesota and Wisconsin), and villages. This concept corresponds roughly to the “incorporated places” that are recognized in Census Bureau reporting of population and housing statistics.

Municipalities range from the very small to the very large. New York City, with about 8.3 million people, is the largest.

In most states, county and municipal governments exist side-by-side. But in some states, a city can, either by separating from its county or counties or by merging with one or more counties, become independent of any separately functioning county government.  Thus it functions both as a county and as a city. Depending on the state, such a city is known as either an independent city or a consolidated city-county.

Municipal governments are usually administratively divided into several departments, depending on the size of the city. The typical arrangement has most of the following departments:

  1. Urban planning/zoning
  2. Economic development/tourism
  3. Public works – construction and maintenance of all city-owned or operated assets, including the water supply system, sewer, streets, storm water, snow removal, street cleaning, street signs, vehicles, buildings, land, etc.
  4. Parks and recreation – construction and maintenance of city parks, common areas, parkways, publicly owned land, operation of various recreation programs and facilities
  5. Police
  6. Fire
  7. Emergency medical services
  8. Emergency management
  9. Accounting/finance – often tax collection, audits
  10. Human resources – for city workers
  11. General counsel/city attorney/risk management – legal matters such as writing municipal bonds, ensuring city compliance with state and federal law, responding to citizen lawsuits stemming from city actions or inactions.
  12. Transportation (varies widely) – if the city has a municipal bus or light rail service, this function may be its own department or it may be folded into the another of the above departments.
  13. Information technology – supports computer systems used by city employees; may be also responsible for a city website, phones and other systems.
  14. Housing department
  15. Municipal court


Special-purpose local governments

School districts

School districts are organized local entities providing public elementary and secondary education which, under state law, have sufficient administrative and fiscal autonomy to qualify as separate governments.

Special districts

Special districts are all organized local entities other than the four categories listed above, authorized by state law to provide designated functions as established in the district’s charter or other founding document, and with sufficient administrative and fiscal autonomy to qualify as separate governments; known by a variety of titles, including districts, authorities, boards, commissions, etc., as specified in the enabling state legislation. A special district may serve areas of multiple states if established by an interstate compact. Special districts have recently become popular, have nearly tripled in number from 1957 to 2007.


Councils or associations of governments

It is common for residents of major U.S. metropolitan areas to live under six or more layers of special districts as well as a town or city, and a county or township. In turn, a typical metro area often consists of several counties, several dozen towns or cities, and a hundred (or more) special districts.

Because efforts at direct consolidation have proven futile, U.S. local government entities often form “councils of governments,” “metropolitan regional councils,” or “associations of governments.” These organizations serve as regional planning agencies and as forums for debating issues of regional importance, but are generally powerless relative to their individual members.


Dillon’s Rule

Municipal governments have no power except what is granted to them by their states. This legal doctrine was established by Judge John Forrest Dillon in 1872 and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hunter v. Pittsburgh, 207 U.S. 161 (1907), which upheld the power of Pennsylvania to consolidate the city of Allegheny into the city of Pittsburgh, despite the wishes of the majority of Allegheny residents. In effect, state governments can place whatever restrictions they choose on their municipalities (including merging municipalities, controlling them directly, or abolishing them outright), as long as such rules don’t violate the state’s constitution.

Dillon’s Rule does not apply in all states of the United States. The constitutional provisions of some states provide specific rights for municipalities and counties. State constitutions which allow counties or municipalities to enact ordinances without the legislature’s permission are said to provide home rule authority. A state which is both a home rule state and a Dillon’s Rule state applies Dillon’s Rule to matters or governmental units not accounted for in the constitutional amendment or statutes which grant home rule. New Jersey, for example, provides for home rule.


Governing bodies

The nature of both county and municipal government varies not only between states, but also between different counties and municipalities within them. Local voters are generally free to choose the basic framework of government from a selection established by state law.

In most cases both counties and municipalities have a governing council, governing in conjunction with a mayor or president. Alternatively, the institution may be of the council-manager government form, run by a city manager under direction of the city council. In the past the municipal commission was also common.

There seem to be five common forms of local government: mayor-council, council-manager, commission, town meeting, and representative town meeting.


City councils

Most cities have city councils. These are sometimes elected officials who meet for a portion of the year on designated days and hours. City councils propose and make laws for the city. Many resemble what is done in congresses or parliaments around the world, except they are for the local levels. Some smaller cities or towns do not operate under city councils. In many cases city councils pass bills that can get vetoed by the mayor and the city council can override the veto. Sometimes the mayor is even a member or presiding officer of the council. Members of the council usually are a part of committees for the city they represent (e.g., parks and recreation, finance, etc.) There is a president and a president pro tempore in city councils. Usually the majority party (i.e., Democrat or Republican) has the president in their party. Each member is usually (in most cities) elected by the people of that city. The city is split into districts in which the councilman or councilwoman represents. On The first meeting of the session, the president is chosen. The president then chooses a president pro tempore among the other council members.

Indian reservations

While their territory nominally falls within the boundaries of individual states, Indian reservations actually function outside of their control. The reservation is usually controlled by an elected tribal council which provides local services.


Governments in the United States
(not including insular areas)
Type Number
Federal 1
State 50
County 3,034
Municipal (city, town, village…) 19,429
Township (in some states called Town) 16,504
School district 13,506
Special purpose
(utility, fire, police, library, etc.)
Total 87,576

Source:  From Wikipedia, the U.S. Census of Governments, 2012.




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