Local Government


"Most states have at least two tiers of local government: counties and municipalities. In some states, counties are divided into townships. There are several different types of jurisdictions at the municipal level, including the city, town, borough, and village. The types and nature of these municipal entities vary from state to state.

“Many rural areas and even some suburban areas of many states have no municipal government below the county level. In other places consolidated city-county jurisdictions exist, in which city and county functions are managed by a single municipal government. In places like New England, towns are the primary unit of local government and counties have no governmental function but exist in a purely perfunctory capacity (e.g. for census data).

“In addition to general-purpose local governments, there may be local or regional special-purpose local governments, such as school districts and districts for fire protection, sanitary sewer service, public transportation, public libraries, or water resource management. Such special purpose districts often encompass areas in multiple municipalities.

"According to the US Census Bureau's data collected in 2012, there were 89,004 local government units in the United States. This data shows a decline from 89,476 units since the last census of local governments performed in 2007.

Local Government Agencies and Departments

Citizens come in contact with their local and state government more often than they do with the federal government.

We come in contact with local government when we . . .

  • engage police or sheriff department,
  • fire department,
  • check out a book at the library,
  • obtain a business license,
  • pay a parking ticket,
  • use the court system,
  • use a public swimming pool,
  • pay sales tax,
  • pay property tax,
  • vote in an election,
  • enroll a child in public school
  • picnic or kids play at a public park, to name a few

Sheriff represents local government but is not appointed to the position by the government. Instead he or she is duly elected by the people and answerable to the people. That is also true for District Attorney. He or she is most commonly elected and not appointed by local government, and answerable to the people. However, the Chief of Police is appointed to the position and answerable to a local government.

Mayor is duly elected by the people to serve as head of local government and answerable to the people with veto power over the legislative branch (the council). 

The Mayor's Duties and Powers

"These responsibilities may include:

  • Serving on the city council;
  • Voting in council meetings;
  • Assigning council members to chair or serve on committees;
  • Appointing citizens to serve on advisory boards or commissions;
  • Preparing the annual budget; Receiving the annual budget developed by chief administrative official or city manager; and
  • Making an annual report to the council.

"Weak or Strong Mayors

Cities in the United States are sometimes characterized as having either "strong" or "weak" mayors. The term is not a judgement of effectiveness, rather it distinguishes the level of political power and administrative authority assigned to the mayor in the municipal charter. In practice, there is no sharp category that distinguishes between "weak" and "strong" mayors, but rather a continuum of authority and power along which cities are spread. However, the designation of "weak" and "strong" are useful in showing the variations in mayoral authority that exist. 

Most "strong" mayors are in the mayor-council form of government, and are directly elected by citizens to that office. Most "weak" mayors are mayors in a council-manager form, and are elected from within the city council.


"Characteristics of a "strong" mayor

  • The mayor is the chief executive officer, centralizing executive power.
  • The mayor directs the administrative structure, appointing and removing of department heads.
  • While the council has legislative power, the mayor has veto power.
  • The council does not oversee daily operations.

"Characteristics of a "weak" mayor

  • The council is powerful, with both legislative and executive authority.
  • The mayor is not truly the chief executive, with limited power or no veto power.
  • The council can prevent the mayor from effectively supervising city administration.
  • There may be many administrative boards and commissions that operate independently from the city government."

Attribution: National League of Cities (NLC) http://www.nlc.org/mayoral-powers