Local Government Systems

There are three components in every local government system that must be defined, understood, refined and controlled[1]  to effectively state their purpose.  These factors are the functional factors upon which local governments are built:

1. Spatial-physical component
2. Cultural-social component
3. Government- political component

While all components intertwine, it is the government-political component that greatly determines how the other two take shape in any local government system. The government political component contains the laws, national, state and local which determines the direction and life of the local government as well as its activities.[2] All local government systems are wholly created by the states in which they exist and are totally "subservient" to their state governments.[3]

While there are no provisions in the United States Constitution that specifically structures a local government, The Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution leaves local government a matter  of state  rather than federal law, with special case exceptions for territories and the District of Columbia.[4]

Note: The United States Constitution is and remains the supreme law of the land. No state law or local ordinance can violate it. Federal laws and codes remain supreme.

The history of local governments precedes the establishment of the United States as a country. When the land, given the name, "America" was inhabited by newcomers from Europe, these newcomers sought land where their European governments would have little control over their lives and activities. From the seventeenth century forward, settlements began as a result of "shareholder or stockholder" business enterprises.[5]   While European sovereigns technically still had some controls, governmental authority was "vested in the company" or enterprise that founded the settlement.

 Puritans in 1629, led by John Winthrop came to what was called the "New World" with the explicit understanding (contained in their royal charter) that "full governmental authority was vested in the company itself." The first units of local government were formed for commercial purposes and grew as centers around populations for the necessities such as guarding against:
"the Indians and wild animals and to their desire to attend the same church..."[6]

(The Massachusetts Bay Colony is an example of a colony formed by royal charter.)

In these early towns, property owners (white men) only voted. They had to be twenty one years of age or older. Women were usually not allowed to vote (there were few exceptions) and African Americans (considered property) were totally excluded. The Colonists did not consider themselves "subservient" but rather as "loose associates" with London authority. Pre-revolutionary war township representative governments grew all across colonized lands, which were later ratified by mostly English charters. They evolved into representative governments which dealt with limited issues. Most participants in early township government could not afford to miss long periods of time away from their farms or other work, so participants tended to be wealthy individuals. Anyone holding office in these municipalities tended to serve out of a sense of duty or prestige and not for financial benefits. Taxes to run and maintain these early townships were generally based on real estate since land was in a fixed location. Monies from these taxes could then be allocated to the government units where the property was located.[7]

After the Revolutionary War, and the formation of the federal government system, those who were allowed to vote chose those who would govern them in the states. The states began using charters, in most cases, to establish municipal governments. During the nineteenth century, municipalities were granted charters by state governments as municipal corporations. The decision making responsibilities shared by states and their townships and county governments varied from state to state. But as the United States grew in size, decision making authority for matters concerning business regulations, environmental regulations and taxation, moved to states and the Federal government. Local government units retained control over issues such as property taxes, public works, parks and recreation and zoning issues (land use), which became important in the nineteen twenties in the United States. The United States Census Bureau conducts the Census of Governments every five years to gather the information on the organization, public employment and government finances of local governments. The establishment of categories of local governments is derived from this census.

Varieties of local governments have been adopted by the different states and include the following categories:[8]

            1. County Governments
            2. Town or Township Governments
            3. Municipal (City) Governments
            4. Special Purpose Local Governments

County (and County Equivalent) Governments

These are the first tier administration division of the states. All states are divided into counties or county equivalents, such as parishes or boroughs that have organized county governments.

Town or Township Governments

These are organized local governments authorized in the state constitutions   and statutes of twenty Northeastern and Midwestern states. They were established to provide general government for a defined area based on geographical subdivisions of a county. A township may or may not be incorporated, based on state law and local circumstances. The degree of authority over local government services may vary greatly as well. Towns in six New England states and townships in New Jersey and Pennsylvania are included in this category, even though they are legally municipal corporations since their structure has no necessary relationship to concentration of population. The New England townships have more power than most townships formed elsewhere.[9] These townships exercise the full range of powers given to counties, cities and townships in other states. Township governments in these areas are also further distinguished from municipalities and townships in other areas of the country by the tradition of the town meeting. In New England, the town meeting is an assembly, open to all voters, to hear issues, cast votes and give opinions on public policy. The votes taken in a town meeting in these areas are binding.

The term "town" is also used to describe local levels of government in the states of New York and Wisconsin. Towns and townships are terms which are used interchangeably in the State of Minnesota.

Municipal Governments

Municipal governments are organized local governments authorized in state statutes and constitutions. They are established to provide general government for a defined area, corresponding to a population center rather than one of the set areas into which a county may be divided. The categories of municipal governments include those designated as cities, boroughs, (Alaska is an exception as it has un-incorporated boroughs which are not considered municipalities) towns, (exceptions are found in Minnesota and Wisconsin) and villages. This corresponds to the Census Bureau's reporting of housing and population statistics. Excluded from this count are New England towns and any places that no longer have municipal activity. Although centered on population size, municipalities range in size from the very large, such as New York City, with a population of more than eight million residents to the very small village of  Lazy Lake, Florida with twenty four residents.[10] The types of municipal governments also differ from area to area, even in the same state. In most states, county and municipal governments exist side by side. In some states, a city can be considered "independent" of any separately functioning county government depending on state law. These cities are known either as independent cities or as consolidated city-county governments. These designations constitute "county-equivalents" and are equal in power to unitary county governments in responsibility.

Special-Purpose Governments

Special-Purpose governments must be sanctioned under state law. Special-Purpose governments can include, but are not limited to:

1. School Districts- These entities must have enough administrative and fiscal     authority to qualify as separate governments. All public school districts that are dependent on municipalities, townships, counties or state governments are excluded from the designation of Special-Purpose governments.

2. Other Special Districts- These entities provide designated functions. These functions must be set out in the district's charter or other founding document. They must also[tlj1]  have sufficient administrative and fiscal autonomy (freedom) to qualify as a separate government. These entities include: districts, authorities, boards or commissions.

Local governments have the power granted to them by their particular states. Within the local government sphere of power includes the following discretionary authority:

1. Structural- power to choose form of government, charter and enact charter revisions.
2. Functional- power to exercise local self-government, either in a broad manner or a limited manner.
3. Fiscal- authority to determine revenue sources, set tax rates, borrow funds and other related financial activities.
4. Personnel - authority to set employment rules, salary rates, employment conditions and collective bargaining.[11]

States also grant local governments either narrow government authority or broad government authority.

Narrow Government Authority

Two court cases decided by Judge John F. Dillon of Iowa established the principle know as "Dillon's Rule" in 1868. Dillon's Rule established that a "substate government" may engage in any activity only if it is specifically sanctioned by the state government. Dillon's Rule was challenged in the United States Supreme Court twice and was upheld in 1903 and 1923. This firmly established the following application to municipal powers in most states:

A. Municipal Corporations can exercise only those powers explicitly granted them by their respective states.
B. Those powers that are necessarily granted or fairly implied in or incident to those powers expressly granted.
C. Those powers essential to the declared objects and "essential" purposes of the corporation.[12]

State constitutions vary in the level of power that is granted to local governments. Under Dillon's Rule, however, if there is any reasonable doubt whether a local government has been given a specific power, then that power has not been conferred.   Thirty-nine (39) states use Dillon's rule in all cities or municipalities. Eight (8) states use it for specific cities only.

Broad Government Authority

Dillon's Rule severely limited the ability of local governments to respond to local conditions in the late 1800's.  No local actions could be undertaken without permission from state legislatures. Many states, some which met for short legislative sessions, twice yearly, began to adopt "home rule" provisions in the early 1900's. These provisions gave greater authority to local governments in specific areas and limited the degree of state interference in local matters. The powers and limits of home rule for local governments are defined for local governments by each state. These rules are either authorized in the particular constitutions of each state or by statutes enacted in each state.

Forms of Municipal Governments

As earlier stated, the United States Constitution makes no provision for municipal government.  Local governments derive their powers from the state where they are formed. Note: Just as with state law, local or municipal laws or ordinances cannot supersede or violate the United States Constitution. Federal laws and codes remain supreme. The form that municipal governments take is determined by that entity's municipal charter. A municipal charter is the legal document that defines the organization, powers, functions and essential procedures of the city government.[13] The charter also establishes the form of municipal government each city, municipality, or town employs. There are five (5) forms of municipal government:

1. Council-Manager
2. Mayor- Council
3. Commission
4. Town Meeting
5. Representative Town Meeting

Each form has its own unique characteristics and is in use across the United States, depending on the state or geographic region the city or municipality was formed.

 Council- Manager

The Council- Manager form of government is the most common form of municipal government according to the International City/County Management Association (ICMA). Its usage has grown from forty-eight per cent (48%) in 1996 to fifty-five per cent (55%) usage in 2006.[14]  This form of government is most popular in cities with populations of 10,000 people or more and can be found mainly in the Southeast and Pacific Coast areas. The characteristics of this form of government includes:

A. The City Council oversees general administration of the city, makes the policies and sets the municipal budget.
B. The Council employs a professional city manager to carry out the day to day administrative functions.  She or he is an employee of the and serves at the pleasure of the Council.
C. The Mayor, in this form of municipal government, is often chosen from the City Council members on a rotating basis.

Mayor- Council

The Mayor- Council form of government occurs in 34% of cities surveyed by ICMA and is the second most common form of municipal government. This form is found mostly in older, larger cities or in very small cities and is most popular in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states.

The characteristics of this form of government include:

A. The Mayor is elected separately from the City Council.
B.  The Mayor's job is often a full time, paid position.
C.  The Mayor could have weak or strong powers, depending on the municipal charter.
D.  The Council is elected and maintains legislative powers.
E.  Cities under this system can appoint a professional city manager who maintains limited administrative authority and who is an employee of the city or municipality.[15]


The Commission form of municipal government is the oldest form of government in the United States.[16] Currently, this form of municipal form of government exists in less than one per cent (1%) of cities in the United States. It typically can be found in cities with populations of less than 100,000 people. The characteristics of this form of municipal government include:

A.  The Commission has both legislative and executive functions.
B.  One Commissioner is designated as the "chairman" or the "mayor" who presides over the meetings.
C.   Each Commissioner is responsible for one specific, governing area. These areas can include Fire and Police protection, Public Works, Health and Finance.
D.   Voters elect individual Commissioners to a small governing board.

Town Meeting

The Town Meeting form of municipal government is viewed as the purest form of democracy. It allows all eligible voters an active voice in local policy decisions. The Town Meeting is currently practiced in only 5% of cities and towns in the United States.[17] The main characteristic of this form of municipal government is:

A. All voters meet to decide on basic policies and elect officials to carry out those policies.

Representative Town Meeting

This form of municipal government is employed in less than 1% of cities in the United States.[18] It is most prominent in small New England towns. The main characteristics of this form of municipality include:

A. Eligible voters select a number of their fellow citizens to represent them at town meetings.
B.  These representatives are known as "Selectmen."
C.  Only the Selectmen can vote on policy issues.
D. Each Town Meeting must be announced with a warrant showing the date, time, and location of the meeting.
E. The warrant must also specify the issue or all issues to be discussed.
F.  The Selectmen are responsible for the implementation of municipal policies.

Examinations of these five forms of city or municipal government structures indicate that these forms are not rigid in nature. This is due to the common practice among city governments to incorporate features from one form of government into the structure of another based on the demographical, socioeconomic, and political changes and conditions in specific regions in the country.

Responsibilities of Elected Officials under Forms of Municipal Governments

The two most widely used forms of municipal government in the United States are the "Mayor-Council" and the "Council-Manager" forms of government. All job descriptions and duties of elected officials are determined by the form of government used.

The most important duties that the Mayor and City Council members have under both these forms of municipal government are:

1.  To exercise all powers granted in their positions in a lawful manner.
2.  To ensure that the city or municipality fulfills its duties to those they serve, and follows all state and Federal laws.

(Note: The United States Constitution is and remains the supreme law of the land. No state law or local ordinance can violate it. Federal laws and codes remain supreme.)

Cities in the United States are characterized as using a "strong" or "weak" mayor system. This reflects the extent of powers that the mayor as well as city council members have in each system. Most mayor- council governments are regarded as being under a "strong" mayor system, while council-manager governments are regarded as employing the "weak" mayor system.[19]

Mayor-Council Form of Government

This form of municipal government is considered the "strong mayor" form of government. The specific powers granted the mayor and the city council members under this form of government depend on the laws in the state where the city exists.

Characteristics of a "strong mayor" form of government include:

A. The mayor is the chief executive officer of and the central point of executive power in the city.  She or he maintains broad powers of supervision over the administration of all municipal programs.
B. The mayor directs the administrative structure of the city, such as appointing removing department heads.
C. The city council has legislative power but the mayor retains veto power.
D. The city council does not oversee any daily municipal operations.[20]

Council-Manager Form of Government

This form of municipal government is considered the "weak mayor" form of government. The specific powers granted the mayor and the city council members under this form of government depend on the laws in the state where the city exists.

Characteristics of a "weak mayor" form of government include:

A. The council is the center of power as it maintains both legislative and executive authority.
B.   The mayor is not the chief executive officer of the city and has limited powers.
C.  The mayor has no veto power.
D. The council can prevent the mayor from supervising the city administration.
E.  There may be many administrative boards and commissions that operate independently from the city government.

State laws may also determine the powers that are designated to the mayor and city council based on the population of each municipality. Consult the applicable state laws and statutes to see what provisions apply to the form and structure a particular state sets for its cities, towns or municipalities. Below are examples of how "mayor-council" and  "council-manager" forms of government are structured in the State of Alabama:

In the State of Alabama, the responsibilities of all city officials is stated in The Code of Alabama 1975, Title 11-"Counties and Municipal Corporations".[21]

 These sections of the Code define the duties of the officials under the "Mayor- Council" form of government as follows:


A. The formal head of the municipal government and the chief executive officer.
B. She or he maintains broad powers of supervision over the administration of municipal programs as well as finance and oversees daily municipal operations.
C.  The Mayor maintains "veto power."


A.  The Council has legislative power
B.  The Council does not oversee daily municipal operations.

The Code of Alabama also outlines that the duties under the "council-manager" form of government:


A.  Acts as the "ceremonial" head of the city.
B. Has no "veto power"
C. Has no administrative duties other than presiding over council meetings.
D. Is not the Chief Executive Officer of the City and has limited powers.


A. Has full legislative power
B. Establishes municipal departments
C. Employs a City Manager to supervise administration:

Duties can include:

1.   Enforcing laws and ordinances.
2.   Appointing and supervising most employees without intervention from the Council or Mayor.
3.   Preparing the annual budget.
4.   Administering finances.
5.   Reporting to the Council.

D.  Serves at the pleasure of the council and may be removed at any time by a two thirds (2/3) vote of the Council.
E.  May employ a City Clerk or a City Treasurer or the City Manager may perform theses duties.


Core Duties of Municipal Agents

Every state establishes the "core duties" of all municipal agents. Municipal Agents include: Mayors, council members, city managers or clerks, and service departments. The main functions for these agents are defined by each state where the cities and municipalities are located.

Under Title 11 of the Code of the State of Alabama:

"Each municipality is virtually a microcosm of state government, carrying out within its corporate limits, all the functions that multiple state agencies perform statewide."[22] 

In Alabama, the core duties of municipal agents fall under the following categories:

A. Policy and Statute development
B. Public Services
C. Regulation

Policy and Statute development:

Under Section 11-45 of the Code of Alabama 1975, Department heads as well as attorneys assist the mayor and the city council draft the budget and any other legislation. The Council is responsible for publicizing ordinances and resolutions during open meetings where input from citizens and public debate may influence final actions. Unincorporated municipal boards and commissions also advise the council on policy in areas under their jurisdiction. Separately incorporated boards have considerable autonomy . The City Clerk is responsible for recording, certifying and codifying approved council legislation. In a Mayor- Council form of government, this legislation is sent to the Mayor for signature. All ordinances must be published in a local newspaper, if available, or posted in 3 public places. The Mayor, or in the case of a "Council-Manager" municipality, the City Manager is responsible for implementing and enforcing legislation. Legislative changes that affect day to day city operations are carried out by the various city departments.

Public Services:

Under this category, the Code of Alabama imposes a "positive duty "upon municipalities to "maintain streets in safe condition." This includes but is
not limited to:

1. Maintaining streets in safe condition
2. Construct and repair streets, bridges
3.  Install traffic signs and lights
4. Mow grass along public rights of way
5. Make travel easier for citizens
6. Provide for police protection of citizens

Heavy work such re- surfacing streets and roads may be performed by private contractors. Towns and municipalities in Alabama may provide utility and sanitation services, including power, water, sewage, garbage, trash collection and land fill services to its residents. These services can be provided directly by the municipality in return for fees from customers. These services can also be provided by the town or city contracting (through an ordinance) with private service vendors. These operations can be administered through a municipal department, incorporated board or unincorporated board. Municipal water departments are regulated by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and established regulations for the retention of records related to this area.

Cities and municipalities in Alabama may provide airports, cruise lines, parking garages and other public transportation services for citizens but are not mandated to do so.[23]


Towns and cities in the State of Alabama are delegated powers of taxation just as the counties.  Title 11 Chapter 51 of the Code of Alabama authorizes the collection of municipal revenue through business and occupational licensing, gross receipts or sales taxes, ad valorem taxes, taxes on lodging, rentals, and wine, beer, liquor and gasoline. The council is responsible for passing the needed ordinances and has to allocate the funds to meet all departmental expenditures and cover indebtedness of the municipality.  All expenditures must fall within the annual budget.

All processes involved in the actual revenue collection are covered under Regulation and the financial management is covered under administrative support operations of the municipality.

Regulation also includes the duties of the town or city as they apply to municipal voting.  Title 11 Chapter 46 of the Alabama Code outlines the duties of the Mayor and the City Clerk as providing ballots and supplies for all municipal elections. They also:

1. Prepare, certify, and publish poll lists
2. Canvass returns
3. Handle absentee ballots
4. Decide contested elections
5. File copies of certificates of election with the County Probate Judge.

Local Government systems vary in their duties all across the United States, depending upon the state where the city, town or municipality is located.  All of these systems share three common factors:

1. All Local governments must conform to the rules established by the constitutions of their respective states.
2. Local governments cannot violate the constitutions of their respective states.
3. Local governments cannot violate Federal laws and regulations nor the United States Constitution. Federal laws and codes remain supreme.

NOTE: Local government powers cannot violate or supersede the state constitutions and the state codes or state laws of the state where the entity is located.  Local government powers cannot supersede or violate the United States Constitution and Federal Codes or Federal Laws. The United States Constitution and Federal Codes or Federal Laws are always the supreme laws of the land.

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[1] Banovetz, James M., editor, Managing the Modern City, International City Management Association, Washington, D.C. , First Edition, copyright 1971, p.6

[2] ibid., p 6

[3] ob.cit., p 8

[4]   The Constitution of the United States of America, Ratified June 21, 1788, Effective March 4, 1789 and continuing

[5] "Local Governments in the United States", Wikipedia, the free Encyclopedia ,August 30, 2015, p.2

[6] ibid. p.2

[7] ob.cit. "Local Governments in the United States" p. 3

[8] ibid. p 3

[9] ob.cit. "Local Governments in the United States" p. 4

[10] ibid. p.4

[11] "Local Government Authority" copyright 2016, National League Of Cities, various contributing authors, p.1

[12] ob. cit., "Local Government Authority", p. 2

[13] "Forms of Municipal Government", 2016 National League of Cities, pgs. 1-4

[14] ibid. p.1

[15] ob.cit., "Forms of Municipal Government" p. 1

[16]  ibid., p.1

[17] ob.cit., "Forms of Municipal Government" p. 2

[18] ibid., p.2

[19] "Mayoral Powers" copyright 2016, National League Of Cities, various contributing authors, p.1-2

[20] ibid., p.1

[21] The Code of Alabama 1975, Title 11, "Counties and Municipal Corporations, Sections 43, 43A-43D, 44 and 44A-44F.

[22] ibid., Sections 43, 43A-43D,

[23] ob.cit. The Code of the State of Alabama 1975, Section 11-47-90