Municipal Government: What You Need to Know

The United States Constitution does not mention municipal governments, arguably the workhorses of American democracy. It only allocates powers not explicitly given to the federal government “to the States respectively, and to the people.” When Hamilton and Madison debated the proper size of government, truly local government was a rarity. The pressing need for local governments has caused them to increase in number and in power.

American colonists had no such thing as an alderman to call on when a dirt road in Boston or Providence developed grooves too deep for horses to navigate safely. In 1750, the predominantly rural country had only 14 municipal governments – serving primarily commercial interests by overseeing wharves and public marketplaces. They spread in the 1800s, largely in response to the urgent need for firefighting forces in dense areas of wooden houses – and for public health services in times of epidemic.

Distant central governments simply cannot understand or control most local matters affecting everyday living. When the EU first took power over what had been smaller, local governments, the strain of governing-at-a-distance was felt at once. Scottish farmers marveled at the folly when legislators in Brussels suddenly determined how many cows they could keep in a barn. What did EU officials know of conditions in Scotland?

So the spread of municipal government has not stopped. Today, almost 40,000 U.S. cities, towns, counties and suburbs have municipal governmental structures. ( “Municipal Government”) Popularized by Parks and Recreation, municipal governments provide the services without which American life would grind to a halt: schools, sewage, police forces, public health, firefighting and more. Municipal governments oversee all matters that require speed, knowledge of local conditions and direct accountability. Growing in number and power, municipal governments come in different shapes and sizes.

The National League of Cities (NLC: identifies four structures through which U.S. municipal governments operate. (

1. ACouncil-Managermodel is the most common template in use. According to the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), cities using the council-manager format increased in the early 2000s to the point that more than half of U.S. cities now use it. Southeastern and Pacific Coast areas especially favor this model, as do cities with populations exceeding 10,000 people. Exemplary adopters include Phoenix (AZ), Topeka (KS), San Antonio (TX) and Rockville (MD). Typically, cities with a council-manager model divide labor as follows:

- The City Council exercises oversight of the general administration, while also determining the budget and making policy.

- A professional city manager is responsible for day-to-day administrative operations.

- The City Council selects a mayor from its own membership on a rotating basis.

2. AMayor-Councilis the second most common, with 34% of cities surveyed by ICMA in 2006. Popular in the Midwest and the Mid-Atlantic, its adherents are often older, larger cities or very small towns.Think New York (NY), Houston (TX), Salt Lake City (UT) or Minneapolis (MN). In this system:

- The City Council is an elected body with legislative powers.

- The Mayor is elected (entirely separately from the council) to a full-time paid position with considerable authority over the administration and the budget.

- The Mayor’s powers are stronger or weaker depending on the municipal charter.

- An optional professional manager with limited administrative authority is appointed.

3. A small number of cities conduct municipal business through acommission. While this form of government is the oldest in the country, today it is used by less than 1% of the cities in the U.S. Those few cities tend to have populations of fewer than 100,000 people, like Sunrise (FL) and Fairview (TN). In cities with commissions as their governing bodies:

-The commission performs both legislative and executive functions.

-One commissioner is designated chairman or mayor; she presides over meetings.

-A small governing board consists of individual commissioners elected by voters.

-Each commissioner has a specific sphere of responsibility, such as fire, police, public works, health or finance.

4. Cities governed byTown Meetingspractice direct participatory democracy. All voters can attend Town Meetings, at which debates and votes are held to determine policies and elect officials who will implement them. Only 5% of municipalities hold Town Meetings, many of them in New England. Marblehead (MA) is a good example, as is Grafton (VT).

5. In cities withRepresentative Town Meetings, a relatively large number of citizens is elected by the voters to attend town meetings, where they (alone) can vote on policies. Selectmen then carry out those policies. With this form of government, a posted warrant must announce the date, time and location of the meeting – as well as the items for discussion.Only 1% of municipalities use representative town meetings to conduct business. They’re almost exclusively small municipalities in New England, such as Bowdoin (ME) and Lexington (MA).

Increasingly, hybrid forms of government combine structural elements of these different models. Such mixing is especially prevalent across mayor-council and council-manager models, the two most popular forms of municipal government.

Municipal services provide extraordinary stability to society. In some failed states, terrorist groups gain loyalty largely because they offer services such as trash pickup and schooling that the government itself can no longer provide. Without the basic services that municipal government provides, we would face a desperation that is hard to imagine.

Recognizing the centrality of municipal government to the stability of U.S. society, some choose to enter municipal service as career officials or volunteers. That service will assume a different form depending on the model of municipal government in that locality. Be it through Town Meeting, City Council or the Police Commission, municipal servants are easily the unsung heroes of a democratic society.

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