cHAPTER tHIRTEEN sECTION oNE
Created by the State
What do you think is the closest unit of government to affect your life as a student in our school? It would be a safe bet to say that it would be our town or city government. There are many laws and regulations related to life in our community, but the U.S. Constitution has no mention of the existence of local governments. They are created by, and are entirely dependent upon, the state. The state may take control or even get rid of a town’s government. A state may take control of the local school district as has been the case in one area of a major city in our state due to education and financial concerns. State constitutions usually establish the powers and duties of local governments.
As you may realize, the United States has become a mostly urban nation over the past century. In 1900 only about one-third of the population lived in urban or city areas. Today about three-fourths of the population call the major cities their home.
In legal terms, most states define a municipality as an incorporated place, a locality with an officially organized government. New cities are created every year as people living in urban communities incorporate. They do this by applying to the state legislature for a city charter, a document that grants power to a local government. Generally a community must meet certain requirements to obtain a charter. For example, the community may be required to have a population of a certain minimum size and submit petitions signed by resident supporting the application for a charter. A city charter is much like a constitution, describing the type of city government, its structure, and its powers. The state legislature still maintains control, however. It may change the powers granted to the city government at any time.
In recent years many state legislatures have begun to grant home rule to cities. Home rule allows cities to write their own charters, choose their own type of government, and manage their own affairs, although they still have to follow state laws.
During the late 1940s, we saw many people leaving the cities for new homes in what would become known as suburbs, such as Levittown, PA shown in the two black & white photos above. Many businesses were developed in these suburbs to meet the needs of the residents, such as the shopping mall being built on the left above. The late 1990s ushered in the demise of many of these shopping malls (above, right) around the country as specialty shops and businesses closed and the anchor stores (JC Penneys, Sears, etc.) would leave the mall sites. Some of these facilities found their way back into the cities, as did many of the residents.
Whether an urban community is called a city, a town, or a village depends on local preference or the charter specifications. Obviously, there are great differences in how government operates in a city of 17,000, like Kirksville, and one with a million people, like St. Louis. Regardless of population, most city governments provide the same basic services; law enforcement, fire protection, street repair, water and sewage systems, garbage pickup, and parks and recreation.
A city charter usually creates one of three forms of government: the mayor-council form, the council-manager form, or the commission form.
The Mayor-Council Form
The Kirksville City Council.
It used to be that almost every American city had a mayor-council form of government, and it remains a common form of government today. In the mayor-council form of government, the power is divided between separate legislative and executive branches. Voters elect a mayor and the members of the city council. The mayor is the chief executive of the city government and is responsible for overseeing the operation of administrative offices. Often the mayor appoints the heads of departments, such as public works, planning, police and fire protection, recreation, roads and buildings, health and welfare, and other matters. The council acts as the city’s legislature, approving the city budget and passing city laws, which are generally referred to as ordinances. Most city councils have fewer than 10 members and they usually serve a four year term. Larger cities have larger councils. In most cities, the residents elect council members. Some cities are divided into voting districts, called wards. Each ward elects a representative to the city council. In other cities, some or all of the council members are known as members-at-large. A member-at-large is elected by the entire city, not just the people in an individual ward.
The powers of the mayor vary from city to city. Large cities usually have what is called a strong-mayor system. Under this arrangement, the mayor has strong executive powers, such as the power to veto ordinances the city council passes, appoint and remove numerous city officials, and put together the city budget. Strong mayors tend to dominate city government because membership on the city council, even in large cities is usually a part-time job, and council members receive fairly small salaries. In many cities, since council members are elected from districts within the city, they tend to focus on issues important for their part of town. By contrast, a strong mayor usually works full-time, has a staff of assistants, and represents the entire city.
Many smaller towns, and even a few big cities, have a weak-mayor system. This type of government has the mayor’s authority being limited. The council, not the mayor, appoints department heads and makes most policy decisions. The mayor usually presides over council meetings but votes only in case of a tie. The weak-mayor system dates from the nation’s earliest days when former colonists, tired of the injustices inflicted upon them by Britain’s king and government, were reluctant to grant any official too much power. By its very nature, such a government often suffers from relatively weak executive leadership.
The Council-Manager Form
The council-manager form of government is a popular form of city government today. When this form of government appeared in 1912, it was seen as a way to change corrupt or inefficient mayor-council governments. Under the council-manager form, the elected council or board and chief elected official (the mayor in many cases) are responsible for making policy. A professional administrator appointed by the council or board has full responsibility for the day-to-day operations of the government.
The city council, as the legislative body, appoints the manager in much the same way that a company board of directors might appoint a new chief executive officer. The manager recommends a budget, oversees city departments, and deals with personnel matters. The manager reports to the council as a whole. The council can hire and remove the manager with a majority vote.
In many smaller cities with managers, council members are elected in at-large elections. This means they run in citywide elections rather than representing one district. Some people believe that this system forces members to consider the interests of the entire city instead of just looking out for the concerns of their own neighborhoods. This form of government allows professional city managers to bring a level of expertise to the daily job of running city departments. Most managers have advanced degrees in management and specialized training in areas such as budgeting, financial management, and planning.
In this form of government the line between making policy and carrying out policy may become hazy. Although councils set policy, managers often must make decisions in the course of applying those policy decisions that effectively clarify, limit, or expand the set policies. Managers serve at the pleasure of the elected body, though, so they strive to correctly interpret and apply the council’s position on issues.
The Commission Form
The commission form of government was invented a few years before the council-manager form. Only a handful of cities continue to use it. Usually five commissioners are selected in citywide elections. Each commissioner heads a major department, such as police, fire, finance, health, and public works. The heads of these departments are called commissioners and they perform executive duties for their particular department. They also meet together as a commission with legislative power to pass city ordinances and make policy decisions. The commissioners pick one of their members to act as mayor. This mayor presides over commission meetings and performs other, mainly ceremonial, functions. Under this form of government, commissioners are legislators and executives; there is no separation of powers.
Despite its initial success, the commission form of city government has several drawbacks. With a commission, no one person is in charge, making it difficult to pinpoint overall responsibility for how the city is run. In addition, newly elected commissioners may not know much about the departments they are responsible for managing, and when commissioners disagree, it may become very difficult to make decisions or establish policy. For these reasons, many cities that once used a commission system have switched to a council-manager or mayor-council form of government.
The special district is a unit of government that deals with a specific function, such as education, water supply, or transportation. Special districts are the most numerous types of local government, because in some states several kinds of special districts overlap most cities. The local school district is the most common example of a special district. A board or commission, which may be elected or appointed, runs a special district. The board sometimes has the power to collect taxes from district residents to pay for the services it provides. Some boards charge user fees to raise money.
A metropolitan area is a central city and a its surrounding suburbs. (Suburbs are communities near or around cities) this area may also include small towns that lie beyond the suburbs. The U.S. Census Bureau has an official name for urban concentrations made up a s central city and suburbs with a combined population of 50,000 or more. These areas are called Metropolitan Statistical Areas. When the concentration includes more than one central city, such as San Francisco and Oakland or Minneapolis and St. Paul, it is called a Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Area.
A trend in the United States since the 1950s has been for suburbs to expand around central cities. As a result, often the suburban population has become much greater than that of the central city. For example, Detroit’s population dropped from nearly 2 million in 1950 to just under 1 million in 2000, while its suburbs now have more than 3 million people. The last decade or so we have seen some revitalization projects and periods of increased fuel costs drawing some people back into the cities, but the majority still reside in the suburbs.
The great growth in population and the expansion of business and industry in metropolitan areas have created many problems in transportation, pollution control, and law enforcement that cities acting alone cannot solve. Land-use management is an especially pressing problem because most metropolitan areas suffer for the negative impacts of urban sprawl. At or just beyond city limits, shopping malls, franchise restaurants, and superstores line major roads clogged with traffic.
Some large metropolitan areas have created a council of governments. In this body the central city joins with its suburbs to make areawide decisions about growth. It may also coordinate services such as mass transit. Often the council consists of elected members representing all communities in the region. In other cases, the local governments appoint representatives to the council.