Local Government: Who and What Is It?

 Read part one of the advocacy series here.

Memorial City Hall in Auburn, New York.

By Sean Blinn, Programming Director, Heritage Trail Association, Bridgewater, NJ

Now that you know the importance of advocacy with local government, let’s step back and see what municipal and county government looks like. Before starting your advocacy work, it’s important to know who to advocate with.

There is wide variation in the structure of local government, so this article will necessarily be an oversimplification. Municipal (city or town) government and county government can be collectively thought of as “local government.” The most common framework is a city with a mayor and council. That city is part of a county, which is part of a state. While true in many cases, there are many variations.

Some parts of the U.S. are unincorporated and not part of any municipality. Some cities exist independently of any county, and may have the same name as a county they aren’t part of (such as parts of Virginia). In some areas, government exists solely at the county level, with no municipal government. In many other areas, there is both municipal and county government, with each level of government performing different tasks.

If you aren’t sure how your local government is set up, try Google Maps or another internet map search. Enter a street address, a town name, or even just a zip code. It will give you information and, for town names and zip codes, boundaries. Zip codes sometimes cross town and county boundaries, so the town in the mailing address may be different from the town and county you live or work in. Google searches and Wikipedia can eventually help find the names of the city and/or county. From there, searches can help you find the government web site, which should list the names of people serving in government. If it doesn’t, call the office, and they can help.

There are also variations in types of elected officials:

  • Members of a city council or county legislature may be elected to represent a specific legislative district, or might be elected at-large, representing an entire city or county.
  • The mayor (or county executive) may be directly elected by the voters, or may be elected indirectly by the council. In the second scenario, the person who becomes mayor is typically drawn from the council, after having been elected to the council by the voters.
  • Elections may be held for all positions at the same time every couple of years. However, elections could be staggered, with a portion of seats elected annually or every other year. This is how the U.S. Senate is elected, for example.
  • Elections may be partisan, with all candidates running under a particular party label. However, many areas use non-partisan elections for local government, with no party identifiers.
  • Other than the commonly recognized term “mayor,” there are different titles for all of these offices in different jurisdictions. A councilor in one town may be a commissioner, a supervisor, or a committee member in another.

However they are chosen, elected officials are commonly referred to as a governing body.

In addition to the governing body, there are also appointed officials, who are selected by the governing body to serve on boards and commissions, such as a Cultural Commission. They sometimes control significant budgets, including grant funding. The governing body may look to appointed officials for advice.

Especially in smaller jurisdictions and for appointed officials, many of these positions are unpaid. Many people do these jobs just to serve their community.

Understanding the structure of your local government can help you find your representatives, and showing that you have done your homework makes you a more credible advocate.

Now that you know who to talk with, what do you say? Stay tuned for more on this essential topic!