How does local government affect you?
Did you know that the level of government that most affects you daily is much closer to home than the White House, the halls of Congress or even your state capitol building? Your local government - city council, county commissioners, etc. - is the level of governance responsible for establishing the speed limit on the streets in your town, setting rules for business, industrial and residential development, funding the public schools and ensuring that there are adequate numbers of police and firefighters on duty. These representatives live and work in your area and have a significant impact on your life every day.
Where do local governments get their authority?
The Constitution of the United States, while delineating the authority of the federal government, does not even mention local governments. These units of authority, from the mayor's office to the county clerk, are established by individual states.
Each state grants authority to local government through written rules called charters, often detailed in the state’s constitution. These charters may be specific to the municipality, as is the case with home rule charters for certain cities, or they can be based on features, like size or population, of the communities. Sometimes special charters are drafted for towns with unique situations, such as geographic distances or specialized industries.
The structure of local government varies from state to state and town to town but usually mirrors the separation of powers found in the federal government. Most towns and cities have a mayor, who serves as the city’s chief executive; much like the president is to the U.S. federal government. The legislative branch of local governments is made up of a group of elected representatives, often called the city council, town council, board of commissioners, or city commission and it serves the function of a local congress. These officials propose debate and sometimes enact new local laws and regulations. In some cities, the mayor is a voting member of the city council; in others, they simply approve or veto legislation that the council approves.
In addition to these officials, school boards are officials who are normally elected and oversee the local school district. The school board is responsible for many of the legislative decisions that affect the public school systems, from approving textbooks in the classes to managing school construction. Additional local government entities manage certain parts of the day-to-day operations of the city or town, like are the zoning commission, appointed officials who manage construction permits and codes, and the parks and recreation department, overseeing public spaces throughout the area.
These local government bodies are usually composed of officials appointed by the mayor and are responsible for a specific function in government.
How local governments work, an example
In order to better understand how local government works and how it affects you, let’s take a look at an example from the city of Philadelphia. In January 2007, Philadelphia city council enacted a smoking ban, forbidding smoking in all offices, public areas, restaurants and most bars. The legislation took much time, work and compromise before the ban could finally be approved by the council. Several proposals, health studies, debates and public hearings took place before it was ultimately adopted.
“It took six years to get this done, so there were numerous changes, additions, different bills, all kinds of stuff that we did in order to craft something that was good and that a majority of people could agree to,” said Mayor Michael Nutter in a Student Voices interview.
Nutter drafted the legislation when he was serving as a city council member, citing the public health concerns regarding second-hand-smoke and research that suggested reduced exposure could lower rates of cancer and respiratory ailments. According to a 2002 study, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that second hand smoke causes 3,000 nonsmokers to die of lung cancer and 300,000 children to suffer from respiratory tract infections in the U.S. each year. At the time, health organizations were trying to sway policymakers into drafting smoking bans, and Nutter listened to their arguments.
But many local business leaders - like the owners of bars and restaurants - were concerned that a smoking ban would hurt their business. They argued that their businesses would be hurt because fewer people would patronize their bars and restaurants because they could not smoke in them, and they too contacted the City Council to express their concerns.
When the proposal of a smoking ban came before the city council, officials had to weigh the benefits to residents' health with economic costs the ban would have on local businesses like bars and restaurants.
After years of public input and many debates among council members, a compromise was struck and the legislation was passed. Business owners were able to get the city council to ease restrictions on some business while smoking was eliminated in most public places and businesses, protecting public health.
“Policy change, like this, might be seen by some as radical so you start out with one idea and certainly we would have wanted a pretty extensive prohibition on smoking in virtually any public space, “said Nutter. “But we did make some exceptions, small, but still some exceptions because all in all in the policy making business often you will make some compromises.”
Contacting your local representatives
Like the smoking ban shows, local policy is not created solely by government officials; it takes the work and interest of the citizens they represent to help enact change. Just as it is part of every representative's duty to act on behalf of his or her constituents, it is also your duty to make sure your representatives are aware of problems and concerns that exist in your community and areas that are in need of improvements.
The first step towards communicating your views with those in office is to stay informed. Read your local newspaper and learn as much as you can about the issues you are going to present to your local officials. When a concern arises, you’ll need to find out which official is responsible for addressing the issue. For example, if you are concerned about street conditions in your community, you should contact your local city council member or the streets department.
To get in touch with your local government officials, you can contact them by email, phone, or by mail. To find out more information about your local government, use the Student Voices Go Local section on the homepage. Click "Find Your Local Elected Officials" and enter your address to see who represents you. When there is an issue in your community, get informed and make your voice heard to the people in charge!
What do you think?
What kinds of concerns do you have in your community? How can you get involved to help inform representatives about what to do? Have you ever contacted your local government about an issue in your neighborhood? Join the discussion!
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