Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown once described the responsibilities of local government as consumed with “traffic lights, dog doo and parking meters.” The functions of local government, however, extend beyond traffic safety, animal control and parking enforcement to include such areas as public safety, code enforcement, local infrastructure and education.
The responsibilities of local governments vary with the type of government entity. Types of local governments include counties, municipalities (cities, villages and townships) and special purpose districts. The latter refers to units of local government established to serve a specific function. School districts are the best known type of special purpose district.
County governments provide most local government services, such as law enforcement and maintenance of roads, bridges and highways, in areas of a county that are not within the limits of cities and towns in that county. A county sheriff’s department is responsible for law enforcement in the county. Counties also have court systems for civil and criminal offences. The jurisdiction of county-level courts varies across states.
An elected board, often known as a county commission, oversees most county governments. In some counties, a professional administrator, known as a county executive or county manager, oversees the daily operations of county government.
Municipal governments in cities and towns have a diverse range of responsibilities, of which the most important is public safety. City police departments are responsible for law enforcement, while fire brigades provide fire protection and enforce policies related to fire safety, such as fire codes for buildings.
Many municipalities also administer court systems. City courts hear cases related to city code violations, traffic citations and some minor criminal matters.
Public infrastructure is another city government function. Cities are responsible for paving, repairing and maintaining city streets. They also provide water and sewer service for city residents and businesses. Many city governments also operate municipal parks and public libraries. Residential and commercial sanitation is another important city government function, though some municipalities have contracted sanitation services to private carting firms.
School districts are the best-known type of special purpose local government unit. Although in some states cities are responsible for the operation of the state schools within their jurisdictions, many state school systems have their own governing bodies and operate independently of cities and other units of local government.
School districts are responsible for elementary and secondary education, as well as for other matters related to the operation of state schools. In most school districts, an elected board, known as a board of trustees or board of education, sets school policy, which is administered by a chief administrator or superintendent. The superintendent is usually a professional education administrator who serves as the school district’s chief executive officer.
John Stuart Mill, a 19th century English philosopher, believed that local government provided a means for dividing government authority and thus, an alternative to a powerful central government. Another benefit, according to Mill, is that local governments can experiment with new approaches to governance and service delivery, with only limited consequences for failure. Successes, meanwhile, could serve as national models. Finally, Mill believed local governments provide education in democracy and civic participation for citizens and politicians.
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