Who Runs the Show? Understanding Your Local Government

Bill Rinehart / WVXU

By Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

Function of Local Government
When we think about civics and the democratic process, we may primarily think about government at the state or even national level. However, much of the day to day managing of resources and infrastructure that impact our daily lives are carried out by our local town, city and county governments. If it were not for a well-organized local government structure many of the modern conveniences we enjoy on a regular basis would not be available. What are the primary functions of the local government? What is the structure of our local city and county governments? This article will answer some of those fundamental questions and will also hone in on the Hamilton County and Cincinnati governmental structure and give a basic overview of leadership roles in the city. We will also provide some resources and lesson plans for teachers to use to help students understand local political structures and perhaps help them be more involved in the process. We will begin by discussing the function of local government and discussing the division of labor and responsibilities of those in various leadership positions.

County Governments
County governments oversee a large geographical region and encompasses cities and towns, but are smaller than states. Counties are created by state governments and generally operate under the provisions set forth by the state constitution. In this way, county governments are administrative units of the state. According to the 2012 Census there are just over three thousand counties in the United States. County systems usually take one of three basic forms: the commission system, the council-administrator system, and the council-elected executive system. The most common form of the three, is the commission system. Hamilton County in Ohio is run as a commission system. Under this structure, a small number of commissioners are elected to serve as the governing body within the county. The commissioners perform all legislative and executive functions, which might include holding authority for government taxing, budgeting, appropriating, and purchasing. They also hold title to county property. In Hamilton County there are three county commissioners. There are also eight other elected officials in Hamilton County that possess executive authority for their offices; these include the judiciary, and several independent commissions.

City and Municipal Governments
City and Municipal Governments manage the day to day operations and functions of cities and towns. For example, cities provide things like clean water, sewage and garbage disposal. They also maintain city facilities, such as parks, streetlights, and stadiums. Furthermore, they address zoning and building regulations, promote the city’s economic development, and provide law enforcement, public transportation, and fire protection. Cities and municipal governments are typically funded by property, sales and business taxes. Revenue also comes from fees from trash collection and the provision of water and sewer services. According to the 2012 Census there are just over 19,500 municipal governments and nearly 16,500 township governments in the United States. There are two primary types of municipal governing models: a mayor-council system or a council-manager system.

The city of Cincinnati operates under a mayor-council system. Under the mayor council-system both the mayor and members of the city council are elected by voters. The mayor is generally responsible for executive functions while the city council takes care of the legislative responsibilities. In Cincinnati city council members and mayors serve for four year terms. Furthermore, the City Manager works on behalf of the mayor and city council and is responsible for the day to day operations of the city.

In order for citizens to become more involved in the democratic process they must be educated on how the system works. Below are some resources and lesson plans that can help shed more light on the functions of local government that might perhaps help students and average citizens become more involved.    

Resources and Lesson Plans

iCivics- State and Local Government- Middle/High School

Local Government- Middle School Lessons

Local Government- High School Lessons

Civic Action- High School Lesson Plan

Local Election Scrapbook Lesson Plan- High School

Role of City Government

The Responsibilities of Local Government

Local Government Lesson Plan


Hamilton, County Ohio

Hamilton County Board of Commissions

Cincinnati Politics

List of mayors of Cincinnati

Cincinnati City Council


City of Cincinnati Official Page

Cincinnati City Manager’s Office

County and City Government

Classroom Resource on How Local Governments Function


  1. I don’t think we talk enough about local government in our schools in the area. We often learn more about the United States government on a national level, and we don’t learn about what’s going on in our city, or even our state. I didn’t realize that every city didn’t have a mayor, because I grew up in a town that did have one, but we never talked about it. I think integrating local government into our social studies curriculum is a fun way to talk about current events with students and talk about the area that they are growing up in. One idea that I had to talk about the different roles in city government, would be to have the students be a different member of the government and have them write a one or two minute speech about what they do for the city!

  2. I come from a family that always emphasized the importance of having a strong local government, but I know that many young students often hear more about government from a national level. Social studies curricula often focus on teaching from a more individualized perspective (what is closer to you) and then growing into a more broad view of the world. I think that teaching students about local government would be a great introduction to the government systems in our country and would provide students with the ability to make more real-world connections to the things that are happening in their community. I love Amber’s idea of having students write speeches about what they could do for their city. I also think that it would be fun to maybe have roles in the classroom similar to the roles that can be found in local government. This could be a week-long activity and students could engage in various simulated tasks replicating the duties of a particular official. (e.g. the classroom “mayor” proposes an idea for the classroom and the “council” votes and enforces the idea.)

  3. I think that in schools, we do not emphasize local government enough. When I was in school, I remember learning a ton about government at the national level and a little at the state level but I barely remember learning about the government at the local level. I still do not know very much about the local government because it was never taught to me even though it is a very important subject. I think it is important that students learn about what their local government entails because the local government impacts our daily lives and can vary from county to county and city to city. This information is important for students to learn because it will help them to become more involved in their community’s government.

  4. Our society mainly focuses on politics and government issues relating to the United States and not on local political structures. I think it is a great idea to have resources and lesson plans for teachers to provide to students and educate them on why local town, city, and county governments are just as important. This was not in my curriculum as a child, but I feel as if these concepts were provided and taught, people would become more involved with local political structures.

  5. I don’t think that schools emphasize the importance of learning about local government. I am going to be honest, I had no idea who are town mayor was until he came into an appointment at the hospital and he told me he was the mayor. I was a little embarrassed, but my family had always talked about the government as it effects the US and not our towns. Now that I am older, I do my research on the city and state leaders. It is important to be aware.

  6. I think this is a great topic to learn about. I recently made a comment to my dad about something involving our local government and his response to was “Why?” and I wasn’t able to give him a reasonable response because the most I knew about it was what I had read on Facebook. So many times, there are people who are ignorant to many topics, our government included, and make comments or try to discuss it like I did but aren’t able to back up there argument because they don’t know enough about the topic. Reading this brought to mind about how important this kind of topic is to brought up and discussed in schools because their are so many different aspects about get government that are useful to know and it is definitely something that I will be sure to bring to knowledge in my future classrooms.

  7. After reading the article “who runs the show?” I learned so much more about our local government and how it is ran. I learned about the structure of our local city and county governments and so much more. I also really enjoyed how there are resources for teachers to help students understand local political structures. It is a great way to help students get more involved and help them get more interested.

  8. After reading this article, I realized I never really knew anything about the local government. I think this is an important topic to be taught about in schools. If I didn’t know much about it, I’m sure other people don’t know much about it. I did not know that the City of Cincinnati and Hamilton County had such a major role with part of the government. We spend so much of our time focusing on the government as a whole and all the issues that society has to point out that the other parts of government are never heard of. I think the more we talk about and research these parts of the government, the more people will know and be aware of them.

  9. I think educating students from a young age about the importance and the role of local government is very beneficial in the long run. Oftentimes, social studies curriculums only focus on national government. Sharing how the local government affects the national government, and vice-versa, allows for a better understanding of hour both our communities and our country function conjointly, as well as stresses the importance of voting in local elections.

  10. When we were in school, talks about our local government was very little to not talked about at all. I feel that we tend to focus on the “seemingly” more powerful parts of government, like our federal level. I am apart of Hamilton county; and I had been ignorant to who really runs our local government. I feel there needs to be more teachings in schools about their local government; that way people aren’t oblivious to these things, and really know what’s going on with the local government that they may reside in.

  11. Being someone who has never really been informed of the local government and all the roles that are played in that part of government, this article caught my attention. I have only really every kept up with national government and have always felt uninformed, especially when voting for these people to represent my state, county, city. Therefore these resources are a tremendous help to becoming more knowledgeable in this realm of government. I live in Kentucky and with all the change in the education system and votes happening for and against teacher pension, among various other causes, I believe understanding these roles and how to be involved in my community and government in this way can only help the cause that current and future teachers are standing up for. This aspect also brings relevant information and experiences into the classroom in order to engage students with what is happening in their community; while determining what they want their individual roles to be as a student in thinking about the government.

  12. In schools, we hardly ever spend time on local government, which is a shame considering that they control so much of our everyday life. I think that it is easier to educate students on a federal level and to an extent a state level because the policies that are being made at these levels are often social wedge policies, and students are already informed and have an opinion on them, even if their opinion is simply due to socialization. Examples of these social wedge policies include abortion, LBGTQ+ rights, and legalization of marijuana. These subjects are easy to discus in schools, and track how they flow through the legislation process. Students often find these social wedge issues exciting and want to debate them, they don’t find local decisions as exciting because there isn’t a major debate and excitement surrounding them. Despite the excitement of students it is important that we educate them on local government because it often has more impact on students. Federal government often deals in the abstract, and only effects a small percentage of individuals in a community, local government focuses on the practical day to day issues, and impacts everyone in a community.

  13. I did not realize how little schools did not focus on local government but when I think about it I did not know much until High school level school. We focus students on the big picture and the big government, but not local. If students could know and get involved more with local governments their voices could be heard and could feel more connected. Depending on the area, this could make a big difference in their communities.

  14. After reading this article, I realized more than ever before how little I actually learned in school about these topics and I am realizing how important they are and that they should be taught. As a future educator I really want to be able to teach my students about not only the national and state governments but the type of government that goes on around us every day. We teach the kids the importance of voting for the national issues but I feel that we should start to talk about local as well so students can see how these affect our lives even more directly to show its importance.

  15. Prior to reading this article, I had never thought much about local government. It is something I have never been properly educated on and never even really considered. After reading this short article, I already understand so much more about local governments and their importance. The last paragraph explains that for citizens to become more involved, they must be educated. This is true for many things in life and is why I believe teaching is so important. I hope in my classroom I have the knowledge and opportunity to share information about local governments to help my students become more involved in the community in their futures.

  16. When I think back to what I learned about government, I really only remember the things that I learned about the national and state government. Local government is not something that is stressed enough in the civics curriculum even though form most students, this is the type of government that they are exposed to most often. Prior to reading this article, I did not know about the three basic forms of local government. This article really opened my eyes to the importance of local government and how it should be taught in the social studies curriculum.

  17. It’s a shame to me how the government runs, rather than working together to solve issues they form aliases in the country’s government. These aliases become the focus of the media after a while you fail to see all those things going on behind the scenes in our own local government. I think we need to push education of the local government. The cool thing about teaching local government is you could show the students people active in the local government like the mayor. This might not be as feasible with the president for example. I think a fun way to teach students about local government is also by having students run for mayor and present classroom problems to the candidates.

  18. Getting into the different types of government and what each is responsible should be taught more in schools. Talking about local government and the impact it can have on you and the community is important. There is so much time spent looking at national and state government that it can be overlooked and spent little or no time on.

  19. When I hear the word government I first think of President’s, the White House and etc. Even though I do not know much of the nation’s government, I do know more about it than the state and or local government. On the news even I hear more about the nation that what is going in my neck of the woods, as they would say. I think students should be educated more about what is happening to them through the local and state governments. I sure think it would be very helpful to be educated about the government that is happening in our city and state.

  20. After reading this article I have noticed that we do not really talk about the local government and their direct impact on our daily lives. Most people only care about the national government voting, but those are wide scale and you will never really see any change in your direct town/city living. Voting for your local bills to pass is more important because it directly effects you as a person. Most student do not even know they have a local government also.

  21. Who Runs the Show? Understanding Your Local Government
    In school, we’re mostly taught about government at the presidential level. We learn more about government at a national level, but rarely do we learn about what’s going on in our city or even county. It’s essential to start teaching students more about government at a local level, so children know what’s going on in their community. Incorporating information about local government is a way that we can talk about current events and keep the students up to date.

  22. I tend to forget how much local government plays a role in our everyday lives. When I think politics, I think about it at a state or national level. It seems that in schools, we spend a lot of time teaching government, but it is focused more on a national level, focusing on the United States and how our government is set up. If we spend the time teaching students about the government where we live and taking opportunities to get involved, they will see how it can matter!

  23. I found this article to be very interesting. When I think of government I typically just think of the national government. Schools usually just focus on the national level when teaching government to their students. Although I think this should change! Students should learn about their local government and the importance of it. I believe students will find it more interesting to learn about something that really hits home for them. I also enjoyed that there were lesson plans provided in this article, that way teachers can easily teach their students about their local government.

  24. I enjoyed this article and believe that local elections and civics is largely under educated. I was encouraged by my parents when I became of voting age to vote in every single election local or state or federal. Looking at the emphasis the media and everyone places on presidential election I think takes away from the importance of local elections which have more influence over us sometimes.

  25. I learned more about local government in the few minutes it took me to read this article, than I ever did sitting in a classroom. At my high school students are required to take a government class. The only thing I remember focusing on was national government with slight mentions to the state government. Local government seems to be seldom mentioned. I think local government is important for students to have a knowledge of to become more active citizens where they live. By incorporating discussions and lessons that involve the roles of local government, students can gain the knowledge in a fun and memorable way.

  26. I learned so much about how the local government runs through this article. In high school I had to take a government class but we never talked about the local government like how this article talks about it. Its something that should be common knowledge and should be taught about.

  27. I think this article is really interesting because we don’t seem to talk much or if at all about state governments in public schools today. Public schools are pretty hindered with talking about controversial topics such as government, given they don’t want to start any feuds with families if their views may be different. As a future educator I think it is important for children to know what is happening at state level; and we can educate them by giving them facts about the state government rather than opinions. Not many people realize the big impact that state governments actually play, so not many people care. The knowledge that people don’t possess about state government, is the reason why some may say that the not so good people are in office; that is people are voting without any knowledge of the state level persay. It is important as a future educator to take into consideration the state government and really teach students the importance of such!

  28. Schools today do a disservice to there students. There is not enough emphasis on our local governing bodies. These local governments are what directly affect them though. Our local governments handle all the things that affect the students like school levies and taxes and many more. These resources help us as teachers to better keep our students informed on the local government. Keeping them informed is key to having our students have a voice as a citizen. this voice goes unheard thought if they are talking to the wrong people. As teachers, we need to give the students their voice and ensure that they are talking to the right people in order to push for the change that they want to see. I now better understand the importance of this and will make sure that my students understand their rights and the responsibilities that come with being an American citizen.

  29. Taking government in high school I felt like his article gave a much better insight into local government than I have learned previously. I think looking at the different types of government and what each is responsible for should be taught more in schools. A lot of the teaching is focused on national government issues that local can be overlooked.

  30. After reading the article “Who Runs the Show? Understanding Your Local Government”, it made me realize that I didn’t know as much about our local government than I had thought. The article provided good information on the compilation of local government and their tasks involved. I always knew that most cities have Mayors, however I wasn’t quite sure about City Council Members and what part they play in city politics. Dr. Childs provides good resources for teachers as well as for others who want to further their knowledge of this topic. If I learned all of the details regarding local politics during classes in High School, I sure don’t remember them. What’s the old saying, if you don’t use it you lose it.

  31. When I went to high school, there were no classes about any of our local government. We were taught basics about state and federal government, but little to none of the local government. Reading this article really put into perspective for me just how much the younger generation should know about those who govern their local communities. Local governments play a significant role in the lives of those who live there, while the citizens have absolutely no idea what is going on behind the scenes. Everyone should be as involved with their local government as they are with their state and federal government, as local governments hit much closer to home (no pun intended).

  32. The local government is a topic very much glossed over in schools today. I remember once visiting the Capitol of Kentucky, but beyond that I was never shown much of the inner workings. My step-dad is in the city government so I know all about that, but local and state governments are so different than national. There is a lot of interpersonal relationships and connections that effect what laws run through our legislature. Being involved locally can help impact on a national scale.

  33. Throughout my entire elementary, middle and high school and college career I’ve never knew the true function of local city and municipal government. When we learn about government it’s typically about the president/Vice President, senators, and representatives. However, as I am becoming more involved in my community, I know how important voting is at the local level. If we want to see change it starts at the local level. People who are elected to the senate and house of representatives certainly influence law-making decisions. The senate even has the power to override (veto) the president if they do not agree with certain bills. I believe it’s important for students and adults to knowledge about their local government.

  34. I was very excited when I saw this article on the website. While I like to think I have a good understanding of how the government operates, one of my shortcomings has always been understanding local government. In school, we covered the United States Government significantly more than we did local government. This article helped me have a better understanding of how my local government operates and how the actions they take directly impact me and my life. I think talking about local government and ensuring students understand these concepts should be a big focus to ensure students have a better understanding of the function of these governments and how they can be more involved.

  35. Before reading this article, I’d never really given much thought (if any) towards my local government. In school we weren’t taught about it, and my parent’s never said anything regarding it either. Now after reading it, the importance of local governments needs to be taught to our students early on in life. It impacts them more than they know! I’ll be sure to go vote now that I know the importance.

  36. As a future teacher, I think that we need to teach students the importance of registering to vote and voting locally. Most seniors at my high school only cared about voting in the national election when they would have more of a say in which laws passed and who gets elected into government positions if they vote locally. The local government has the most impact on people’s lives, they are the people who run the city that you live in, they are the people who will listen to you personally to fix your problems and complaints.

  37. I am 21 years old and know minimal about the local government which surrounds me. I honestly struggle to make informed decisions when it comes time to vote during election season. I would love to spend some time teaching about how the local government works to my students. It is something that is relevant to each and every one of them! I am curious to see it done well, and wonder how you would make it engaging. It seems like such a boring topic at that age, and I feel like I would struggle to make learning about the local government seem exciting. While I know it is relevant, I doubt the students would be quite as engaged or excited. Maybe having students find an area of the local government which intrigues them and having them dive into it would be the best route.

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